Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
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The Fifth Circuit affirmed defendant's sentence, issued by the district court on remand, after he pleaded guilty to possession with the intent to distribute cocaine base. The court concluded that the district court's order, as amended, complied with the court's mandate, including the spirit of it as embodied by United States v. Evbuomwan, 992 F.2d 70, 74 (5th Cir. 1993). In this case, the district court made the three required findings for USSG 1B1.3 liability and unequivocally held defendant indirectly responsible for all of the $7,809.The court had remanded defendant's case to the district court to determine whether defendant was directly or indirectly responsible for the currency at issue, and the district court made a determination as to the latter. The court concluded that the district court's findings were plausible in light of the record, including the district court's finding that defendant was indirectly responsible for the entire amount of the currency seized from the residence at issue. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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After defendant was convicted of violating both the Controlled Substances Act and the Controlled Analogue Enforcement Act, the district court sentenced him to 120 years in prison. On appeal, the parties agree that the jury instructions regarding the Analogue Act were erroneous because they omitted an element of the offense. Defendant claimed that the error was structural.The Fifth Circuit concluded that there is more than enough to demonstrate defendant's knowledge of the chemical structure of the drugs he sold and the controlled substances they mimicked. The court rejected defendant's contention that United States v. Stanford, 823 F.3d 814 (5th Cir. 2016), permits the court to bypass the "thorough examination" of the "whole record" that is required in Neder v. United States, 527 U.S. 1 (1999). Rather, the court applied the Neder harmless-error standard on the same "functional, case-by-case" basis as usual, and concluded that a jury could not rationally find that the Government failed to prove the knowledge requirement in McFadden v. United States, 576 U.S. 186, 188–89 (2015). Therefore, the court concluded that the omitted element in defendant's jury instruction was harmless. The court rejected defendant's remaining arguments on appeal. View "United States v. Muhammad" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's second denial of plaintiff's motion for compassionate release based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. In this case, the district court's initial denial was correct where plaintiff had failed to exhaust because the requisite 30-day period has not yet lapsed; only after that initial denial did he satisfy the exhaustion requirement; and instead of filing a new motion upon exhaustion, he filed a motion for reconsideration. The court concluded that plaintiff could not cure his exhaustion defect after the district court's initial denial and then rely on that cured defect as a justification for reconsideration. The court explained that an intervening change in circumstance—such as exhausting previously unexhausted administrative remedies—is not a proper basis for a motion for reconsideration. View "United States v. Garrett" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit granted the government's petition for panel rehearing, withdrew its prior opinion, and substituted the following opinion. The court denied defendants' petitions for panel rehearing and for rehearing en banc.Defendants McClaren, Keelen, Fortia, Scott, and Allen were convicted of numerous crimes related to their participation in a New Orleans street gang. The court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion to sever McClaren and Scott's trials; the district court did not clearly err in its Batson determinations; the court rejected challenges to co-conspirator testimony; the evidence was sufficient to support Allen, Fortia, and Keelan's convictions for RICO conspiracy under 18 U.S.C. 1962(d); the evidence was sufficient to support Fortia, Keelen, and Allen's VICAR convictions under 18 U.S.C. 1959(a)(3) and 1959(a)(1); the evidence was sufficient to support Fortia, Keelen, McClaren, and Scott's conviction for engaging in a drug-trafficking conspiracy; the evidence was sufficient to support Fortia's ratification of the drug and RICO conspiracies; and the evidence was sufficient to support Keelen, McClaren, Scott, and Fortia's convictions for conspiracy to sell 280 grams or more of crack. However, the court vacated Fortia's sentence for drug-trafficking conspiracy and remanded for resentencing.The court concluded that it was plain error to permit the jury to convict defendants under 18 U.S.C. 924 and reversed Allen, Fortia, and Keelen's firearms convictions accordingly. Because a RICO violation is not a permissible predicate offense for a subsection (c) violation, the court also reversed Keelen's conviction under 18 U.S.C. 924(j); the evidence was sufficient to support McClaren and Scott's convictions for conspiracy to possess firearms; and defendants are not entitled to a new trial because of the admission and use of the plea agreement documents. The court affirmed the district court's denial of defendants' motion for a new trial, and affirmed Scott and McClaren's sentences. View "United States v. McClaren" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of defendant's motion to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. 2255 because the motion was time-barred by the one-year limitations period in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The court concluded that defendant is not entitled to equitable tolling or recharacterization on his pro se filings. The court found United States v. Riggs, 314 F.3d 796, 799 (5th Cir. 2002), controlling where the record showed that defendant's counsel erroneously told defendant that he had not missed the deadline. Furthermore, even if defendant were entitled to have his pro se Johnson motion recharacterized as a section 2255 motion, his current arguments alleging prosecutorial conflict of interest do not relate back to his Johnson filing under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c). View "United States v. Cardenas" on Justia Law

