Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
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The DC Circuit granted the petition for writ of mandamus in part and ordered the district court to grant the government's Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 48 motion to dismiss the charges against Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor to President Donald J. Trump, who pleaded guilty to making false statements under 18 U.S.C. 1001. The court held that the district court's orders appointing an amicus and scheduling a proposed hearing constitute legal error. The court also held that this is not the unusual case where a more searching inquiry is justified, and there is no adequate remedy for the intrusion on "the Executive's long-settled primacy over charging decisions." The court stated that, although Rule 48 requires "leave of court" before dismissing charges, "decisions to dismiss pending criminal charges—no less than decisions to initiate charges and to identify which charges to bring—lie squarely within the ken of prosecutorial discretion." The court reasoned that, whatever the precise scope of Rule 48's "leave of court" requirement, this is plainly not the rare case where further judicial inquiry is warranted. The court explained that Flynn agrees with the government's motion to dismiss and there has been no allegation that the motion reflects prosecutorial harassment, and the government's motion includes an extensive discussion of newly discovered evidence casting Flynn's guilt into doubt. The court stated that the government specifically points to evidence that the FBI interview at which Flynn allegedly made false statements was "untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn." In light of this evidence, the government maintains that it cannot "prove either the relevant false statements or their materiality beyond a reasonable doubt." The court also stated that the government's representations about the insufficiency of the evidence are entitled to a "presumption of regularity," and, on the record before the district court, there is no clear evidence contrary to the government’s representations. Therefore, the court held that these clearly established legal principles and the Executive's "long-settled primacy over charging decisions" foreclose the district court's proposed scrutiny of the government's motion. The court also held that the district court's appointment of the amicus and demonstrated intent to scrutinize the reasoning and motives of the Department of Justice constitute irreparable harms that cannot be remedied on appeal. The court stated that the district court's actions will result in specific harms to the exercise of the Executive Branch's exclusive prosecutorial power, and the contemplated proceedings would likely require the Executive to reveal the internal deliberative process behind its exercise of prosecutorial discretion, interfering with the Article II charging authority. Furthermore, circumstances of this case demonstrate that mandamus is appropriate to prevent the judicial usurpation of executive power. The court denied Flynn's petition to the extent that he seeks reassignment of the district judge where the district judge's conduct did not indicate a clear inability to decide this case fairly. The court vacated the district court's order appointing an amicus as moot. View "In re: Michael Flynn" on Justia Law

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The DC Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction of tax evasion in connection with his 2010 and 2011 individual tax returns. Defendant was a chief executive of a recycling technology company and solicited millions of dollars from investors. Defendant failed to report as income the corporate funds he converted to his personal benefit. The court rejected defendant's evidentiary challenges; held that the evidence was not unduly prejudicial; held that any error in the district court's handling of defendant's preferred theory-of-the-defense instruction was harmless; and, given the extensive evidence of defendant's guilt, held that he has no colorable argument that he was prejudiced by his attorney's decision. View "United States v. Han" on Justia Law

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Appellant contends that he received ineffective assistance of counsel during the direct appeal of his murder conviction in D.C. Superior Court. Appellant alleged that his appellate counsel labored under two conflicts of interest and failed to argue that the government withheld exculpatory evidence. The court rejected appellant's claims that a conflict arose from counsel's prior representation of another individual present at the time of the murder where counsel had forgotten his prior representation of the individual and thus lacked an actual conflict. Consequently, appellant's second claim of conflict also failed. The court further held that counsel was not ineffective by declining to pursue a losing Brady claim. Moreover, appellant's final argument that counsel was ineffective on appeal in failing to argue that he had been ineffective at trial simply repackaged the losing Brady argument. Therefore, appellant was not denied effective assistance of appellate counsel. View "Johnson v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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Appellant, an Algerian national detained at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, asks the court to hold that the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause categorically applies in full to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and that his ongoing detention violates both the procedural and substantive aspects of the Due Process Clause. The DC Circuit affirmed the denial of appellant's petition for a writ of habeas corpus and held that appellant's arguments are foreclosed by circuit precedent. The court explained that the district court's decision that the Due Process Clause is categorically inapplicable to detainees at Guantanamo Bay was misplaced in light of Qassim v. Trump, 927 F.3d 522, 524 (D.C. Cir. 2019). Rather, the Supreme Court's decision in Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2008), unequivocally held that Guantanamo Bay detainees must be afforded those procedures necessary to ensure "meaningful review" of the lawfulness of their detention. The court noted that whether and which particular aspects of the Due Process Clause apply to detainees at Guantanamo Bay largely remain open questions in this circuit, as well as what procedural protections the Suspension Clause requires. However, appellant has chosen not to ground any of his claims for procedural protections in the Suspension Clause. View "Ali v. Trump" on Justia Law

