Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
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Nathan Reardon, who had been self-employed for 24 years, was convicted of bank fraud after submitting fraudulent applications for loans under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a financial assistance program enacted by Congress in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reardon used several of his businesses to submit the fraudulent applications and misused the funds from the approved loan. He was sentenced to twenty months of imprisonment and three years of supervised release. As part of his sentence, the district court imposed a special condition prohibiting Reardon from all forms of self-employment during his supervised release term.Reardon appealed this special condition, arguing that it was overly restrictive and unnecessary. The government suggested a "middle ground" where the condition could be modified to avoid a total prohibition against self-employment, but the district court overruled Reardon's objection and imposed the self-employment ban without explaining why it was the minimum restriction necessary to protect the public, as required by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found that while the district court was justified in imposing an occupational restriction, it did not provide sufficient explanation for why a total ban on self-employment was the minimum restriction necessary to protect the public. The court therefore vacated the self-employment ban and remanded the case for reconsideration of the scope of that restriction. View "United States v. Reardon" on Justia Law

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Suzanne Brown, a federal prisoner, appealed the denial of her habeas corpus petition. Brown was convicted on twelve counts of making a materially false statement to a federal agency and was sentenced to twelve months of imprisonment and a two-year term of supervised release. She began her term of imprisonment in January 2022, with release scheduled for January 2023. However, in March 2022, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) calculated that Brown had earned fifteen First Step Act (FSA) credits, which it applied to accelerate her release date to December 17, 2022. In August 2022, BOP transferred Brown to home confinement under the emergency measures of the CARES Act, still with a calculated release date of December 17, 2022.Brown filed a petition for habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine, arguing that she had earned enough FSA credits to qualify for release on September 2, 2022, and that BOP's decision not to correct her FSA credit calculation and apply FSA credits to accelerate her release would result in her being held unlawfully in custody. A magistrate judge recommended that Brown's petition for habeas corpus be denied, and the district court adopted that recommendation and denied the petition. Brown timely appealed.The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reviewed the denial of the habeas petition de novo. Brown conceded that controlling precedent foreclosed some of the relief she sought earlier. She now asked only that the court hold her term of supervised release began on August 2, 2022, when she was transferred to home confinement. However, the court affirmed the denial of habeas relief, stating that the BOP's transfer of Brown to home confinement was a form of BOP custody, and her term of supervised release could not begin until the BOP released her from that custody. The court expressed no view as to whether Brown could receive relief under other procedural mechanisms, such as 18 U.S.C. § 3583. View "Brown v. Penders" on Justia Law

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The defendant, Victor J. Calderon-Zayas, was convicted of aiding and abetting another person to illegally possess a machine gun, a violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2 and 922(o). This conviction occurred while Calderon-Zayas was on supervised release for a previous conviction related to drug distribution. The machine gun in question was a modified pistol, which the court deemed more dangerous than an average machine gun. Calderon-Zayas was sentenced to a sixty-month sentence, which was above the guidelines range, and an additional eighteen-month sentence for violating the terms of his supervised release.The case was first heard in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, where Calderon-Zayas pled guilty to the charges. He challenged the length of his sentence, arguing that the court overemphasized the aggravating factors and overlooked the mitigating factors. He also argued that the court improperly relied on the dangerous nature of the firearm involved as a basis for the upward variance. As for the revocation sentence, he argued that the court erred by not considering the § 922(o) sentence when crafting the punishment for the supervised release violation.The case was then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The appellate court found no error in the lower court's decision and affirmed both the § 922(o) and revocation sentences. The court held that the sentencing court properly balanced the § 3553(a) factors and that the dangerousness of the modified pistol was a valid consideration for an upward variance in the sentence. The court also found that the consecutive revocation sentence was within the court's discretion and did not require consideration of the § 922(o) sentence. View "United States v. Calderon-Zayas" on Justia Law

