Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of habeas relief to petitioner, who was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to death. The court held that the Georgia state habeas court's fact-finding was not entitled to deference in the pre-Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 regime. In this case, the state habeas court adopted verbatim the state's proposed order; offered no guidance to the Assistant Attorney General drafting the proposed order; did not review the order, other than signing it, dating it, and changing the concluding sentence, notwithstanding the glaring errors it contained; and did so ex parte without so much as affording petitioner a chance to challenge any of it or propose an alternative order. The court also held that the district court correctly determined that petitioner's trial lawyers' conduct fell beneath an objective standard of reasonableness when they failed to adequately investigate whether petitioner suffered from organic brain damage at the time of the killing. In light of the substantial evidence petitioner demonstrated showing that he suffered from organic brain damage, the court held that the district court did not err in finding that petitioner had been prejudiced by his lawyers' deficient performance. View "Jefferson v. GDCP Warden" on Justia Law

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Rosemond v. United States, 572 U.S. 65, 67 (2014), announced a new substantive rule that applies retroactively to cases on collateral review. Nonetheless, the Eleventh Circuit held that petitioner was not entitled to relief under Rosemond, because the evidence at trial was sufficient for a reasonable jury to infer that he had advance knowledge his co-conspirators would use or carry firearms during the underlying crime of violence. The court also held that aiding and abetting a carjacking qualifies as a crime of violence under the elements clause of 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(3)(A). Therefore, the court held that United States v. Davis, 588 U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 2319, 2336 (2019), does not affect petitioner's section 924(c) conviction. Furthermore, the court held that counsel was not ineffective for failing to object to the jury charge, which lacked an instruction on advanced knowledge. Finally, the court declined petitioner's request for remand, holding that the district court's order regarding a certificate of appealability (COA) effectively denied a COA regarding petitioner's jury-instruction claim. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court's denial of petitioner's 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion to vacate his sentence. View "Steiner v. United States" on Justia Law

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On remand from the Supreme Court, the Eleventh Circuit remanded the case to the district court with instructions to issue a writ of habeas corpus vacating petitioner's sentence and entitling him to a new sentencing hearing. Applying Brecht v. Abrahamson, the court reviewed the trial judge's error under Ake v. Oklahoma, holding that the constitutional error in this case was structural. The court held that the Ake error infected the entire sentencing hearing from beginning to end, because petitioner was prevented from offering any meaningful evidence of mitigation based on his mental health, or from impeaching the State's evidence of his mental health. The court held that this Ake error defies analysis by harmless-error review and thus prejudice to petitioner was presumed. View "McWilliams v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit held that the district court did not have jurisdiction over defendant's brand new 28 U.S.C. 2255 challenge because the court never gave defendant permission to raise it. In this case, defendant was required to ask this court for permission to raise a claim in a successive section 2255 motion, which he did not. Therefore, the court vacated the district court's merits decision and remanded with instructions to dismiss the new section 2255 challenge. The court also held that defendant failed to meet his burden of showing that his new sentence was substantively unreasonable. View "United States v. Pearson" on Justia Law

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The mere proximity between a firearm and drug possessed for personal use could not support a USSG 2K2.1(b)(6)(B) enhancement without a finding that the gun facilitated or had the potential to facilitate the defendant's drug possession. Defendant appealed his conviction and sentence after he conditionally pleaded guilty to knowingly possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court's application of a four-level sentencing enhancement under USSG 2K2.1(b)(6)(B) for possessing a firearm in connection with another felony. In this case, the district court applied the enhancement based solely on the proximity between the firearm and a hydromorphone pill. The court held that the district court erred by applying the enhancement without finding that the firearm facilitated, or had the potential of facilitating defendant's possession of the pill. However, the court affirmed the denial of defendant's motion to suppress and held that, in light of the totality of the circumstances, defendant's known criminal history, non-compliance, argumentativeness, and nervous, agitated behavior following lawful orders to exit the truck would cause a reasonably prudent officer in the circumstances to believe that his safety or that of his fellow officers was in danger. The court also affirmed the denial of defendant's application of an enhanced base offense level under USSG 2K2.1(a)(3), because his prior Florida conviction for drug conspiracy was a predicate controlled substance offense under the Guidelines. View "United States v. Bishop" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of a petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. 2254. The court held that, although petitioner exhausted his due process claims based on lost or destroyed evidence, the Georgia Supreme Court's denial of the claims on direct appeal was entitled to deference under section 2254(d). In this case, there was no evidence that officers knew or should have known that the lost or destroyed evidence was exculpatory and the record contained no allegation of official animus towards petitioner or of a conscious effort to suppress exculpatory evidence. The court also held that the district court did not err in denying petitioner's request for a stay. View "Davis v. Sellers" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit vacated defendant's conviction for honest-services fraud through bribery for undertaking an "official act" in his capacity as a police officer. The court remanded for a new trial and held that it could not be sure beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury convicted defendant of the offenses that Congress criminalized when it enacted the honest-services fraud and bribery statutes. In this case, the jury was not instructed with the crucial analogy limiting the definition of "question" or "matter" in this context as comparable in scope to a lawsuit, hearing, or administrative determination, and the government itself did not otherwise do so. The court also affirmed defendant's conviction of computer fraud. View "United States v. Van Buren" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying defendant a resentencing hearing after it granted his motion to correct his sentence, 28 U.S.C. 2255, for an error that affected four of his eight counts of conviction but did not change his guideline range. The court held that the Johnson error in defendant's original sentencing did not undermine his sentence as a whole. Furthermore, by imposing the original sentence for defendant's four felon-in-possession counts, the district court did not rely on a guideline range that was affected by the Johnson error, nor did it appear to rely on the erroneous fifteen-year mandatory minimum. Rather, the district court calculated a guideline range that was unaffected by the error and then, after determining that the top of that range was insufficient, departed upwards. Furthermore, the exercise of the district court's discretion was not so significant that due process required it to hold a hearing with defendant present. View "United States v. Thomason" on Justia Law

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Defendant's prior conviction in Washington for delivery of cocaine is an aggravated felony under 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(43), which bars him from establishing the "good moral character" necessary for naturalization. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's complaint, challenging DHS's denial of his application for naturalization. The court held that accomplice liability under the Washington statute is no broader than under the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, and the Washington statute is no broader than the federal Act regarding "administering" a controlled substance. View "Bourtzakis v. U.S. Attorney General" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of petitioner's 28 U.S.C. 2254 federal habeas corpus petition challenging his convictions for first-degree murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Applying de novo review, the court held that petitioner's trial counsel did not provide ineffective assistance by failing to investigate and present available evidence that his relationship with the victim was loving and respectful and that he did not "live off" her, because the evidence at issue was repetitious; even assuming that counsel provided ineffective assistance, petitioner failed to show prejudice; and although petitioner's claim was procedurally defaulted, the court held that the Florida Supreme Court's decision denying his Brady claim was not based on an unreasonable determination of the facts and was not contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. View "Riechmann v. Florida Department of Corrections" on Justia Law