Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
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After a three-and-a-half-year delay, a jury convicted Appellant of conspiring to launder the proceeds generated by a network of Brooklyn medical clinics. Appellant appealed his conviction and sentence. He argued that the district court erred when it denied his motions to dismiss based on violations of the Speedy Trial Act, 18 U.S.C. Section 3161 et seq. Specifically, Appellant claimed that the district court improperly excluded time based on the complexity of the case without determining, on the record, why the case was complex or that such exclusions outweighed the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial. He contended that the excessive pre-trial delay, to which he objected, arose not from the supposed complexity of the prosecution but rather because the Government delayed production of certain documents possessed by state and federal agencies that had participated in the joint investigation and prosecution of Appellant.   The Second Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment of conviction, vacated Appellant’s conviction and sentence, and remanded to the district court. The court held that the district court’s exclusion of time during at least two long periods of delay was insufficient under the Speedy Trial Act.   The court explained that the Speedy Trial Act was designed to enforce the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee that the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy trial. Here, the district court failed in this responsibility. It neither held the Government accountable for its discovery obligations nor appropriately considered the causes and implications of the extraordinary delays introduced by the Government’s dilatory conduct of discovery. View "United States v. Pikus" on Justia Law

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Police received reports of a gunshot fired from the roof of a building. Officers responded to the scene within two minutes, at which point they observed Defendants exiting a building. While officers were not sure which building the shots were fired from, the building Defendants were exiting was in the immediate area. Officers noticed one of the Defendants bladed his body away from them, and both Defendants had their hands in their pockets. When asked to remove their hands from their pockets, Defendants complied. However, at this point, officers noticed a bulge in one of the Defendant's pockets. A passerby informed officers that he had seen Defendants coming down from the building's rooftop. Officers frisked one of the Defendants, recovering a firearm.Defendants entered guilty pleas each to a single count of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sections 922(g)(1) and 2, preserving their right to appeal the court's adverse decision on their motion to suppress.The Second Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of Defendants' motion to suppress, finding that the police had reasonable suspicion to initiate a pedestrian stop as well as to conduct a pat-frisk of the Defendant who had a bulge in his pocket. View "United States v. Hawkins" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted of six counts of criminal contempt for repeatedly defying court orders, for which he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. He challenges the conviction, arguing that the district court’s appointment of special prosecutors under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 42(a)(2) violated the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution because (1) the special prosecutors are inferior officers who were not supervised by a principal officer, and (2) Rule 42 does not satisfy the Appointments Clause requirement that “Congress . . . by Law” vest the appointment of inferior officers in the courts.   The Second Circuit affirmed Defendant’s convictions. The court first concluded that special prosecutors are officers under the Appointments Clause. Next, the court held that Defendant’s Appointments Clause arguments lack merit. First, the special prosecutors are subject to supervision by the Attorney General, who has broad statutory authority to “conduct” and to “supervise” all litigation involving the United States. This authority includes supervising—and if necessary, removing—the special prosecutors. Second, Plaintiff failed to raise his challenge to Rule 42 below, thus the court concluded conclude that the district court did not commit plain error by appointing the special prosecutors in light of directly applicable Supreme Court precedent Finally, the court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion by initiating prosecution against Defendant for repeatedly defying court orders for years. View "United States v. Donziger" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted of possessing marijuana with intent to distribute, and of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute, 100 kilograms or more of marijuana following a jury trial.   On appeal, Defendant argued that (1) the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress marijuana that was obtained during a warrantless search of a private single-engine airplane; (2) the government improperly bolstered the testimony of its cooperating witnesses at trial; and (3) he received ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing.   The Second Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress, the judgment of conviction, and the sentence. The court held that the vehicle exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies to the search of the private aircraft used to transport Defendant’s marijuana and that there was probable cause to search the plane. Further, the court wrote there is no merit to Defendant’s remaining challenges.   The court explained unlike a traffic stop, law enforcement agents may conduct a ramp check absent an antecedent violation or even reasonable suspicion of one. Here, the ramp check by itself was therefore a proper exercise of regulatory authority. Further, the mobility of an airplane in flight is so obvious that it needs no elaboration. And even when a plane is on the ground, it is no less capable of being moved than, say, a non-residential unhitched tractor-trailer. The fact that the search here occurred while the plane was sitting on the tarmac and the pilot was not in the pilot’s seat does not alter the calculus. View "United States v. Capelli" on Justia Law

