Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
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Hillie was convicted of sexual exploitation of a minor, 18 U.S.C. 2251(a), attempted sexual exploitation of a minor, 18 U.S.C. 2251(e), possession of images of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct, 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(4)(B), and various counts relating to sexual abuse of children and minors, under D.C. law. A search of his electronic devices had revealed videos, recorded by cameras hidden in the bedroom and bathroom, of minors in the nude. Hillie had also touched the girls in a sexual manner. He was sentenced to 354 months’ imprisonment.The D.C. Circuit vacated in part, agreeing that there was insufficient evidence to support his convictions of sexual exploitation of a minor, attempted sexual exploitation of a minor, and possession of images of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct. No rational trier of fact could find the girl’s conduct depicted in the videos to be a “lascivious exhibition of the anus, genitals, or pubic area of any person,” under section 2256(2)(A) nor that Hillie intended to use the girl to display her anus, genitalia, or pubic area in a lustful manner that connotes the commission of sexual intercourse, bestiality, masturbation, or sadistic or masochistic abuse, and took a substantial step toward doing so. The court rejected arguments that the court erroneously instructed the jury, erroneously admitted certain testimony, and erroneously denied a motion to sever the federal counts from the remaining counts. View "United States v. Hillie" on Justia Law

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Six defendants were indicted in 2018 following an ATF investigation of drug activity at a D.C. barbershop. During a 2017 traffic stop, officers had found what appeared to be a drug ledger, approximately $9,000, and drug paraphernalia in Fields’s vehicle. The ATF executed a search warrant on the barbershop three months later. In a suite above the barbershop, agents found cash, firearms, more drug paraphernalia, and large quantities of heroin mixed with fentanyl, PCP, Suboxone, and synthetic marijuana. They also found a document listing a medical appointment for Fields and a receipt for a purchase made with his credit card. A search of Fields’s home led to more drug ledgers, two of which listed “Foots” (Samuels). During subsequent searches of Samuels’s home, ATF agents found a shotgun, drug paraphernalia, crack cocaine, marijuana, and synthetic marijuana. Samuels admitted that he kept a gun under his bed for protection.Fields, Samuels, and Tucker were convicted on several drug- and firearm-related offenses. The D.C. Circuit affirmed the convictions, 21 U.S.C. 841, 846, 18 U.S.C. 922(g), and Samuels’s 84-month sentence, rejecting challenges to the 2017 traffic stop, evidentiary rulings, and the denial of Fields’s request to represent himself, and claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. The district court cured any potential prejudice to Samuels and Tucker with limiting instructions and did not abuse its discretion in denying their motions to sever. View "United States v. Tucker" on Justia Law

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Gaskins served almost eight years of a 22-year sentence on a narcotics conspiracy charge before the D.C. Circuit reversed his conviction for insufficient evidence in 2012. At his trial, Gaskins had invoked his constitutional right not to testify. After the reversal of his conviction, he sought limited discovery and a chance to testify in support of his motion for a certificate of innocence under 28 U.S.C. 2513, a prerequisite to a claim against the government for compensation for wrongful imprisonment. The district court denied the certificate of innocence without acting on Gaskins’ motion for discovery.The D.C. Circuit vacated. A failure to prove criminal culpability beyond a reasonable doubt requires acquittal but does not necessarily establish innocence. On a motion for a certificate of innocence, the burden is on the claimant to prove his innocence by a preponderance of the evidence. The district court erred by denying Gaskins’ motion for a certificate of innocence without addressing his procedural motion. The key issue bearing on whether Gaskins is entitled to the certificate concerns his state of mind--whether he agreed to work with co-conspirators with the specific intent to distribute drugs. His actions, as established by the trial evidence, do not add up to the charged offenses unless he agreed to join the conspiracy. The court declined to reassign the case. View "United States v. Gaskins" on Justia Law

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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