Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
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The Eleventh Circuit held that the term "sexual activity" in USSG 2422(b) does not require interpersonal physical contact. In this case, defendant's conduct with respect to the nine-year old victim—including sending her a photo of his penis and asking her for naked pictures—constituted "sexual activity" because it was done for the purpose of sexual gratification. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's ruling in this respect.However, the court vacated the application of the five-level enhancement under USSG 2G2.2(b)(5) and set aside defendant's sentence because the district court did not determine, as required by section 2422(b), whether the "sexual activity" was conduct "for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense." On remand, the court instructed the district court to rule on that issue after hearing from the parties, and after doing so shall resentence defendant. View "United States v. Dominguez" on Justia Law

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Defendant, who was initially sentenced for crack-related crimes to a term of "life imprisonment without release," moved to modify his sentence under the First Step Act and 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(B). The district court granted the motion to reduce his prison term, but also concluded that the First Step Act required it to impose an eight-year term of supervised release.The Eleventh Circuit held that the First Step Act is self-contained and self-executing, and that a motion brought under that Act need not be paired with a request for relief under section 3582(c)(1)(B). The court also concluded that a district court has the authority under the First Step Act to impose a new term of supervised release on a First Step Act movant, provided that it reduces the movant's overall sentence. In this case, the court rejected defendant's contention that the district court exceeded its statutory authority under the First Step Act when it included the release term in his modified sentence. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's judgment. View "United States v. Edwards" on Justia Law

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Defendant, a corrupt former police officer who was sentenced to prison for running drugs and guns, filed a motion seeking a reduction in his sentence under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A). The district court denied the motion based on the Sentencing Commission's policy statement found at USSG 1B1.13.The Eleventh Circuit affirmed and concluded that section 1B1.13 is an applicable policy statement for all section 3582(c)(1)(A) motions, and Application Note 1(D) does not grant discretion to courts to develop "other reasons" that might justify a reduction in a defendant's sentence. In this case, because defendant's motion does not fall within any of the reasons that section 1B1.13 identifies as "extraordinary and compelling," the district court correctly denied his motion for a reduction of his sentence. View "United States v. Bryant" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of petitioner's 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The court concluded that the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals' (CCA) denial of petitioner's guilt-phase ineffective assistance claim was not an unreasonable determination of the facts or contrary to clearly established law; federal law does not clearly establish that Alabama's hearsay rules create a due process violation; and the CCA's determination that the prosecution did not shift the burden of proof to petitioner was neither unreasonable nor contrary to clearly established law.In this case, the Rule 32 court's determinations that petitioner's trial counsel's performance was not deficient, and that petitioner could not show prejudice, were not unreasonable. Furthermore, Alabama's application of its hearsay rules to exclude testimony at petitioner's state habeas evidentiary hearing did not violate his due process rights under clearly established federal law. Finally, the prosecutor's comments appeared to concern the failure of the defense to counter the evidence presented by the government, not petitioner's failure to show evidence of his innocence. View "Broadnax v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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The en banc court vacated defendant's convictions, concluding that the district court abused its discretion in dismissing a juror and the removal violated defendant's right under the Sixth Amendment to a unanimous jury verdict. The district court removed a juror who expressed, after the start of deliberations, that the Holy Spirit told him that defendant was not guilty on all charges, and concluded that the juror's statements about receiving divine guidance were categorically disqualifying.The en banc court concluded that the record establishes a substantial possibility that the juror was rendering proper jury service. The en banc court explained that a rigorous standard protects the rights of the accused to a unanimous jury verdict. Furthermore, there was a substantial possibility that the juror was fulfilling his duty to render a verdict based on the evidence and the law. In this case, the juror expressed a clear understanding of proper jury service; confirmed that understanding when he recounted to the judge the traditional role of a juror; and never gave any indication that he was refusing to consider the evidence or follow the law. Nor did the juror express any lack of faith in the justice system or admit he could not be fair. The record establishes that the juror repeatedly referred to the evidence in explaining his deliberative process, and his assurances were supported by other jurors. Accordingly, the en banc court remanded for a new trial. View "United States v. Brown" on Justia Law

