Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
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Defendant crashed his plane when he attempted to fly over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range in Alaska. During both the investigation and Defendant’s appeal of the revocation of his airman certificate, Defendant claimed that the plane was climbing through 5,500 to 5,700 feet with a target altitude of 6,000 feet as it approached the pass. GPS data showed that the plane was flying at an altitude more than 1,000 feet lower than what Defendant claimed. The proceeding in Count One was the NTSB investigation. The proceeding in Count Two was the appeal before the NTSB of the FAA’s revocation of his airman certificate. Challenging his conviction on Count One, Defendant argued that the NTSB’s accident investigation was not a pending “proceeding” within the meaning of Section 1505.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed Defendant’s conviction on two counts of obstructing a pending proceeding and affirmed the district court’s assessment of a $5,000 fine. The panel wrote that even if it were not reviewing for plain error, it would affirm, holding that the NTSB’s investigation of Defendant’s plane crash was a “proceeding” within the meaning of Section 1505. The panel held that the district court did not err in instructing the jury on the materiality element. The panel held that the district court did not commit clear error in finding Defendant able to pay the $5,000 fine, as there was no evidence before the district court showing that Defendant was unable to pay the fine, or was likely become unable to pay it. View "USA V. FOREST KIRST" on Justia Law

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Defendant contends that the district court impermissibly delegated to a nonjudicial officer the authority to “decide the nature or extent of” her punishment by giving her probation officer discretion to require inpatient treatment as part of her supervised release. Defendant argued on appeal that the treatment conditions are unlawful because they purport to delegate to the probation officer authority to determine her punishment, which is a function reserved exclusively for the court.   The Ninth Circuit vacated two special conditions of supervised release and remanded for resentencing so that the district court can clarify the scope of authority delegated to the probation officer. The court explained that Defendant did not contest that she knowingly and voluntarily waived her “right to assert any and all legally waivable claims,” and the panel rejected Defendant’s argument that the district court’s statements about her ability to appeal vitiated her appeal waiver. The panel noted that when a defendant with an otherwise valid appeal waiver challenges the legality of her sentence, the claim as to waiver rises and falls with the claim on the merits. The panel reviewed for plain error whether the treatment conditions, which Defendant did not challenge in the district court, are illegal.   Further, the panel found that the district court committed plain error affecting Defendant’s substantial rights because she must comply with the conditions or face revocation of her supervised release. The panel therefore vacated the substance-abuse and mental-health treatment conditions and remanded for resentencing so that the district court can clarify the scope of authority delegated to the probation officer. View "USA V. JERRE NISHIDA" on Justia Law

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Petitioner is scheduled to be executed in Arizona on Wednesday, November 16, 2022. Petitioner filed a second-in-time habeas petition in the district court under 28 U.S.C. Section 2254, alleging a freestanding innocence claim, violations under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S. 264 (1959), and a due process violation based on the surviving victim’s unreliable pretrial identification. The district court dismissed the Brady and Napue claims, finding that they were unauthorized second or successive claims. It also dismissed the due process claim, finding that it had been presented in Petitioner’s first federal petition.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the due process and actual innocence claims. The court agreed with the district court that the Brady and Napue claims are second or successive claims subject to Section 2244(b)(2). The court wrote it construed Petitioner’s notice of appeal as an application for authorization to file a second or successive petition as to those claims. So construed, the court denied Petitioner’s request to file a second or successive petition because he has failed to satisfy the stringent standards under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). View "MURRAY HOOPER V. DAVID SHINN, ET AL" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff moved under state law for an order permitting him to conduct DNA testing and fingerprint analysis on evidence found at the crime scene more than forty years ago. The superior court denied relief in an October 21, 2022 order. Plaintiff sought a review of this order via a special action petition in the Arizona Supreme Court. The state supreme court accepted jurisdiction and affirmed the superior court's ruling. Plaintiff then commenced this federal lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. He sought a declaratory judgment that the Arizona statutes providing for forensic testing of DNA and other evidence are unconstitutional as applied to him as well as an injunction ordering defendants to permit him to conduct the forensic testing. He moved for a preliminary injunction prohibiting his execution until he obtains this relief. The district court denied the injunction, and he appealed.   The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court’s order denying the preliminary injunction and remanded with instructions to dismiss. The court concluded that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because this action amounted to an improper appeal of the state court's judgment. View "MURRAY HOOPER V. MARK BRNOVICH, ET AL" on Justia Law

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Petitioner was convicted of murder in 2012. Following his conviction, he filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in state court arguing that two letters allegedly written by his codefendant, exonerated Petitioner. The California Court of Appeal summarily denied Petitioner’s habeas petition, and the California Supreme Court denied Petitioner’s petition for review. Petitioner, who conceded that 28 U.S.C. Section 2254(d)(1) does not apply, argued that the state court made an unreasonable determination of facts under 28 U.S.C. Section 2254(d)(2) by rejecting his claim of actual innocence.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Petitioner’s habeas corpus petition challenging his California murder conviction. The panel applied the standards set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. Section 2254(d). The panel held that Petitioner did not waive his actual innocence argument in his briefing to the district court. Turning to the merits, the panel wrote that Petitioner cannot challenge the substance of the state court's factual findings because the state courts made no factual findings. In the absence of substantive factual findings by the state courts, Petitioner contended that the state courts’ factfinding process was unreasonable because no court could have reasonably found that Petitioner’s allegations failed to establish a prima facie case of actual innocence. The panel held that it was not unreasonable for the California Court of Appeal to reject Petitioner’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim concerning the authenticity of the letters. View "EARNEST PRESCOTT V. KELLY SANTORO" on Justia Law

