Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
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The Fifth Circuit vacated defendant's conviction for felony criminal contempt. The court first held that Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 42(a)(3) does not apply to this case because the particular conduct that led to defendant's contempt charge was his refusal to testify, rather than an instance of "disrespect toward or criticism of" Chief Judge Brown. Therefore, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying defendant's motion to recuse under 28 U.S.C. 455(a).In this case, the government concedes that an Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) made numerous improper remarks, but contends that defendant failed to show that the prosecutorial misconduct prejudiced him. The court held, however, that the magnitude of the misconduct was overwhelming; the district judge did little to intervene or offer cautionary instructions; and it is impossible to separate the AUSA's misconduct from the other evidence against defendant. Therefore, defendant has shown a constitutional error and that he is entitled to relief under any standard of review. View "United States v. Beaulieu" on Justia Law

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After finding that defendant violated three conditions of his release by assaulting and robbing another with a firearm, the district judge revoked defendant's supervised release. Defendant argued that the district court erred in considering the victim's out-of-court statements without specifically finding good cause to contravene defendant's right to confrontation.The Fifth Circuit held that the district court's failure to make a specific good cause finding is not plain error because it is neither clear nor obvious that a court is required to make such a finding where the defendant makes no hearsay or confrontation objection. Furthermore, because of the nature of the particular hearsay at issue, defendant cannot show that the district court's omission—were it a clear error—affected his substantial rights. View "United States v. McDowell" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed defendant's below-Guidelines sentence of 280 months in prison imposed after she pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. The court rejected defendant's argument that the district court coerced her into withdrawing objections to her presentence report by threatening to deny an acceptance-of-responsibility reduction where the district court treated withdrawal separately from acceptance and the district court did not pressure defendant into abandoning her objections by conveying before the hearing its tentative conclusion that her objections were without merit. Therefore, the court found no error, much less the clear or obvious mistake necessary to overcome plain error review. View "United States v. Angeles" on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed his 180 month sentence for conspiracy to possess methamphetamine with intent to distribute. The Fifth Circuit held that the district court did not clearly err by applying the reckless engagement sentencing enhancement pursuant to USSG 3C1.2.However, the court held that the district court clearly erred in refusing to grant a safety valve reduction. In this case, the district court misapprehended the legal standard by being under the impression that it lacked discretion to apply the reduction if the government was not satisfied that defendant met the requirements for safety valve relief. Rather, the question of whether defendant had satisfied 18 U.S.C. 3553(f)(5) is one for the district court. Even if the district court had applied the proper legal standard, the court held that the district court erred in its determination that defendant did not provide truthful information based on a case agent's mere speculation. View "United States v. Lima-Rivero" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Defendant, a former police officer, used his position and the police department's resources to orchestrate a murder.The Fifth Circuit denied defendant a certificate of appealability (COA) on his claim that he was deprived of his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel at his 1996 guilt-phase trial. The court held that no reasonable jurist could debate that defendant suffered no prejudice. The court also denied defendant a COA on his claim that his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial was compromised by the adverse impact of external influences and misconduct during his 1996 guilt-phase trial. In this case, defendant failed to point to any external influences in this COA briefing. Finally, the court denied defendant a COA on his claims that the government withheld key evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), because the Brady claims had no evidentiary basis and were merely defendant's conclusions and speculations. Because the court cannot issue a COA, the court has no power to say anything about defendant's request for an evidentiary hearing. View "United States v. Davis" on Justia Law

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Defendant and his wife were convicted of possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine. The district court granted defendant a new trial because the record does not show that he knew that the bags he removed from his house—and the bag his wife requested that he bring her—contained methamphetamine or any other controlled substance.The Fifth Circuit affirmed and held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting a new trial on the basis of insufficient evidence of knowledge. In this case, the evidence does not show that defendant ever laid eyes on the drugs themselves; the district court was not required to credit the wife's testimony in granting the motion for new trial; and the evidence only shows that defendant complied with his wife's request to bring her the bag containing the drugs but nothing more. View "United States v. Crittenden" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of defendants' motion to suppress evidence of credit card skimming found in a Toyota and a Volkswagen stopped at a driver's safety checkpoint. The court held that the troopers had the minimum level of objective justification to support a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity -- namely, human trafficking -- sufficient to justify prolonging the stop by inquiring further about where the Toyota occupants were going. During the justified extension, the court explained that more facts were discovered to support reasonable suspicion and, eventually, a search of the vehicles. View "United States v. Burgos-Coronado" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of a petition for habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2241. Petitioner claimed that he was improperly denied release to home confinement under the First Step Act's Elderly Offender Home Detention Program.The court liberally construed the petition as asserting a Bivens civil rights claim and held that Congress has vested the executive branch, not the judicial branch, with the power to decide which prisoners may participate in the Program. In this case, petitioner argued in the district court that defendant wrongly declined petitioner's request for participation in the Program based on a prior disciplinary proceeding for which he was sanctioned for "attempted escape." The court explained that petitioner's claim would have required the district court to assess his prior actions and make a determination as to whether those actions constituted an escape attempt. However, only defendant had authority to make that determination for purposes of petitioner's eligibility for the Program. The court stated that 34 U.S.C. 60541(g) does not give federal courts the power to do so. The court held that petitioner did not raise a due process argument involving his prior disciplinary proceedings in the district court and may not raise them for the first time on appeal. View "Melot v. Bergami" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit vacated defendant's 235 month sentence after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine. The court held that the district court procedurally erred by offering an inadequate explanation for its sentencing determination, which was an abuse of its discretion. The court need not address defendant's argument regarding substantive reasonableness. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Bostic" on Justia Law

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Defendant challenged two special conditions of his supervised release following the revocation of his first term of supervised release: first, a condition prohibiting possession of pornographic matter; and second, a condition prohibiting use of gaming consoles.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the pornography condition, holding that the condition is neither vague nor overbroad. In this case, defendant's interest in child pornography is intertwined with adult pornography. The court modified the gaming console condition, narrowing the condition to forbid defendant from using or possessing any gaming console or device that allows for internet access without prior permission from the probation officer. View "United States v. Abbate" on Justia Law