Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
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In 2014, ATF agents executing a search warrant at Johnson’s home recovered explosive powder, items associated with the production of explosive devices, and boxes containing .37-millimeter ammunition shells with caps and primers on them. One shell had been assembled as an improvised explosive device (IED) using explosive powder, a fuse, and a primer. Agent Campbell looked through the boxes and disassembled and examined the IED. In 2017, while reviewing photos, Campbell noticed items that he had not examined, discovered that one of the shell casings “appeared to be loaded,” and concluded it had been converted into a second IED. The 2018 indictment charged: Unlawful Receipt or Possession of an Unregistered Firearm and Destructive Device; Unlawful Making of a Firearm; Possession of a Weapon of Mass Destruction (D.C. Code); Unlawful Receipt or Possession of an Unregistered Firearm and Destructive Device; Unlawful Making of a Firearm; Possession of a Weapon of Mass Destruction; and Conspiracy to Smuggle Goods. There was a federal possession, federal manufacture, and D.C. possession charge for each IED. The court permitted the defense to argue that the evidence had been mishandled by the government and that Campbell was not a credible witness. The D.C. Circuit remanded Johnson's convictions. The federal firearm possession convictions are “multiplicitous” of the federal firearm manufacturing convictions, in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause; the D.C. law convictions are multiplicitous of each other. The court also remanded a claim that Johnson received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel in rejecting a plea agreement. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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In 2000, Arrington was convicted of assaulting a federal officer with a dangerous weapon and of unlawfully possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. The judge calculated a mandatory 210-240-month sentencing range and sentenced Arrington to 240 months. Arrington’s sentencing range involved a higher base offense level for the unlawful possession of a firearm because he “had at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence,” U.S.S.G. 2K2.1(a)(2); he also received an enhancement as “a career offender” because he had “at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence,” U.S.S.G. 4B1.1. The judge applied the “residual clause” in the Guidelines' definition of "crime of violence." In 2003, Arrington was denied post-conviction relief under 28 U.S.C. 2255.The Supreme Court rendered the Guidelines advisory while Arrington’s first petition was pending. In 2015, the Court held (Johnson) that the Armed Career Criminal Act’s “residual clause” was unconstitutionally vague. In 2016, the Supreme Court held that “Johnson announced a substantive rule that has retroactive effect in cases on collateral review.” Within a year of Johnson, Arrington sought leave to file a successive section 2255 motion challenging his sentence in light of Johnson. The district court denied his motion as untimely. The D.C. Circuit reversed. The Johnson decision recognized a person’s right not to have his sentence dictated by the unconstitutionally vague language contained in a mandatory residual clause identical to that in the Guidelines. View "United States v. Arrington" on Justia Law

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In 2018, Jabr drove from California to the District of Columbia planning to meet then-President Trump in person. She believed herself to be a victim of a conspiracy between law enforcement and various casinos she visited on her trip, and she felt compelled to inform the President. When her car’s GPS device marked her arrival at the White House, she parked the car, exited it, scaled two fences, ran across a courtyard, and sprinted up the stairs of the building towards the entrance, where Secret Service officers intercepted her. Jabr, in reality, had dashed up the stairs of the wrong building--the U.S. Treasury Building, which sits immediately adjacent to the White House. The government charged Jabr under a statute that bars entering the “White House or its grounds” without lawful authority. The Treasury Building lies outside the “White House grounds” for purposes of that statute.The district court acquitted Jabr of committing the charged offense but found her guilty of attempting to commit the charged crime, explaining that the statute prohibits attempted entries. The D.C. Circuit affirmed but vacated an erroneous restitution order. The court rejected Jabr’s contention that the flaw in the charge against her left the district court without jurisdiction. View "United States v. Jabr" on Justia Law

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Hale-Cusanelli, then enlisted in the Army Reserves and working as a Navy contractor, was arrested following the January 6, 2021 incident at the U.S. Capitol. Hale-Cusanelli did not have a weapon and entered the Capitol through doors that had already been kicked open. He admitted to using signals to urge others forward and to picking up a flagpole that someone else had thrown at a police officer, referring to it as a “murder weapon.” He used his military training and a face covering to protect himself from pepper spray and later stated that he “really wishes” there would be a civil war. Coworkers described him as having "radical views pertaining to the Jewish people, minorities, and women” and reported that Hale-Cusanelli had made abhorrent statements, including that babies born with disabilities should be shot, that “Hitler should have finished the job.” He was detained pending trial, based on the court’s conclusion under 18 U.S.C. 3142(g) that no combination of conditions of release will reasonably assure the safety of any other person and the community.The D.C. Circuit affirmed. Although the indictment did not allege that Hale-Cusanelli assaulted anyone, damaged property, or organized the events on January 6, the district court made a forward-looking determination about the serious risk of obstruction of justice and threats to witnesses as the basis for detention and reasonably considered a previous incident in which Hale-Cusanelli participated in violence as an act of retaliation. View "United States v. Hale-Cusanelli" on Justia Law

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In March 2020, the District of Columbia's mayor declared a public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Corrections responded by instituting policies intended to protect its employees and inmates from the coronavirus. On March 30, inmates at D.C. correctional facilities filed a class action, asserting claims under 28 U.S.C. 2241 and 42 U.S.C. 1983 for violations of the Fifth and Eighth Amendments. The district court appointed amici to investigate conditions at D.C. correctional facilities; based on their report the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order on April 19, generally requiring Corrections to address identified problems. Although COVID cases in the facilities decreased, significant problems remained. In June 2020, the district court entered a preliminary injunction, ordering the defendants to ensure inmates receive medical attention within 24 hours after reporting medical problems, to contract for COVID-19 cleaning services, ensure quarantine isolation units are nonpunitive and provide access to confidential legal calls. Corrections took steps to comply. One month later, Corrections moved to vacate the preliminary injunction due to changed circumstances. Amici reported substantial improvement but imperfect compliance with the preliminary injunction.The district court denied the motion. The D.C. Circuit dismissed an appeal. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. 3626(a)(2), the preliminary injunction has expired; the cases are now moot. View "Banks v. Booth" on Justia Law