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After a law enforcement reverse sting operation caught petitioner in the midst of an effort to commit armed robbery of a house he believed held the cocaine stash of a Colombian drug cartel, a jury convicted petitioner of both conspiring to use and using a firearm during a crime of violence or drug trafficking offense in violation of 18 U.S.C. 924(o) and 924(c).The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of petitioner's 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion collaterally attacking his convictions. Petitioner claims that under United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), the only crime-of-violence offense that the jury could have relied on to predicate the challenged convictions -- conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery -- is not actually a crime of violence. However, the court concluded that, even though conspiracy commit Hobbs Act robbery is not a crime of violence, his section 2255 motion still fails. The court explained that this is because in addition to the Hobbs Act conspiracy, the district court instructed the jury that it could predicate the challenged section 924(c) and (o) convictions on two related drug trafficking offenses, attempt and conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute. Therefore, given the facts and circumstances presented at trial, the jury could not have relied on the invalid Hobbs Act conspiracy predicate without also relying on the drug trafficking offenses, each of which remain valid predicates. View "Foster v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress evidence of firearms found in plain view during the search of a house. The court concluded that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop defendant's car and to conduct an investigatory Terry stop under the totality of the circumstances. In this case, the officers knew that a social security number associated with a fugitive had been used recently to connect a utility service at the house; they had a specific, articulable, objective basis for believing that the fugitive could be found at that location; and when the officers observed defendant leaving the house, it was in the pre-dawn hours, which gave the officers an objective, reasonable reasonable suspicion that any man leaving the house was either the fugitive, or as a resident of the house, may have known the fugitive and his whereabouts. The court also concluded that the officers did not unlawfully extend the stop, and that defendant voluntarily consented to the officers' search of the residence. View "United States v. Gonzalez-Zea" on Justia Law

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Appellants Lee, Bennett, and the law firm challenge the district court's orders requiring the firm to pay $15,000 into the court's registry and directing that $7,000 of those funds be paid to the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) fund to cover the fees and expenses of defendants' court-appointed counsel. In this case, shortly after defendants were arraigned, the district court disqualified the attorneys and the law firm from representing any of the defendants based upon an actual or potential conflict of interest. The law firm had already collected a total of $21,000 from defendants.The Eleventh Circuit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction appellants' challenge to the district court's determination that funds were available to defendants. The court explained that this argument does not fit within the narrow exception that permits the court to review a district court's compliance with 18 U.S.C. 3006A's procedures. The court affirmed in all other respects. The court concluded that there was no error in the district court sua sponte raising the question of whether a portion of the fees paid to appellants were available for payment from or on behalf of defendants; the district court performed a thoroughly appropriate inquiry before entering its order directing the payment of $15,000 into the court's registry; and appellants were able to seek further review in the district court when they filed objections to the magistrate judge's order. Even if the court assumed that the district court failed to afford appellants adequate notice and opportunity to be heard before directing them to pay money into the court's registry, the error was harmless. Finally, the district court committed no procedural error based on the timing of its order directing appellants to pay funds into the court's registry. View "United States v. Pacheo-Romero" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed defendant's 70 month sentence imposed after he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. The court concluded that, even if it accepted defendant's contention that the district court focused almost exclusively on his criminal history when crafting his sentence, the court cannot conclude that the district court gave that history an unreasonable amount of weight. In this case, when defendant was sentenced as a felon in possession of a firearm, he had already been convicted of at least five separate violent crimes. Furthermore, defendant's current conviction for a firearm offense came coupled with an admission that he had committed another firearm offense less than a year earlier. Therefore, defendant's sentence was not unreasonable. View "United States v. Riley" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of petitioner's 28 U.S.C. 2254 habeas corpus petition in a case where petitioner was convicted of two murders and sentenced to death.The court concluded that petitioner's trial attorneys were not prejudicially ineffective by failing to further investigate and present to the jury evidence of his mental illness, cognitive deficits, and brain damage, and by failing to investigate and present evidence of additional mitigating family background and social history. The court concluded that the state court's rejection of these claims was neither contrary to nor an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court law, nor was it based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented. The court was similarly unpersuaded regarding petitioner's procedural and substantive claims of incompetency to stand trial. Furthermore, petitioner's due process rights were not violated when he was required to wear a stun belt at trial. The court rejected petitioner's several claims of prosecutorial misconduct. Finally, the court concluded that it was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established law for the Georgia Supreme Court to have concluded, on direct review, that the prosecutor's violation of petitioner's Fifth Amendment rights by commenting on his failure to testify was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. View "Raheem v. GDCP Warden" on Justia Law