Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
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In 1998, Defendant pleaded guilty of attempted sexual assault of a minor in Colorado. In 2013, Defendant moved to Texas. In 2019, law enforcement discovered that Defendant was not registered as a sex offender in Texas and arrested him. Defendant pleaded guilty of failing to register as required by the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”), a crime under 18 U.S.C. Section 2250(a). He completed his term of imprisonment but violated the terms of his supervised release twice and is serving an 11-month revocation sentence. Defendant claims that his guilty plea for failing to register as a sex offender was insufficient as a matter of law because in 2019 he did not have an obligation to register as a sex offender.   The Fifth Circuit agreed with Defendant and vacated the conviction. The court explained that it is hard to deny that Defendant would not have pleaded guilty if he had correctly understood the tier of his predicate sex offense. Similarly, the district court would likely not have accepted the guilty plea if it had known Defendant had failed to satisfy the first element of the crime Further, affirming Defendant’s conviction would undermine the integrity of judicial proceedings by permitting the continued punishment of a man who is not guilty of the crime charged. View "USA v. Navarro" on Justia Law

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Defendant was indicted for illegally reentering the United States, a violation of 8 U.S.C. Section 1326. He unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the indictment on equal protection grounds. After a bench trial on stipulated facts, the district court sentenced him to 30 months imprisonment and three years supervised release. On appeal, Defendant argues that Section 1326 violates the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection principles. As for his sentence, he asserts that the district court (1) failed to consider sentencing disparities, (2) improperly considered the timing of an appeal in sentencing him to three years of supervised release, and (3) failed to consider the Sentencing Guidelines’ policy on supervised release for deportable defendants.   The Fifth Circuit agreed that the district court abused its discretion by considering the appeal clock in determining the appropriate term of supervised release. Accordingly, the court vacated that part of Defendant’s sentence and remanded for reconsideration of the supervised-release term. The court otherwise affirmed Defendant’s conviction and sentence. The court found that the district court imposed three years of supervised release solely out of fear that a lower sentence would moot an appeal. The timing of an appeal is not a factor that courts are tasked with considering in imposing supervised release. Such a consideration is also irrelevant because Defendant could appeal his conviction even after his sentence ends. The district court abused its discretion by basing the term of supervised release on the irrelevant timing for an appeal. View "USA v. Barcenas-Rumualdo" on Justia Law

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Defendant is a paraplegic 43-year-old whose right leg was also amputated after complications from the 2013 gunshot wound that left him paralyzed. At the time of his arrest in August 2018, police found Rollins septic and malnourished, lying in his bodily wastes, though with five firearms around him in reach. In September 2019, Defendant moved for pretrial release, alleging that his brother could care for him at home. In January 2022, Defendant moved for compassionate release under the First Step Act. In March 2022, the district court denied Defendant motion for compassionate release, though noting Defendant’s condition was “dire.”   The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that although the district court assessed Defendant’s medical situation as “dire,” the court never affirmatively stated that it was an extraordinary and compelling reason for compassionate release. The court reasoned that the district court sufficiently stated its reasons for denying compassionate release and did not clearly err in assessing the evidence when weighing the Section 3553(a)sentencing factors. The court made specific factual findings adequately articulating the primary reason for the denial of relief. Further, the court noted that it is not the court’s place to question the reasonable judgment of the district court in assessing the Section 3353(a) factors. View "USA v. Rollins" on Justia Law

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Defendant is serving a federal sentence of 240 months’ imprisonment for conspiring to possess and distribute methamphetamine and hydrocodone. Since July 2020, Defendant has filed three motions for compassionate release. The district court rejected Defendant’s first motion because he had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, and denied Defendant’s second motion on the merits on November 18, 2020. More than a year later, Defendant filed a third motion for compassionate release. The district court denied the third motion “for the same reasons stated in” its November 18, 2020 order. Defendant now appeals the district court’s order denying his third motion.   The Fifth Circuit the district court’s order denying Defendant’s motion for compassionate release and remanded for reconsideration. The court explained that while Defendant’s s third compassionate-release motion may have little chance of success, judges have an obligation to say enough that the public can be confident that cases are decided in a reasoned way. Here, since the district court’s original order did not explain how it balanced the Section 3553(a) factors or its specific factual conclusions as to any of those factors, it is impossible to tell how the district court would have considered this new information. View "USA v. Handlon" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted of numerous wire fraud and money-laundering charges arising from a fraudulent scheme to cause the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay over $71 million in GI-Bill funding to his trade school. Defendant raised several challenges to his convictions and his sentence.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed in nearly all respects, except that it vacated the forfeiture order and remanded it for further proceedings. The court held that Defendant fails to show the evidence was insufficient to allow a rational jury to convict him on the money-laundering counts. Further, the court concluded that conclude that the indictment was not faulty and the district court did not err in declining to order a bill of particulars.   Moreover, the court explained that illegally provided services that could have “hypothetically” been provided in a “legal manner”—like Defendant’s operation of the school—implicate the second definition of proceeds under Section 981(a)(2)(B), under which a defendant may deduct “the direct costs incurred in providing the goods or services.” The focus of any Section 981(a)(2) analysis is the underlying criminal conduct, not the crime itself.   That subsection further provides that Defendant “shall have the burden of proof with respect to the issue of direct costs” and also that those costs “shall not include any part of the overhead expenses of the entity providing the goods and services, or any part of the income taxes paid by the entity.” Therefore the court remanded for determining whether Defendant can prove any offset under the terms of Section 981(a)(2)(B). View "USA v. Davis" on Justia Law

