Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
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Defendant was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine base in 1997 and sentenced to 240 months imprisonment followed by 10 years’ supervised release, which, at the time, were minimum terms. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the conviction and sentence in 1998. After being released, Defendant violated the terms of his supervised release and was sentenced to 37 months imprisonment.In Many 2020, Defendant sought relief under the First Step Act. The government conceded First Step Act eligibility but opposed a reduction, arguing Defendant did not merit discretionary relief. The district court agreed Defendant was eligible but denied a First Step Act reduction. Defendant appealed. However, during the pendency of the appeal, Defendant was released from custody. Thus, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the matter was moot. View "United States v. Eugene Saunders" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted by an Arkansas jury on two counts of capital murder and sentenced to death. After the district court denied his second amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the Eighth Circuit vacated the dismissal of two claims and remanded for further proceedings. On remand, the district court denied Defendant's petition with respect to his conviction but granted relief with respect to his sentence of death, imposing a sentence of life imprisonment. Both sides appealed.On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's order affirming Defendant's conviction; however, the court reversed the district court's grant of relief. The Eighth Circuit explained that the Arkansas Supreme Court's decision concerning the scope of cross-examination of a government witness did not contravene or unreasonably apply Supreme Court precedent by concluding that the balance struck by the trial court was permissible under the Sixth Amendment, and his Confrontation Clause claim did not merit relief. Defendant's other claims were procedurally barred and Defendant did not show cause of prejudice to overcome the default. View "Ray Dansby v. Dexter Payne" on Justia Law

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A jury convicted Defendant of distributing more than 50 grams of cocaine base. The district court sentenced Defendant to life in prison on this count. Defendant moved for a sentence reduction under Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018. The district court found Defendant eligible for a reduction and reduced his sentence to 480 months, his new statutory maximum penalty under Section 841(b)(1)(B) as modified by section 2 of the Fair Sentencing Act. Defendant appealed, arguing the court procedurally erred in recalculating his amended advisory guidelines range and abused its discretion by imposing a statutory maximum term of imprisonment.   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that the district court applied the 292–365-month guidelines range from the PSR addendum, based on the retroactive guidelines change in Amendment 782 but not on the nonretroactive change in Amendment 742. This was not a procedural error. Further, the court explained, the district court proceeded in a logical, careful manner to resolve multiple interlocking issues and then confirmed the amended guidelines range in its final order granting First Step Act relief. Thus, there was no procedural error.   Finally, the court concluded that the district court did not abuse its substantial First Step Act discretion. The district court did not overstate the seriousness of Defendant’s offense. His three-year evasion of authorities after skipping bond, his misconduct at his sentencing hearing, and his serious conduct violations while incarcerated show a lack of acceptance of responsibility and a failure to adjust his behavior. View "United States v. Donald Shephard" on Justia Law

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Defendant pleaded guilty to one count of illegal possession of firearms and ammunition and two counts of possession of unregistered firearms. Defendant preserved his right to appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress and appealed.   Defendant first argued that the warrant application did not establish probable cause to justify the search of his residence because it relied on the confidential Bulletin, which in Defendant’s view represents an attempt by the ATF to improperly change the law by defining all fuel filters and solvent traps as silencers regardless of how a person intends to use them. He further asserted that hat the good faith exception does not apply because the search warrant application misstated the law regarding firearm silencers and unmodified fuel filters and omitted the intent element, misleading the judge considering the warrant as to both law and facts. Here, the court explained, that the warrant application was thin, but officers were not “entirely unreasonable” in their belief that the warrant was supported by probable cause, nor was the warrant so deficient that they “could not reasonably presume its validity.” The court agreed with the district court that, regardless of whether the warrant was supported by probable cause, the good faith exception applies. View "United States v. Christopher Hay" on Justia Law

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A jury convicted Defendant of two counts of distributing heroin. Before trial Defendant filed multiple motions in limine seeking to prevent the government from introducing certain evidence. Defendant now appeals the district court’s denial of two of those motions in limine. Defendant also argues there was insufficient evidence to convict him of both offenses and that the district court abused its discretion in imposing a 10-year sentence. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.   Defendant argues the contested evidence cannot be considered “intrinsic” evidence—that is, “evidence of wrongful conduct other than the conduct at issue offered for the purpose of providing the context in which the charged crime occurred.” Here, the court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence of the overdose of a person that received Defendant’s heroin. The person’s overdose was relevant to prove the substance Defendant distributed was heroin. The district court’s instructions properly outlined the elements of distribution of heroin—that is, they did not instruct the jury to convict Defendant for the victim’s injuries—thus mitigating the risk of prejudice.   Defendant further argued a reasonable jury would not have credited the witness’s testimony since the witness was a heroin addict, failed to accuse Defendant when initially questioned about the incident in 2018, identified Defendant from a single photograph, and testified in exchange for immunity. The court concluded that credibility determinations, however, are best left to the jury.Finally, after reviewing the record, the court held  the district court’s findings supporting Defendant’s sentence were not clearly erroneous. View "United States v. Michael Watley" on Justia Law

