Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
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An Alabama inmate, Jamie Mills, who was scheduled for execution on May 30, 2024, for committing two murders in 2004, appealed the denial of his motion for a preliminary injunction. Mills claimed that the State's practice of restraining its condemned prisoners on a gurney before execution would violate his constitutional rights to access the courts, to counsel, to due process, and against cruel and unusual punishment.Mills's case had been reviewed by multiple courts. His death sentence was affirmed by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Supreme Court of Alabama. The Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari. Mills also sought postconviction relief under Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 32, which was denied by the trial court and affirmed by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and Supreme Court of Alabama. His federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus was denied by the district court in 2020. This Court denied a certificate of appealability in 2021, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari in 2022.The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied Mills's motion for a stay of execution. The court found that Mills had not established that he was substantially likely to succeed on the merits of his appeal or that the equities favor a stay of execution at this late stage. The court rejected Mills's arguments that he was likely to succeed on the merits of his claims under the Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The court also found that Mills's delay in seeking a preliminary injunction and a stay was "unnecessary and inexcusable," and that other equities weighed against a stay. View "Mills v. Hamm" on Justia Law

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Jamie Mills, an Alabama inmate, was convicted of the capital murders of Floyd and Vera Hill in 2007 and sentenced to death. Mills and his common-law wife, JoAnn, had plotted to rob the Hills, and Mills was found to have executed the Hills with a machete, tire tool, and ball-peen hammer. JoAnn testified against Mills at his trial and later pleaded guilty to murder, receiving a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. Mills moved for a new trial, arguing that JoAnn had perjured herself by denying that she testified against him to procure leniency for herself. The trial court denied the motion, and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the decision. Mills also unsuccessfully sought post-conviction relief under Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.Mills petitioned the district court for a writ of habeas corpus in 2017, which was denied in 2020. His motion for a certificate of appealability was denied, and the Supreme Court denied his petition for a writ of certiorari in 2022. In 2024, Mills filed a successive motion under Rule 32 in state court, offering an affidavit by JoAnn Mills’s attorney, Tony Glenn, alleging that JoAnn had been offered a plea deal in exchange for her testimony at Mills's trial. Mills also moved for relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60, arguing that newly discovered evidence established that the district attorney had engaged in misconduct by falsely stating to the trial court that there was no deal with JoAnn. The district court denied relief on each ground.The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied Mills's application for a certificate of appealability and his motion to stay his execution. The court found that no reasonable jurist could conclude that the district court abused its discretion in denying Mills's motion for relief under Rule 60(b)(2), Rule 60(b)(3) and (d)(3), and Rule 60(b)(6). The court also found that Mills's motion for Rule 60(b)(6) relief was not timely and that no reasonable jurist would question the denial on the merits as supported by the record. View "Mills v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Jonathan Guerra Blanco was charged with attempting to provide material support to ISIS, a designated foreign terrorist organization. He pled guilty and agreed to the government’s factual proffer. Guerra ran two unofficial ISIS media networks primarily directed at Spanish speakers, producing and disseminating ISIS propaganda, recruiting materials, and instructional guides for committing acts of terror. He was arrested in Miami in September 2020.Guerra appealed his 192-month sentence, contending that the government improperly used evidence obtained from testimony he had provided pursuant to a proffer agreement and that the district court erred in not holding an evidentiary hearing on the matter. He also challenged the application of a 12-point sentencing enhancement for promoting a federal crime of terrorism and asserted that the district court erred by not applying a 3-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility from his maximum statutory sentence of 240 months.The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that the government's use of the video threatening the assassination of a Spanish judge, with English subtitles inserted by Guerra, did not constitute a breach of the proffer agreement. The court also upheld the application of the terrorism enhancement, finding that Guerra's conduct was "calculated to influence the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion." Lastly, the court found no abuse of discretion with respect to the district court's application of the 3-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility. View "USA v. Blanco" on Justia Law