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The DC Circuit vacated defendant's sentence imposed after he pleaded guilty to unlawful possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base, or crack, in violation of 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)(iii) (2006). The court held that the district court committed reversible error when it denied defendant's request to allocute before he was sentenced. In this case, defendant's attempt to speak up preserved his claim and, even if it did not, the district court's failure to invite defendant to allocute before it sentenced him is plain error calling for resentencing. Accordingly, the court remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Abney" on Justia Law

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The DC Circuit vacated the district court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress evidence. The court held that officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they seized defendant because they lacked reasonable suspicion to justify the stop. In this case, a seizure occurred when the officers pulled into the parking lot, partially blocked defendant's vehicle, and activated their take-down light. The court held that any inference of suspicion that the officers drew from encountering defendant soon after hearing the nearby gunshots were undermined by the government's failure to identify specific and articulable facts supporting the officers' estimation of where the various shots came from. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Delaney" on Justia Law

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The DC Circuit reversed the district court's judgment and remanded with instructions to grant defendant's motion to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. 2255. Defendant was convicted of murder almost 50 years ago. The government recently acknowledged that hair evidence introduced against defendant was false and exceeded the limits of science, and that the prosecution knew or should have known as much at the time of his trial. The court held that the false hair evidence presented by the government was material, because there is a reasonable likelihood that the false hair evidence could have affected the jury's verdict. In this case, the hair evidence provided powerful corroborating evidence. In the absence of the potentially confirming role played by the false hair evidence, the court held that a reasonable juror could have found that the government fell short of meeting its heavy burden, even without the defense advancing a compelling alternative theory. View "United States v. Butler" on Justia Law

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The DC Circuit denied petitions for writs of mandamus seeking vacatur of all orders issued by the former presiding military judge because of the appearance of partiality. Petitioners are being tried before a military tribunal for their alleged roles in the September 11th terrorist attacks. The court held that it was neither clear nor indisputable that the military judge should have recused himself. The court explained that the military judge's career and relationships do not constitute reasonable bases for the extraordinary remedy of mandamus. View "In re: Mustafa Al Hawsawi" on Justia Law

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The DC Circuit vacated the district court's preliminary injunction enjoining four plaintiffs from being executed. Plaintiffs claimed that the 2019 execution protocol and addendum violate the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 (FDPA), the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Controlled Substances Act, and the First, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution. Each member of the panel had a different view of what the FDPA requires. Plaintiffs' primary claim under the FDPA, on which the district court found they were likely to succeed, involves the requirement to implement federal executions in the manner provided by state law. Judge Katsas and Judge Rao both rejected that claim on the merits; Judge Katsas concluded that the FDPA regulates only the top-line choice among execution methods, such as the choice to use lethal injection instead of hanging or electrocution; Judge Rao concluded that the FDPA also requires the federal government to follow execution procedures set forth in state statutes and regulations, but not execution procedures set forth in less formal state execution protocols; and Judge Rao further concluded that the federal protocol allows the federal government to depart from its procedures as necessary to conform to state statutes and regulations. On either of their views, plaintiffs' claim was without merit and the preliminary injunction must be vacated. Plaintiffs contend in the alternative that the federal protocol and addendum reflect an unlawful transfer of authority from the United States Marshals Service to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Judge Katsas would reject the claim on the merits, and Judge Rao would hold that it was forfeited. Judge Katsas and Judge Rao resolved the notice-and-comment claim because it involves purely legal questions intertwined with the merits of the FDPA issues at the center of this appeal. Judge Katsas and Judge Rao concluded, on the merits, that the 2019 protocol and addendum are rules of agency organization, procedure, or practice exempt from the APA's requirements for notice-and-comment rulemaking. Therefore, judgment for the government must be entered on this claim. Finally, the court declined to reject plaintiffs' claims under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Controlled Substances Act. The court remanded for further proceedings. View "In re: Federal Bureau of Prisons Execution Protocol Cases" on Justia Law

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On remand, appellant asserted various ineffective assistance of counsel claims during the suppression stage, based on counsel's failure to move for STA dismissal, based on counsel's failure to call a witness, and based on counsel's failure to argue for a sentencing reduction. The DC Circuit held that appellant has established ineffective assistance with respect to his claim that trial counsel should have informed the district court that he had lost one year of Maryland state jail credits while awaiting his federal trial. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court's judgment insofar as it rejected appellant's sentencing-based ineffective assistance of counsel claim, remanding for resentencing. The court affirmed in all other respects. View "United States v. Miller" on Justia Law