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The case involves Ricardo Villa-Guillen, who was convicted by a jury for conspiring to traffic cocaine from Puerto Rico to the continental United States. Villa appealed, alleging errors in the district court proceedings. The court agreed with Villa that two of the district court's evidentiary rulings led to prejudicial error. These rulings involved the admission of a letter discussing Villa's potential interest in a plea deal, which the government claimed was tantamount to a confession, and the admission of testimony suggesting that Villa was more likely to have committed this crime because he had supposedly participated in a different drug transaction. The court reversed and ordered a new trial.The district court had admitted a redacted version of a letter Villa had written to the court seeking information about a pending motion. In the letter, Villa stated that he "ha[d] expressed . . . [his] desire to reach an agreement with the Government." The court believed the letter was "relevant because Villa's assertions convey a consciousness of guilt," and the court thought its admission was fair because Villa sent the "incriminating letter to the Court on his own accord." The court also noted that the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit had affirmed its ruling admitting what it considered to be a similar letter in a different case, although the earlier case did not involve a Rule 403 objection.The court concluded that the district court's instruction combined with the government's argument indicated that the "natural and intuitive" inference to draw from the letter was that Villa's interest in a plea agreement meant he was guilty. The court therefore reversed and ordered a new trial. View "United States v. Villa-Guillen" on Justia Law

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The case involves Ángel Cruz-Agosto, who was convicted as a felon in possession of a firearm following a guilty plea. Cruz-Agosto was arrested after police officers observed him pull a pistol from his waistband and drop it on the floor of his vehicle. At the time of his arrest, Cruz-Agosto was serving a term of federal supervised release. He entered into a plea agreement with the government, which calculated a Total Offense Level of nineteen and agreed to jointly recommend a sentence of thirty-seven months' imprisonment.The district court, however, found that the recommended sentence did not reflect the seriousness of the offense and sentenced Cruz-Agosto to seventy-one months' imprisonment, followed by a three-year term of supervised release. The court also held a sentencing hearing for the revocation of Cruz-Agosto's supervised release, sentencing him to an additional eighteen months' imprisonment to be served consecutively.Cruz-Agosto appealed his sentences, focusing on an alleged breach of the plea agreement by the prosecutor at sentencing. He argued that the government failed to argue for a concurrent sentence or a maximum of a four-month consecutive sentence on the revocation, and failed to correct a perceived error made by the district court.The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the sentences given by the district court. The court found that the government did not breach the plea agreement, as it had fulfilled its obligation to jointly recommend a sentence of thirty-seven months' imprisonment. The court also found that Cruz-Agosto failed to show that any alleged error by the government affected his substantial rights or the outcome of the proceedings. View "United States v. Cruz-Agosto" on Justia Law

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The case involves Alejandro Cortés-López, who was serving a 24-month prison term after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Cortés-López had entered into a plea agreement with the government, admitting to a fraudulent financial scheme that solicited residents in Puerto Rico to invest in short-term, high-interest loans in the Dominican Republic. The plea agreement stipulated a total offense level (TOL) of 18, which, combined with a criminal history category of I, suggested a guidelines sentencing range (GSR) of 27-33 months' imprisonment. However, both parties agreed to jointly request a variant sentence of 24 months of probation.The Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) calculated a higher TOL due to the financial fraud scheme resulting in more than $5.4 million in losses to the investors. Cortés-López objected to these enhancements, but the probation office maintained that the higher loss amount and additional enhancement were correct. At the sentencing hearing, the government acknowledged the PSR's calculation but stated it was standing by its plea agreement recommendation of 24 months of probation. The district court, however, imposed a sentence of 24 months' imprisonment, followed by 3 years of supervised release and $5.4 million in restitution.Cortés-López appealed, arguing that the government breached the plea agreement by supporting the higher TOL calculated in the PSR and failing to advocate meaningfully for the agreed-upon 24-month probation sentence. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed, finding that the government's conduct at the sentencing hearing was a breach of the plea agreement. The court vacated Cortés-López's sentence and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "United States v. Cortes-Lopez" on Justia Law