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In 2021, Carmelo Etienne threatened violence against a federal magistrate judge, a courtroom deputy, and other courthouse employees via a phone call to a federal courthouse. He later pleaded nolo contendere to threatening to assault and murder a federal magistrate judge and a courtroom deputy. The district court imposed a time-served sentence and three years of supervised release. As special conditions of that release, the district court ordered Etienne to make financial disclosures to the probation office and prohibited him from visiting certain federal courthouses and from calling the judges’ chambers or court facilities. Etienne challenged both conditions on appeal.Previously, the district court had overruled Etienne's objection to the stay-away order, which he argued unduly burdened his right to access the federal courts. He did not object to the financial disclosure condition.The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that it was not plain error to impose the financial disclosure condition. The court also found that the stay-away order was not vague or overbroad and did not unduly burden Etienne’s right to access the federal courts. The court noted that the stay-away order was narrowly tailored to address Etienne’s serious criminal conduct and did not create an absolute bar on Etienne’s rights. View "USA v. Etienne" on Justia Law

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The case involves Marken Leger, a Haitian citizen who has lived in the United States as an asylee since 2000. In 2009, Leger pleaded no contest to a charge of lewd and lascivious battery, in violation of Florida Statute § 800.04(4). In 2013 and 2018, Leger pleaded no contest to two other offenses, both for the possession of marijuana, in violation of Florida Statute § 893.13(6)(b). The government initiated removal proceedings against him in 2019, alleging that his convictions made him removable under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).The immigration judge concluded that Leger was removable, finding that his marijuana possession convictions constituted controlled substance offenses under the INA and that his conviction under Florida Statute § 800.04(4) was an aggravated felony. Leger appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which affirmed the immigration judge’s decision.In the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, the court held that Leger's marijuana possession convictions did not constitute controlled substance offenses as defined under federal law, and thus, the BIA erred in determining that Leger was subject to removal on these grounds. The court also held that Leger's conviction under Florida Statute § 800.04(4) did not constitute the sexual abuse of a minor and was not an aggravated felony under the INA. The court vacated the BIA's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Marken Leger v. U.S. Attorney General" on Justia Law

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Derrick Morley was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five hundred grams or more of cocaine, and possession with intent to distribute five hundred grams or more of cocaine. Morley was sentenced to 60 months’ imprisonment for each count, to be served concurrently. He appealed his convictions and sentence, arguing that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence, the trial evidence was insufficient to support his convictions, the district court erred in providing a deliberate ignorance jury instruction, and the district court erred in denying him a safety valve sentence reduction.The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida denied Morley's motion to suppress the cocaine that was taken from his vehicle without a warrant. The court found that there was probable cause to believe Morley’s car contained contraband or evidence of a crime and that apparent authority existed under the circumstances. Morley proceeded to a four-day jury trial and was found guilty as charged in the indictment. The district court denied Morley's motion for a judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict.The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed Morley’s convictions and sentence. The court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the automobile exception applied, allowing for a warrantless search of Morley's car. The court also found that the trial evidence was sufficient to support Morley's convictions and that the district court did not err in providing a deliberate ignorance jury instruction. Finally, the court affirmed the district court's denial of Morley's request for a reduced sentence, finding that Morley was ineligible for the safety valve reduction in light of a recent Supreme Court decision. View "USA v. Morley" on Justia Law

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B'Quan Ferguson was convicted for possession of a firearm by a felon, a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The conviction followed an incident where local police officers in Savannah, Georgia, recognized Ferguson as the subject of an ongoing investigation. The officers found a pistol in Ferguson's vehicle, and a DNA test confirmed that Ferguson's DNA was present on the pistol. Ferguson was subsequently charged with one count of possession of a firearm by a felon.Previously, Ferguson had been convicted under Georgia law for threatening physical harm to a witness, which was considered a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). This prior conviction led to Ferguson being classified as an armed career criminal, which mandated a minimum sentence of 15 years. Ferguson objected to this classification, arguing that his Georgia conviction for threatening a witness did not qualify as a violent felony for ACCA enhancement purposes. The district court overruled Ferguson's objection and sentenced him to 180 months' imprisonment.On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, Ferguson argued that his prior Georgia conviction did not qualify as a "violent felony" under ACCA. The court disagreed, concluding that the Georgia statute under which Ferguson was convicted was divisible and that a conviction for threatening physical harm under the statute qualifies as a violent felony under ACCA. The court affirmed the district court's judgment, upholding Ferguson's sentence. View "USA v. Ferguson" on Justia Law