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Defendants operated a methamphetamine operation in Houston, occasionally distributing the drugs to New Orleans. Both Defendants were arrested and charged with various federal drug charges. Upon their arrest, Defendants agreed to provide information to law enforcement in exchange for the government's agreement not to use any of their statements throughout the proceeding. However, the agreement exempted anything related to a crime of violence. Subsequent investigations put Defendants at the center of a homicide investigation, and they eventually admitted to disposing of a body. For the drug offenses, the court sentenced Defendants to the statutory maximum of 240 months. The district court found that Defendants violated their agreement by failing to initially disclose information related to the homicide. Defendants appealed the use of the information they provided in the proffer.The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The evidence that eventually came out related to the homicide was related to the drug trafficking charges. Thus, the harm that stemmed from their conduct was properly considered at trial. View "USA v. Cantu-Cox" on Justia Law

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Defendants operated a methamphetamine operation in Houston, occasionally distributing the drugs to New Orleans. Both Defendants were arrested and charged with various federal drug charges. Upon their arrest, Defendants agreed to provide information to law enforcement in exchange for the government's agreement not to use any of their statements throughout the proceeding. However, the agreement exempted anything related to a crime of violence. Subsequent investigations put Defendants at the center of a homicide investigation, and they eventually admitted to disposing of a body. For the drug offenses, the court sentenced Defendants to the statutory maximum of 240 months. The district court found that Defendants violated their agreement by failing to initially disclose information related to the homicide. Defendants appealed the use of the information they provided in the proffer.The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The evidence that eventually came out related to the homicide was related to the drug trafficking charges. Thus, the harm that stemmed from their conduct was properly considered at trial. View "USA v. Cantu-Cox" on Justia Law

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A district court convicted Defendant of kidnapping and racketeering following a bench trial. Defendant appealed  his sentence and racketeering conviction, arguing that the district court lacked substantial evidence to convict him and clearly erred by failing to apply a mitigating role adjustment.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding that Defendant failed to show that the district court lacked evidence to conclude that he committed a crime of violence with intent to further a drug trafficking enterprise, and he does not demonstrate that the district court erred in its sentencing calculation for kidnapping. The court explained that viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, there are sufficient facts to justify the trial judge’s conclusion that Defendant committed the kidnapping with the intent to further drug trafficking activity. Defendant’s reference to a partnership with a known drug dealer in the Dallas area, his proximity to locations known for drug dealing, and his actions on behalf of the drug dealer during the kidnapping support reasonable inferences that Defendant acted to further drug dealing activities.   Furthermore, the government’s evidence provides little basis for Defendant to argue that he was “substantially less culpable than the average participant” in the kidnapping given that he picked the victim up from the street, transported him to the apartment, took part in the violence, and pursued him afterward. The district court did not err by declining to apply the mitigating role adjustment. View "USA v. Lott" on Justia Law

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Defendant challenged the district court's order that he remain detained pending trial for federal narcotics and weapons charges. Defendant conceded that there was a rebuttable presumption that no condition or combination of conditions will reasonably assure his appearance at trial and the safety of the community.Applying the factors set forth in sec. 3142, the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Primarily, the court considered the first and fourth factors, which included the amount of drugs in question and the risk of future dangerousness. The court held that the third factor, related to whether Defendant was a flight risk, was unnecessary to support the district court's determination. View "USA v. Flores" on Justia Law

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Defendant challenges two conditions of his sentence, 1.) that he refrain from excessive alcohol consumption, and 2.) that he take all mental-health medications that are prescribed by his treating physician. The government conceded that condition 1 should be struck because it was not orally pronounced by the district court. However, the Fifth Circuit rejected the government's claim that the district court's general discussion of the importance of mental health treatment was sufficient to meet the notice requirement. Thus, the court struck both conditions. View "USA v. Prado" on Justia Law