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David Wright was indicted for conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, and aiding and abetting. Superseding indictments added a count for conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries and an additional count for obstruction of justice. A jury convicted Wright on all counts, and the district court sentenced him to 28 years' imprisonment and lifetime supervised release. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed Wright's convictions on all counts except for the material-support count, which was overturned due to an error in the jury instructions. The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings.Upon remand, the government dismissed the material-support count, and an amended judgment was issued. After a resentencing hearing before a different judge, Wright was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment, two years more than before, and lifetime supervised release. Wright appealed his sentence, arguing that it was procedurally and substantively unreasonable. He claimed that the sentencing court made a "grouping" error that affected his sentence and that the court failed to adequately explain its upwardly variant sentence.The Court of Appeals found that any grouping error had no impact on Wright's sentence and that the court provided an adequate explanation for its variant sentence. The court affirmed Wright's 30-year sentence and lifetime supervised release. View "United States v. Wright" on Justia Law

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The case involves Miguel F. Ramirez-Ayala, who pleaded guilty to illegal possession of firearms and controlled substances in 2015. After serving his federal prison sentence, he began a three-year supervised-release term. However, within a year, Ramirez-Ayala violated his supervised-release conditions by possessing controlled substances and a firearm, among other violations. This led to a revocation sentence of eighteen months, after which he began another supervised-release term. During this second term, Ramirez-Ayala committed multiple violations, including drug and firearm possession, and evaded police in a high-speed car chase. In 2021, he pleaded guilty to these most recent drug and firearm possession charges, leading to another round of revocation proceedings.The district court sentenced Ramirez-Ayala to twenty-four months' imprisonment, the maximum revocation sentence, to be served consecutively to his new conviction. He appealed, arguing that the district court sentenced him in a procedurally and substantively unreasonable manner.The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found no error in the district court's decision. The court noted that the district court had considered the relevant factors, including the seriousness of Ramirez-Ayala's violations, his repeated violations of supervised-release conditions, and his disregard for the law and public safety. The court concluded that the district court's upward variance in sentencing was reasonable given these circumstances. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court's decision. View "US v. Ramirez-Ayala" on Justia Law

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The plaintiff, John Deaton, was arrested and charged with assault, battery, and disorderly conduct following an altercation at a youth football game. Although the charges were later dismissed, Deaton filed state and federal claims against the Town of Barrington and several individuals, including police officers and the town manager. The case was removed from state court to the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on most counts and remanded three counts to the state court for resolution. Deaton appealed, arguing that the district court improperly found that probable cause to arrest him existed, improperly denied his post-judgment motion, and should have abstained and remanded to state court to allow the state claims to be resolved.The district court had granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that there was probable cause for Deaton's arrest. The court also denied Deaton's post-judgment motion for relief. Deaton appealed these decisions, arguing that the district court had improperly found probable cause for his arrest, improperly denied his post-judgment motion, and should have abstained from hearing the case and remanded it to state court.The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the district court's decisions. The court found that the district court had correctly determined that there was probable cause for Deaton's arrest. The court also found that the district court had not erred in denying Deaton's post-judgment motion for relief. Finally, the court determined that abstention was not appropriate in this case, as resolution of the state law question would not avoid the need to resolve a significant federal constitutional question. View "Deaton v. Town of Barrington" on Justia Law

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The case involves Andy G. Morales-Veléz, who appealed two rulings related to his guilty plea for possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Morales argued that his 120-month sentence was both procedurally and substantively unreasonable because the district court did not provide adequate justification for imposing a higher sentence than that recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. He also contended that the district court erred by refusing to consider his motion to return $20,000 in cash the government seized from his vehicle during his arrest.The district court had denied Morales's motion to return the seized cash, arguing that a separate civil forfeiture proceeding against the money had already commenced. At the sentencing hearing, the court imposed a sentence of 120 months, higher than the parties' proposed ninety-six-month sentence, based on the fact that Morales possessed not only a machine gun but four magazines, two of which were high capacity, and 125 rounds of radically invasive projectiles.The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the district court's rulings. The court found that the district court provided an adequate explanation for the upward variance in Morales's sentence, considering the nature of the machine gun and the amount of ammunition found with the gun. The court also concluded that Morales's claims regarding the return of the seized cash were moot because he had reached a settlement with the government over the seized $20,000. View "United States v. Morales-Velez" on Justia Law