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Doost and his brother owned a company in the United Arab Emirates; its subsidiary, the “Mine,” secured a 10-year lease on an Afghanistan marble mine. Doost obtained a $15.8 million loan from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a federal agency that supported investments by the U.S. government in emerging markets worldwide. The loan agreement required Doost to disclose all transactions between the Mine and certain parties closely affiliated with the Mine, including Doost and his brother. Doost 2010 disbursements totaled $15.8 million. There were many undisclosed affiliated transactions that enriched Doost, his brother, and other relatives with the Mine’s OPIC-backed money. He submitted invoices to OPIC for equipment purchases that contained false information. The OPIC loan went into default after the Mine made no principal payments and failed to pay $2 million in accrued interest. Doost was convicted of major fraud against the United States, wire fraud, false statements, and money laundering, sentenced to 54 months of incarceration, and ordered to make restitution.The D.C. Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that Doost's trial counsel was ineffective. Doost was not prejudiced by any of counsel’s decisions because ample evidence would still have supported his conviction. The indictment was not multiplicitous. Although some counts may have been untimely, counsel reasonably believed the 1948 Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act tolled the limitations period, 18 U.S.C. 3287. View "United States v. Doost" on Justia Law

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In 2009, defendant was sentenced to nearly 21 years in prison for selling 21.1 grams of crack cocaine. After Congress enacted the First Step Act in 2018, defendant filed a motion for sentence reduction. The district court reduced his sentence only by the ten months needed to comply with the new statutory maximum. At issue on appeal is whether the law mandated that the district court provide defendant the opportunity to allocute before ruling on his motion for a sentence reduction.The DC Circuit held that no right to allocute applies to motions to reduce a sentence under the First Step Act and thus affirmed the district court's judgment. In this case, the court explained that defendant was not categorically entitled to an opportunity for allocution as part of his Section 404 proceedings under the First Step Act, and he has made no claim that allocution was necessary in the particular circumstances of his case. View "United States v. Lawrence" on Justia Law

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In 2009, defendant was sentenced to 324 months imprisonment after pleading guilty to multiple counts of conviction stemming from his role in a kidnapping and attempted murder. In 2020, following a change in law, the district court set aside one of defendant's judgments and resentenced him to 300 months. On appeal, defendant argued that the judge wrongly treated his original sentence as a sentencing package and misapplied the sentencing guidelines.The DC Circuit affirmed defendant's sentence, concluding that defendant failed to show that the district judge obviously erred at resentencing by characterizing defendant's original sentence as an aggregate package. The court explained that, to the extent defendant separately argues that the district judge erroneously overlooked defendant's request for a lower sentence reflecting his alleged rehabilitation, the argument runs aground on the record: the district judge did consider defendant's progress before imposing the new sentence. The court also concluded that defendant's challenge to his kidnapping offense level failed where the district judge applied USSG 2A2.1(b)(1)(A), for causing life-threatening bodily injury during an attempted murder, based on the boxcutter slashing, not on the attempted shootings. View "United States v. Lassiter" on Justia Law

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The DC Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress a firearm seized from his waistband, holding that the officers who seized the gun had reasonable suspicion that defendant was involved in criminal activity. The court concluded that the record facts support the findings of the district court where the officers were responding to late-night reports of gunfire; the officers saw that defendant was the only person on the block; defendant was walking quickly away from the location of the shooting, failing to initially respond to an officer's repeated efforts to get his attention; and, although the officer did not see that defendant was wearing earbuds, it was reasonable for her to treat defendant's non-responsiveness as grounds for suspicion. Furthermore, the district court viewed the bodycam footage and credited the officers' testimony, and nothing in the record suggests that the district court's findings were clearly erroneous. The court rejected defendant's arguments to the contrary, concluding that the combination of the facts found by the district court raised reasonable suspicion. View "United States v. Jones" on Justia Law

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Thomas, a resident of Jamaica, pleaded guilty to interstate communication with intent to extort, 18 U.S.C. 875(b), after botching a lottery scam. Thomas waived most of his rights to appeal, retaining only the rights to claim he received ineffective assistance of counsel and to appeal an upward departure from the sentencing guidelines range. The district court applied an offense level enhancement not mentioned in the plea agreement because it found Thomas “demonstrated the ability to carry out” his threats, then applied upward departures for extortion that “involved organized criminal activity” and for “a threat to a family member of the victim,” and sentenced Thomas to 71 months’ imprisonment, 30 months more than the maximum estimated in the agreement.The D.C. Circuit remanded some of Thomas’s ineffective assistance claims based on counsel’s failure to argue for a Smith variance based on his status as a deportable alien; raise mitigating facts contained in the sentencing exhibits; review the sentencing exhibits with Thomas; and submit character letters Thomas’s family and friends had written. The government did not plainly breach the plea agreement; it never sought the challenged sentencing enhancement. Assuming, without deciding, that the waiver was ineffective, the court rejected an argument that the district court abused its discretion by departing upward from the guidelines range. View "United States v. Thomas" on Justia Law