Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
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Danny Richard Rivers, an inmate in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, filed a second habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 while his first petition was still pending on appeal. The second petition challenged the same convictions as the first but added new claims. Rivers argued that these new claims arose after he was able to review his attorney-client file, which he had long requested and only received after a successful state bar grievance adjudication against his counsel. The district court deemed the second petition "successive" under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), which requires an applicant to first get authorization from the appropriate court of appeals for such a petition. The district court held that it lacked jurisdiction to entertain the petition without such authorization and transferred the matter to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.Rivers appealed the district court's transfer order, arguing that his second petition should have been construed as a motion to amend his first petition since it was still pending on appeal. He also contended that his claims should not have been considered successive because his counsel withheld his client file that would have allegedly exposed his ineffective assistance, and this information was not available to him when he filed his first petition.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit disagreed with Rivers' arguments. The court found that Rivers' second petition attacked the same conviction as his first petition and added several new claims that stemmed from the proceedings already at issue in his first petition. The court held that the fact that Rivers' later-obtained client file allegedly contained information that was not available to him when he filed his first petition did not excuse him from meeting the standards for seeking authorization under § 2244. The court also held that the timing of Rivers' second petition did not permit him to circumvent the requirements for filing successive petitions under § 2244. The court affirmed the district court's order transferring the matter to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for lack of jurisdiction. View "Rivers v. Lumpkin" on Justia Law

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Elden Don Brannan was living with his sister and her three children in Corpus Christi, Texas. In 2022, Brannan's sister called 911 to report that Brannan had assaulted her boyfriend and was threatening suicide. She informed the police that Brannan had a "pipe bomb" in his bedroom closet. The bomb squad removed the device and Brannan was arrested. He was later indicted by a grand jury for possessing an unregistered "destructive device" in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d). His sister testified that Brannan had built the device from disassembled fireworks. Brannan's defense was that the device was not an explosive but a "makeshift roman-candle or fountain firework" designed to emit a pyrotechnic display.Brannan was found guilty by a federal jury. He moved for acquittal, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to show he had designed the device as a weapon. These motions were denied. Brannan also requested the court to instruct the jury that to convict him under 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d), it had to find he had intentionally designed the device for use as a weapon. The court rejected this proposed instruction, reasoning that Brannan's intent to design the device as a weapon was not an element of the offense but an affirmative defense. The jury found Brannan guilty and he was sentenced to 24 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release.On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Brannan argued that the evidence was insufficient to convict him and that the jury instruction omitted an element of the offense. The court disagreed, affirming Brannan's conviction. The court held that under its binding precedent, the exception to § 5861(d) is an affirmative defense, not an element of the crime. Therefore, the government did not need to prove that the device was "designed for use as a weapon." The court also concluded that the district court did not err by following the circuit’s pattern instructions and declining to add "designed as a weapon" as an element of § 5861(d). View "United States v. Brannan" on Justia Law

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Courtney D. Clayton was indicted on one count of possession with intent to distribute heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine. As part of a three-month drug trafficking investigation, officers conducted video surveillance of Clayton's home and placed GPS tracking devices on two vehicles associated with him. Based on the surveillance and information from a reliable confidential informant, officers obtained search warrants for Clayton's home and one of his vehicles. However, before the warrants could be executed, officers observed burglars break into Clayton's home. Believing that evidence of drug trafficking may have been stolen, officers continued their investigation for another two weeks before seeking a new warrant for Clayton's residence. The officers did not renew their search warrant for the vehicle.The district court denied Clayton's motion to suppress evidence found in his vehicle and his incriminating statement to law enforcement. Clayton contended that the search warrant of the vehicle had become stale, and that officers did not have probable cause to arrest him. He also argued that the Government failed to show that officers advised him of his constitutional rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona. After the denial of his motion to suppress, Clayton pleaded guilty but preserved his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that the search of Clayton's vehicle was proper under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment, which allows a warrantless search of a readily mobile vehicle when law enforcement has probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime. The court also found that Clayton failed to properly invoke his Fifth Amendment right to silence, as his indication through body language that he did not wish to speak to officers did not constitute a "simple, unambiguous statement" invoking his right to remain silent. View "United States v. Clayton" on Justia Law

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A group of individuals, including D&T Partners LLC and ACET Global LLC, alleged that Baymark Partners Management LLC and others attempted to steal the assets and trade secrets of their e-commerce company through shell entities, corrupt lending practices, and a fraudulent bankruptcy. The plaintiffs claimed that Baymark had purchased D&T's assets and then defaulted on its payment obligations. According to the plaintiffs, Baymark replaced the company's management, caused the company to default on its loan payments, and transferred the company's assets to another entity, Windspeed Trading LLC. The plaintiffs alleged that this scheme violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).The case was initially heard in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. The district court dismissed all of the plaintiffs' claims with prejudice, finding that the plaintiffs were unable to plead a pattern of racketeering activity, a necessary element of a RICO claim.The case was then taken to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The appellate court agreed with the district court, holding that while the complaint alleges coordinated theft, it does not constitute a "pattern" of racketeering conduct sufficient to state a RICO claim. This is because the alleged victims were limited in number, and the scope and nature of the scheme was finite and focused on a singular objective. Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s judgment. View "D&T Partners v. Baymark Partners" on Justia Law