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Petitioner asserted that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective by failing to request a mental health expert in advance of the sentencing hearing. The Ninth Circuit held that the state court record demonstrates that trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective by failing to secure a defense mental health expert, and that, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section 2254(d)(1), the Arizona Supreme Court’s contrary conclusion was an unreasonable application of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), and its progeny. Holding that the state post-conviction review (PCR) court’s decision was also based on an unreasonable determination of the facts under 28 U.S.C. Section 2254(d)(2), the panel agreed with Petitioner that (1) the PCR court employed a defective fact-finding process when it denied PCR counsel’s funding request for a defense neuropsychological expert, effectively preventing the development of Claim 1; and (2) the state court’s failure to hold a hearing on Claim 1 resulted in an unreasonable determination of the facts   In Claim 2, Petitioner asserted that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective by failing to seek neurological or neuropsychological testing prior to sentencing. The panel wrote that counsel’s failure to promptly seek neuropsychological testing ran contrary to his obligation to pursue reasonable investigations under Strickland, and in particular, his obligation to investigate and present evidence of a defendant’s mental defect.
Thus, the panel filed an amended opinion, denied a petition for panel rehearing, and denied on behalf of the court a petition for rehearing en banc and remanded to the district court with instructions to issue the writ. View "DANNY JONES V. CHARLES RYAN" on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed from the district court’s order denying his motion for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. Section 3582(c)(1)(A). The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court’s denial Defendant’s for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. Section 3582(c)(1)(A), and remanded. The panel held that a district court may consider the First Step Act’s non-retroactive changes to sentencing law, in combination with other factors particular to the individual defendant, when determining whether extraordinary and compelling reasons exist for a sentence reduction under Section 3582(c)(1)(A). Because the district court declined to consider the First Step Act’s non-retroactive changes to the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements of 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c) when considering whether to reduce Defendant’s sentence, the panel remanded for the district court to reassess the motion under the correct legal standard. View "USA V. HOWARD CHEN" on Justia Law

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]Defendant was caught in a government sting operation, having agreed to rob a fake drug stash house to obtain cocaine. When the jury found Reed guilty of the Section 924(c) firearm offense, it did not specify whether he had used a firearm in relation to the robbery conspiracy or the drug trafficking conspiracy (or both. Defendant sought relief from his Section 924(c) conviction under Section 2255, arguing that the jury had used the now-invalid Hobbs Act robbery conspiracy to convict him under Section 924(c).   The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of 28 U.S.C. Section 2255 relief. The panel held that where the jury is instructed on both a valid and an invalid predicate offense and fails to specify which predicate forms the basis for a Section 924(c) conviction, a court should use harmless-error review under Brecht v Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), to determine whether relief is appropriate. Applying the harmless error standard to this case, the panel held that the instructional error did not have a substantial and injurious effect on the jury because the two conspiracies were inextricably intertwined such that the jury must have used the valid drug trafficking predicate to convict Defendant of the Section 924(c) offense. View "USA V. DEONTE REED" on Justia Law

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Defendant is serving a lengthy prison sentence for armed robbery. He was arrested with tens of thousands of dollars in cash. However, pertaining to this case, the government's case at trial fell apart based on prosecutorial misconduct. The government never initiated civil forfeiture proceedings.In this case focused on who has a right to the money seized from Defendant upon his arrest, the Ninth Circuit held that neither party can prove they are entitled to it. Defendant is not entitled to the money because there is considerable evidence the money was stolen. The government is not entitled to the money because did not follow the necessary procedures. View "USA V. BRIAN WRIGHT" on Justia Law

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Defendant, a Mexican citizen and United States legal permanent resident, was arrested while attempting to sell five pounds of methamphetamine to a confidential informant. He was charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine—both offenses for which Defendant could be removed from the United States were he convicted. Defendant pleaded guilty to the conspiracy count. The Government then dismissed the possession with intent to distribute count. The district court denied on the merits Defendant’s first and second claims in the Section 2255 motion; it denied the third claim on the ground that Defendant, through his plea agreement, had waived his right to bring the claim in a post-conviction proceeding.   The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment on the first claim, affirmed the district court’s judgment on the second and third claims, and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on the first claim. The panel wrote that because the claim attacks whether Defendant had knowledge of the effect of his guilty plea, it was not waived by Defendant’s collateral-attack waiver. The panel held that the record does not conclusively establish that Defendant is entitled to no relief on his first claim and that it was therefore an abuse of discretion to deny the first claim without an evidentiary hearing.   Because the record does not contain any evidence showing that Defendant’s attorney rendered deficient performance under Strickland, the panel affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Defendant’s second claim without an evidentiary hearing as conclusively disproved by the record. View "USA V. COSME RODRIGUEZ" on Justia Law