Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
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Appellant was indicted for transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, attempted production of child pornography, and commission of a felony involving a minor by a person required to register as a sex offender. After a bifurcated jury and bench trial, Appellant was convicted on all counts.   On appeal, Appellant brings three challenges to his convictions. First, he contends that the district court abused its discretion by admitting the government’s expert testimony concerning the approximate locations of Appellant’s and the transported minor’s cell phones on the night of their meeting. Second, Appellant argues that the government should have been required to prove not just that he transported a minor to engage in sexual activity, but that he knew she was underage. Third, Appellant challenges the constitutionality of the Act that required him to register as a sex offender.   The DC Circuit affirmed Appellant’s convictions. The court held that the district court, in this case, did not abuse its discretion in admitting the expert’s testimony under Rule 702. The court explained that the district court justifiably concluded that concerns about the specific distances the expert drove should be considered by the jury in assessing the weight of the expert’s testimony and not by the court in its threshold admissibility determination. Further, the court explained that in light of the probative value of the expert’s testimony and the deference the Circuit Court affords district courts in making determinations under Rule 403, it cannot say that the district court abused its discretion in allowing the jury to hear from the expert. View "USA v. Charles Morgan, Jr." on Justia Law

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Defendant entered a guilty plea to travelling across state lines to sexually abuse a child. Defendant was arrested when after he communicated with an undercover officer purporting to be a man who was offering their child for illicit sexual activities. At sentencing, the district court applied an enhancement under U.S.S.G. Sec. 2A3.1(b)(2)(A) because “the victim had not attained the age of twelve years.” Rather than challenge the applicability of the enhancement, trial counsel asked for a downward variance to recognize that the “victim was not real. The court declined counsel's request and Defendant was sentenced to 108 months of imprisonment and 120 months of supervised release.Defendant appealed his sentence, claiming that counsel was ineffective for failing to challenge the applicability of the U.S.S.G. Sec. 2A3.1(b)(2)(A) enhancement. The court determined that, because Defendant intended to sexually assault a young child, the sentencing enhancement applied. Thus, counsel was not ineffective for failing to object to its application. View "USA v. Rodney Davis" on Justia Law

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Appellant shipped a package containing chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl from China to Peru. Appellant pleaded guilty to three counts relating to the importation of controlled substances and listed chemicals into the United States. He raised a single challenge on appeal: he contends that there is no importation into the United States when a package stops temporarily in United States territory en route to a foreign destination without ever clearing United States customs.   The DC Circuit dismissed the appeal. The court explained that Appellant’s plea agreement contains an appeal waiver that expressly bars him from raising the argument he now seeks to press on appeal. In the circumstances of this case, the appeal waiver is enforceable. The court explained that hat an appeal waiver generally meets the requirement that it be “knowing” when “the defendant is aware of and understands the risks involved” and “his choice is made with eyes open.”   Here, Appellant does not—and could not—claim to have misunderstood the relevant risks. The court further wrote that Appellant made the decision to forgo the uncertainty of filing a motion to dismiss and to instead accept the government’s plea offer. The agreement he signed memorialized the benefits and costs of that decision. He obtained the benefit of the government’s dropping three additional counts against him. In exchange, he waived his right to raise certain objections to his counts of conviction in any appeal, thereby securing a benefit for the government, too. View "In re: Sealed Case (PUBLIC OPINION)" on Justia Law

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Appellant was convicted on several counts related to his involvement in the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the United States’ diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. He was sentenced to 22 years of imprisonment and five years of supervised release. He now appealed his convictions under several theories, seeking acquittal or at least a new trial. The government cross-appealed, arguing the district court’s 22-year sentence is substantively unreasonably low.   The DC Circuit reversed Appellant’s sentence and remanded for resentencing. The court held for the government finding that Appellant has failed to show that he was convicted on legally insufficient evidence, that he was prejudiced by any erroneous evidentiary rulings or jury instructions, or that he was substantially prejudiced by the prosecution’s closing arguments. On the other hand, Appellant’s sentence is substantively unreasonably low in light of the gravity of his crimes of terrorism. The district court’s decision to disregard the conduct for which Appellant was acquitted cannot account for its dramatic downward departure from the Sentencing Guidelines’ recommendation. View "USA v. Ahmed Abukhatallah" on Justia Law

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Appellant sought the dismissal of most of the counts of his indictment and a new trial on the remaining counts. In his view, the indictment failed to allege a convergence between the deceived entity, CareFirst, and those deprived of property— which, in Appellant’s view, were his clients. In other words, he claimed that the indictment did not allege that he defrauded CareFirst of any of its own property. He argued instead that the indictment and trial improperly relied on evidence that he defrauded his small business clients by overcharging them for health insurance premiums. He also brought a number of evidentiary challenges.   The DC Circuit affirmed Appellant’s conviction and sentence. The court wrote that there is no convergence problem in this case. The indictment alleged that Appellant defrauded CareFirst, causing it to lose money. That is the same fraud that the government proved at trial. The differential between the falsely lowered premiums that Appellant tricked CareFirst into charging and those he billed his clients represented, at least in part, property fraudulently taken from CareFirst. That price difference also helped to show Appellant profit motive for the fraud, and demonstrated that he was neither acting as a Robin Hood nor at the behest of his clients to help reduce their premiums. None of Appellant’s other challenges on appeal succeed. View "USA v. Tarek Abou-Khatwa" on Justia Law