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Sanchez Hicks, a convicted felon, was indicted on two counts of firearm possession. He pleaded guilty to both counts. At sentencing, it was undisputed that Hicks had two prior Georgia convictions for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The presentence investigation report recommended a base offense level of 24, citing U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(2), which applies when the defendant committed his firearm offense after two felony convictions for a “crime of violence” as defined in § 4B1.2(a), which includes “aggravated assault.” Hicks objected, arguing that his Georgia convictions were not “crimes of violence.” The district court overruled Hicks’s objection, citing a previous Eleventh Circuit ruling that a Georgia conviction for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon qualifies as a crime of violence.The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision. The court relied on its previous ruling in United States v. Morales-Alonso, which held that a Georgia conviction for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon qualifies as a “crime of violence” under U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2. The court rejected Hicks's argument that the Georgia offense requires a mens rea of only recklessness, whereas generic aggravated assault requires a mens rea of “extreme indifference to human life.” The court held that Morales-Alonso foreclosed Hicks’s claim, as it had already concluded that Georgia aggravated assault with a deadly weapon is not categorically broader than generic aggravated assault. Therefore, the court affirmed Hicks's 96-month total sentence. View "USA v. Hicks" on Justia Law

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The case involves Victor Hill, the former Sheriff of Clayton County, Georgia, who was convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 242 for using his position to deprive detainees in his custody of their constitutional rights. Hill ordered individual detainees, who were neither violent nor uncontrollable, into a restraint chair for at least four hours, with their hands cuffed behind their backs and without bathroom breaks. Each detainee suffered injuries, such as “open and bleeding” wounds, lasting scars, or nerve damage.Hill was convicted by a jury in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. He appealed his conviction to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, arguing that he lacked fair warning that his conduct was unconstitutional, that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction, and that the district court improperly handled allegations of juror misconduct.The Eleventh Circuit rejected Hill's arguments and affirmed his conviction. The court found that case law provided Hill with fair warning that his actions violated constitutional rights. The court also found that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's conclusion that Hill's conduct had no legitimate nonpunitive purpose, was willful, and caused the detainees’ injuries. Lastly, the court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in investigating and responding to alleged juror misconduct. View "United States v. Hill" on Justia Law

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The defendant, Jeffrey Boone, was charged with using a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing child pornography, distributing child pornography, and possessing child pornography. The minor in question was Boone's four-year-old daughter. Boone pleaded guilty to all three counts. The evidence against Boone included images and videos of his sexual abuse of his daughter, which he had shared via Kik Messenger. The FBI was alerted to Boone's activities by an online covert employee who had received the explicit images from Boone.Boone's case was heard in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida. The Presentence Investigation Report grouped Boone's three counts together and assigned a total offense level of 43, factoring in enhancements based on the victim's age and other offense characteristics. The report recommended a five-level increase due to Boone's pattern of activity involving prohibited sexual conduct. Boone did not object to the report. The district court imposed an 840-month sentence, comprised of consecutive terms of 360 months on Count 1 and 240 months each on Counts 2 and 3, followed by a lifetime of supervised release.Boone appealed his sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. He argued that the district court erred at sentencing by applying a pattern-of-activity enhancement and considering his military service as an aggravating rather than a mitigating factor. The Court of Appeals affirmed Boone's sentence, finding no procedural or substantive error in the district court's decision. The court noted that Boone had invited the error he was alleging by expressly agreeing to the application of the pattern-of-activity enhancement. The court also found that the district court had acted within its discretion in considering Boone's military service as an aggravating factor. View "United States v. Boone" on Justia Law