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In a case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the defendant, Clarence Santiago, appealed both his conviction and sentence related to drug trafficking and firearms charges. Santiago and his co-conspirators were selling marijuana from a hotel room when they were robbed at gunpoint by previous buyers, leading to a shootout. Santiago was apprehended and confessed to his involvement in the crime.Santiago pleaded guilty to four separate charges but later moved to withdraw his plea, arguing that the presentence investigation report recommended he be improperly punished for attempted first-degree murder. The district court sentenced Santiago to 360 months, a decision he appealed on multiple grounds.The Court of Appeals found no reversible error in Santiago's plea but held that the district court erred in calculating the guideline range for sentencing. The court noted that Santiago and his co-conspirators were under threat during the shootout, which may have been an act of self-defense rather than attempted murder.Given this, the Court of Appeals found that the district court committed clear error by applying an attempted-murder cross-reference without considering Santiago's potential self-defense. The court affirmed Santiago's conviction but vacated the sentence and remanded the case for resentencing. View "USA v. Santiago" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the conviction and sentence of defendant Vincent Marchetti, Jr., who was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit illegal remunerations in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. Marchetti was involved in a scheme wherein Vantari Genetics LLC, a medical laboratory, paid distributors to attract Medicare referrals to Vantari. Marchetti, who operated Advanced Life Sciences LLC, was one of the distributors and had a network of sub-distributors. The court found sufficient evidence that Marchetti was knowingly and actively participating in a scheme involving CodonDx, another entity, that violated the Anti-Kickback Statute. The court rejected Marchetti's challenges regarding the sufficiency of the evidence, the district court's failure to submit his theory of defense instruction, the court's alleged constructive amendment of the indictment, and the court's application of the sentencing guidelines. The court also dismissed his claim for a new trial based on cumulative error. View "USA v. Marchetti" on Justia Law

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In 2022, Richard Schorovsky pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). He had prior convictions in Texas for felony robbery, aggravated robbery, and burglary of a habitation. The district court determined these previous convictions were "violent felonies" committed on separate occasions, qualifying Schorovsky for sentence enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). He was sentenced to the ACCA’s mandatory minimum of 15 years of imprisonment and five years of supervised release. Schorovsky appealed, challenging his enhanced sentence and guilty plea.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court determined that the district court properly concluded that Schorovsky's previous convictions were committed on separate occasions, based on "Shepard-approved" documents, which included indictments and judgments for Schorovsky’s prior convictions. The court also ruled that Schorovsky's prior burglary-of-a-habitation conviction qualified as an ACCA predicate, as Texas Penal Code § 30.02(a) fits within the generic definition of burglary and thus qualifies as an ACCA violent felony. The court dismissed Schorovsky's argument that the district court violated his due process right to notice by finding that his burglary conviction was an ACCA violent felony, stating that Schorovsky was aware of and understood his ACCA enhancement. The court finally concluded that Schorovsky's guilty plea was knowing and voluntary, despite the district court advising him of incorrect minimum and maximum terms of imprisonment resulting from his plea. View "USA v. Schorovsky" on Justia Law

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Jacob Ray Owens was convicted for conspiring to possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of actual methamphetamine and was sentenced to 324 months in prison, followed by a five-year term of supervised release. Owens appealed his sentence, arguing that his trial and appellate counsel were ineffective for failing to challenge the purity of methamphetamine attributed to him. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision.Owens and a co-conspirator, Brian Edward Stowe, were involved in a drug trafficking operation. After Owens was arrested, he continued to work with Stowe to maintain their business. The methamphetamine attributed to Owens was based on the drugs seized during his arrest and those he transported with Stowe from Mexico. Owens's base offense level was 36, with a total offense level of 37 and a criminal history category of V, leading to his sentencing guideline range of 324 to 405 months.Owens challenged his sentence, arguing his counsel was ineffective for failing to challenge the purity of the methamphetamine attributed to him. However, the court held that Owens failed to show that he was prejudiced by his counsel's performance, noting that the district court could make plausible inferences based on the evidence at hand. The court noted that even if the objection were made, the district court would have adopted the same guideline range and imposed the same sentence. Therefore, Owens could not show a reasonable probability that the result would have been different if his counsel had objected or raised the argument on appeal. View "United States v. Owens" on Justia Law

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In a case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Ivan Cantu, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2001, sought to authorize the district court to consider a successive petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2244. He claimed a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and suppression of evidence by the state in violation of Brady v. Maryland. The Fifth Circuit denied his motion for authorization, holding that Cantu had failed to meet the requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(2)(B).The court found that Cantu failed to exercise due diligence to discover the evidence he was now relying on and that he failed to provide clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable factfinder would have found him guilty. The court also noted that Cantu's last-minute filing was an attempt at manipulation and did not serve the public interest or the interest of the victims in the timely enforcement of the sentence. Consequently, the court denied Cantu's motion for a stay of execution. View "In Re: Ivan Cantu" on Justia Law

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The case concerns an appeal by Andrew Ocanas Garza against his conviction and a 235-month sentence for drug trafficking and firearm possession. Garza argued that the court incorrectly used his 2016 felony drug offenses for sentencing enhancement, contending that the 2018 amendment to the Agricultural Improvement Act altered marijuana’s definition, potentially excluding the substance he was previously convicted for trafficking. He also claimed that the court erred by not suppressing an unMirandized statement he made about having a gun in his bedroom during the execution of a search warrant.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court's ruling. The Appeals Court held that Garza waived his right to challenge the admission of the Bedroom Gun statement by bringing it up during the trial. The Court also rejected Garza's argument concerning the sentencing enhancement based on his 2016 drug convictions. The Court applied the "backward-looking" test, which determines whether the prior convictions were felonies at the time of conviction and were final at the time of sentencing for the current crimes. The Court found that Garza's 2016 convictions met these criteria, making them applicable for sentencing enhancement. The Court also noted that even if the District Court had erred in applying the sentencing enhancement, the error was harmless, as the same sentence would have been imposed. View "United States v. Garza" on Justia Law