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Appellant was convicted of conspiracy to commit securities fraud, securities fraud, and first-degree fraud. On appeal, she mounted a single challenge: the prosecution made improper comments during its rebuttal closing argument that substantially prejudiced her and denied her a fair trial. Appellant objected to most of the prosecution’s statements in the district court, and the court sustained the objections.   The DC Circuit affirmed Appellant’s convictions, finding no reversible error in the district court’s response to the prosecution’s challenged statements. Appellant argued that the court should apply harmless-error review. However, the court explained that harmless-error review is inapplicable in the circumstances of this case. Harmless-error analysis generally applies when a district court erroneously rejects a defendant’s timely claim of an error. Here, though, the district court did not erroneously reject Appellant’s claim of an error. Indeed, the court did not reject any relevant claim of error at all. Appellant’s claim involves the four allegedly improper statements made by the prosecution in the rebuttal closing argument. But Appellant raised no objection in the district court to the fourth of those statements, so there was no claim of any error at trial as to that one. And while Appellant did object to the other three statements, the district court did not erroneously overrule her objections.   Further, Appellant cannot demonstrate plain error. The district court did not err, much less plainly err, in responding to the prosecution’s challenged statements. Lastly, even assuming the district court should have taken any additional actions, the court’s failure to do so did not affect Appellant’s substantial rights. View "USA v. Brynee Baylor" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the decision of the district court denying Defendant's motion to dismiss this complaint alleging, among other things, an Eighth Amendment claim of deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs or for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, holding that dismissal was warranted.While he was incarcerated in federal prison and suffering from Hepatitis C, Plaintiff applied to receive treatment with Harvoni. Dr. Jeffrey Allen, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Medical Director, denied the request under BOP's then-operative protocol. Pursuant to later-revised protocol, Plaintiff received treatment, and his Hepatitis C was cured. Plaintiff brought this action alleging that Defendant inflicted cruel and unusual punishment upon him by failing to grant his initial treatment request. The district court denied Defendant's motion to dismiss or for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that qualified immunity protected Defendant from Plaintiff's claims. View "Bernier v. Allen" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Manuel Reynoso was convicted by jury on a gun-possession charge and two drug charges. On appeal, Reynoso challenged his convictions on several grounds. On the same day the district court sentenced Reynoso, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019), which established that the felon-in-possession statute required the government to show not only that the defendant knew he possessed a gun but also that he knew he had previously been convicted of a crime punishable by more than a year of imprisonment. Reynoso contended on appeal that his felon-in-possession conviction had to be overturned due to the government’s failure to make the additional showing Rehaif required. Because Reynoso did not raise that argument in the district court, the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reviewed his claim for only plain error. After the appellate court heard oral argument in this case, the Supreme Court granted review in another case to consider whether a person might be entitled to plain-error relief on appeal in a case involving a Rehaif error, Greer v. United States, 141 S. Ct. 2090 (2021). Greer held that Rehaif errors at trial normally will not qualify as plain errors of a kind warranting relief in appeals from felon-in-possession convictions. In accordance with Greer, the Court of Appeal concluded the district court’s Rehaif error in this case did not amount to plain error. The Court also rejected Reynoso’s other challenges to his convictions, thus affirming the district court. View "United States v. Reynoso" on Justia Law

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Appellant made two challenges to a life sentence for running a continuing criminal enterprise (CCE) centered around crack cocaine distribution. See 21 U.S.C. Section 848(b). In particular, Appellant appeals the district court’s denials of his motions for relief under the First Step Act of 2018 and 28 U.S.C. Section 2255. After the district court issued its First Step Act order, the DC Circuit decided United States v. White, 984 F.3d 76 (D.C. Cir. 2020), in which the court elaborated on First Step Act proceedings. Because it is unclear whether the district court began from the correct statutory mandatory minimum sentence in light of White, the court remanded the First Step Act appeal to the district court for it to clarify the applicable baseline; and, because the district court could change Appellant’s sentence on remand, the court held the section 2255 appeal in abeyance for now. View "USA v. Michael Palmer" on Justia Law

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Appellant, a suspected terrorist, plotted with a confidential informant to rob and murder a diamond dealer. Appellant was arrested after he provided two semi-automatic guns for use in the crime. While in pretrial detention, Appellant orchestrated a plot to prevent the informant from testifying against him. Appellant eventually pleaded guilty to the felon-in-possession count, and the government agreed to drop tampering and obstruction charges.In 2015, Appellant sought all FBI records containing his name, and any terrorism investigation he may have been a part of. The FBI denied the request. Citing the Appellant's plea agreement from the felon-in-possession case from years before, the district court granted summary judgment to the FBI.FOIA waivers must serve a legitimate criminal-justice interest to be enforceable. Here, the D.C. Circuit found that the waiver served such interests because it protected the safety of the confidential informant. The court also concluded that the waiver covered all documents requested by Appellant. View "Jihad Barnes v. FBI" on Justia Law