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A jury convicted Defendant of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Defendant challenged the admission of his prior felony firearm conviction under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b). He also appealed the procedural and substantive reasonableness of his sentence.   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. Defendant first challenged the admission of his 2008 conviction as improper propensity evidence. The court explained that even assuming for the sake of argument that evidence of the prior crime was inadmissible, any error was harmless. The Government asked the witness only two vague questions about the prior conviction and mentioned it in passing during the closing argument. The district court gave a limiting instruction when the evidence was introduced, telling the jury that it could only be used to show knowledge, intent, or absence of mistake, and not as evidence of guilt. The prosecutor repeated the limiting guidance in her closing argument. And the jury had ample evidence to support its verdict even without the evidence—including a recording from the post-arrest interview in which Defendant admitted that he handled the guns.   Defendant further argued that hat the district court did not give enough consideration to Section 3553(a) factors when deciding his sentence. The court explained that based on the record as a whole, particularly the court’s engagement with each side’s arguments at sentencing, the court is satisfied that the district court was aware of and adequately considered the Section 3553(a) factors. Finally, in considering that a within-Guidelines sentence is presumptively reasonable, the court held that Defendant failed to overcome this presumption of reasonableness. View "United States v. Kenneth Barbee, Jr." on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed the denial of his motion to suppress, having preserved the right to do so pursuant to his conditional plea of guilty. He also appeals his sentence, challenging his classification as an armed career criminal pursuant to the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. 924(e), and in the alternative, the calculation of his Guidelines range on other grounds.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress. The court vacated his sentence and remand for resentencing, however, because Defendant does not have three prior qualifying convictions under the ACCA. The court explained that was reasonable for the officers to rely on our then-applicable precedent that dog sniffs at an interior apartment door are permissible.   Moreover, the court wrote that to be subject to higher statutory penalties under the ACCA, an individual who violates 18 U.S.C. 922(g) must have three or more prior convictions for offenses -6- that are “violent felon[ies]” or “serious drug offense[s].” 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(1). As relevant here, a serious drug offense is defined as: “an offense under State law, involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802)), for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law. Accordingly, the court found that Defendant’s prior offenses are not serious drug offenses under the ACCA, and the district court erred by sentencing Defendant as an armed career criminal. View "United States v. Christopher Perez" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted by a jury of possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 922(g)(9), and possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 922(k). The district court sentenced him to 125 months’ imprisonment. On appeal, Defendant makes several arguments: first, that the district court erred in denying his request for an entrapment instruction; second, he raises a Brady claim; and third, he argues ineffective assistance of counsel.   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that factual record establishes law enforcement and its informant merely provided Defendant an opportunity to make a sale, which revealed Defendant’s unlawful possession of the firearm that he sold to the agent.  As there is no evidence of inducement, the court was not required to give entrapment instruction.   Further, Defendant’s assertions are too speculative to support a Brady claim. The jury heard the relevant testimony and was thus aware of the conflicting recollections of the agent and the confidential informant about the events leading to the sale. Furthermore, considering the weight of evidence against Defendant on the two counts of conviction, the failure to disclose the identity of the informant’s brother did not prejudice him. Finally, the court declined to hear Defendant’s ineffective-assistance claim. The court held that it only reviews such claims on direct appeal in “exceptional cases”, and this case is not such an instance. View "United States v. Brandon Hayes" on Justia Law

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After a bench trial, the district court convicted Defendant on one count each of receipt and possession of child pornography under 18 U.S.C. Section 2252A(a)(2)(A) and (5)(B) and sentenced him to 97 months imprisonment. Defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support his convictions and the district court’s application of the sentencing guidelines.The Eighth Circuit affirmed. According to Defendant, a rational jury could not have found that the evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he knowingly received or possessed the child pornography found on his devices. The court explained that first, the thumbnails in Exhibits 1 to 4 support the district court’s finding that Defendant knowingly received and possessed those images or their originals. The examiner testified that a thumbnail indicates that the original of that image was in the phone’s gallery application at some point. Second, circumstantial evidence surrounding Exhibits 5, 6, and 8 to 13 supports the district court’s finding that Defendant knowingly possessed and received at least one of the images in these exhibits. Third, other evidence supports these inferences. Defendant’s devices contained thirteen child-pornography files, several suspected child-pornography files, and hundreds of other images of children—many erotic and some watermarked with child-pornography-related terms. Further, because the district court would have imposed the same sentence under Section 3553(a) factors as it did under the guidelines, any error in its application of the guidelines was harmless. View "United States v. Christopher Golden" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff and other death-row prisoners in Arkansas sued the governor and a corrections official, arguing that Arkansas’s three-drug execution protocol violates the Eighth Amendment. After a bench trial, the district court found that the prisoners failed to establish a violation, and denied a motion for new trial.   The prisoners argue that the district court clearly erred in finding that they failed to demonstrate that the Arkansas execution protocol creates a substantial risk of severe pain. The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The prisoners cite expert testimony from Dr. Craig Stevens and Dr. Gail Van Norman that midazolam has a ceiling effect that occurs at a dose between 0.2 to 0.4 mg/kg. These experts relied on two medical studies, which are known by the names of their principal authors as the Inagaki study and the Miyake study. The court wrote that with no scientific consensus and a paucity of reliable scientific evidence concerning the effect of large doses of midazolam on humans, the district court did not clearly err in finding that the prisoners failed to demonstrate that the Arkansas execution protocol is sure or very likely to cause severe pain. Accordingly, the district court properly dismissed the claim under the Eighth Amendment.   Further, the prisoners failed to establish that the State’s existing method was sure or very likely to cause needless suffering, so the State was not required to consider alternative methods. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion. View "Stacey Johnson v. Asa Hutchinson" on Justia Law