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On remand from the Supreme Court, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment as reformed to reflect that defendant was convicted and sentenced under 8 U.S.C. 1326(b)(1).Defendant pleaded guilty of illegally reentering the United States after having been convicted of an aggravated felony, in violation of 8 U.S.C. 1326(b)(2), and was sentenced to 36 months in prison. While his certiorari petition was pending, the Supreme Court decided Borden v. United States, 141 S. Ct. 1817, 1821-22 (2021), which held that a crime capable of commission with a "less culpable mental state than purpose or knowledge," such as "recklessness," cannot qualify as a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. 924(e). The Court then granted defendant's petition, vacated the Fifth Circuit's judgment, and remanded. On remand, the parties agree that, in light of Borden, defendant should not have been sentenced under section 1326(b)(2) because Texas family violence assault can be committed recklessly. Both parties agree that defendant's conviction falls within 8 U.S.C. 1326(b)(1), which covers illegal reentry after conviction on three or more qualifying misdemeanors or a nonaggravated felony. The Fifth Circuit agreed and concluded that reformation without remand is appropriate in this case. View "United States v. Olvera-Martinez" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit vacated defendant's sentence imposed after he pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy charge. In this case, authorities discovered cocaine and other drugs in the back of defendant's tobacco shop, as well as $12,424 in cash, which the authorities treated as proceeds from cocaine transactions rather than legitimate tobacco sales or to any of the other various drugs found in the shop. This resulted in a higher recommended sentencing range than defendant would have otherwise received. Therefore, the court concluded that it was clear error to treat all of the cash as cocaine proceeds and the error was not harmless. The court explained that, although the district court sentenced defendant well below the Guidelines range calculated by Probation, it did not indicate that it would have imposed the same sentence even if it erred in treating all the seized cash as drug proceeds. The court remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Sandoval Martinez" on Justia Law

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After defendant pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute cocaine and methamphetamine, the district court sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment and a 5-year term of supervised release. The written judgment listed ten statutorily mandated conditions of supervised release, as well as seventeen conditions from a district-wide standing order that the district court did not mention at sentencing.The parties agree that the district court's judgment conflicts with the Fifth Circuit's decision in United States v. Diggles, 957 F.3d 551, 559 (5th Cir. 2020) (en banc). Diggles held that supervised-release conditions imposed by statute need not be pronounced orally at sentencing because any objection to them would be futile, but that discretionary conditions must be orally pronounced in the defendant’s presence at sentencing so that he has an opportunity to object. The court agreed with the parties that defendant did not have an opportunity to object to the seventeen conditions mentioned in the district court's standing order but unmentioned at sentencing. The court concluded that limited remand would be appropriate, granted the government's motion to do so, and denied as moot the government's alternative unopposed motion for extension to file its brief upon the denial of remand. View "United States v. Braddy" on Justia Law

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Ward pled guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine. In February 2018, the district court sentenced Ward to 200 months of imprisonment. Ward unsuccessfully sought postconviction relief. In March 2020, through counsel, Ward sent a request for compassionate release to the warden, claiming that her kidney failure, other medical problems, and vulnerability to COVID-19 constituted an extraordinary and compelling reason for a sentence reduction. In May 2020, the Bureau of Prisons denied her request because Ward’s “medical condition has not been determined to be terminal within eighteen months nor end of life trajectory.”In July 2020, after exhausting her administrative remedies, Ward sought relief under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A), arguing that compassionate release would be consistent with Sentencing Guideline 1B1.13 and that the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors favor a reduction. Ward filed her medical records, and an expert’s report that her kidney disease put her “at higher risk for developing severe illness, kidney failure, or death if she becomes infected with the coronavirus.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed the denial of Ward’s motion. The district court did not abuse its discretion by denying Ward’s motion based on arguments not advanced by the government. Motions for compassionate release are inherently discretionary. The district court had the authority to consider Section 3553(a)'s sentencing factors. View "Ward v. United States" on Justia Law

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In this consolidated civil rights action, plaintiffs filed suit alleging that defendant violated their Fourth Amendment rights by using false statements to secure a search warrant. The case arises out of a criminal investigation into plaintiffs by detectives of the Williamson County Sheriff's Office.The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of defendant's motion for qualified immunity and concluded that defendant is entitled to summary judgment on plaintiffs' Franks claims as there was no constitutional violation. Even after setting aside the allegedly false statements at issue, the court concluded that there are similar facts set forth in the affidavit that establish probable cause to search the residence. Therefore, the court found that, with the allegedly false statements excised, the affidavit's remaining content is enough to establish probable cause. View "Davis v. Hodgkiss" on Justia Law