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Petitioner was convicted of (1) conspiracy to commit second-degree murder in aid of racketeering, (2) second-degree murder in aid of racketeering, and (3) using a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c). Petitioner filed for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. Section 2255, contending that his Section 924(c) conviction and its accompanying sentence were unlawful. The district court denied the petition but granted a certificate of appealability.   On appeal, Petitioner argued that his Section 924(c) conviction was unlawful because (1) it was possibly predicated on conspiracy to commit murder, an offense that no longer qualifies as a crime of violence, and (2) even if it were predicated on substantive murder, that offense also does not qualify as a crime of violence.   The Second Circuit found no merit in Petitioner’s challenges and affirmed. The court held that the error of instructing the jury on the now-invalid predicate was harmless to Petitioner because the jury found facts satisfying the essential elements of guilt on the valid predicate of substantive murder in aid of racketeering which would have sustained a lawful conviction on the firearm offense. Further, the elements of first-degree manslaughter and second-degree murder differ only with respect to the intent element. Here, because the intent element played no part in the Petitioner’s court’s analysis of whether first-degree manslaughter is a violent felony, its reasoning binds the court with respect to whether second-degree murder is a crime of violence. Thus, second-degree murder is categorically a crime of violence under Section 924(c). View "Stone v. United States" on Justia Law

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Following a disturbance at a hospital, two New York City police officers arrested Plaintiff and transported her to another hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Plaintiff asserted false arrest claims, alleging that the police officers lacked probable cause to arrest her for a mental health examination. The district court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, holding that because the police officers had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff for a misdemeanor trespass, her false arrest claim was precluded. The district court did not reach the issue of the existence of probable cause for a mental health arrest. The district court also held, in the alternative, that the officers were protected by qualified immunity because they had arguable probable cause to make a mental health arrest.   The Second Circuit affirmed, concluding that while the district court erred in its probable cause analysis, the officers were protected by qualified immunity. The court explained that even where actual probable cause does not exist, police officers may be entitled to qualified immunity from a Section 1983 false arrest claim if their actions did not violate "clearly established" rights or if "arguable probable cause" existed at the time of the arrest.   Here, the parties disagree as to whether the officers had probable cause to arrest her for an emergency mental health evaluation. The court held that the existence of probable cause to arrest an individual for a criminal violation does not preclude a false arrest claim based on a wrongful arrest for a mental health evaluation. However, nonetheless, the officers here are protected by qualified immunity. View "Guan v. City of New York" on Justia Law

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Defendant filed his compassionate release motion after exhausting his administrative remedies. The Government conceded that Defendant’s medical conditions arguably met the threshold requirement of an extraordinary and compelling reason but opposed the motion on the grounds that the Section 3553(a) factors weighed against release. Defendant contended primarily that the district court erred in denying his motion pursuant to Section  3582 by refusing to consider new evidence that he says calls into question the validity of his conviction.   The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.  The court concluded that when considering a motion for a sentence reduction pursuant to Section 3582(c)(1)(A), a district court does not have the discretion to consider new evidence proffered for the purpose of attacking the validity of the underlying conviction in its balancing of the Section 3553(a) factors. Facts and arguments that purport to undermine the validity of a federal conviction must be brought on direct appeal or pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section 2255 or Section 2241. The court affirmed the finding that the district court properly refused to consider such evidence here as to the Section 3553(a) factors and otherwise did not abuse its discretion in denying Defendant’s motion for compassionate release. View "United States v. Orena" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted, pursuant to a guilty plea, of conspiracy to engage in a pattern of racketeering activity, in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”).  The charge was based on his membership in the Syracuse-based 110 Gang and, more specifically, his distribution, in five separate transactions, of a total of 42.2 grams of cocaine base (“crack cocaine”). Defendant apparently received less than $2500 for these sales, which ultimately resulted in a sentence of ninety-two months’ imprisonment—the low end of the Sentencing Guidelines ranges the district judge calculated.   On appeal, Defendant challenged two factors upon which his sentence was based: (1) the district judge’s decision to apply a two-level increase for possession of a dangerous weapon in connection with narcotics distribution, see U.S.S.G. Section 2D1.1(b)(1), and (2) the district judge’s refusal to apply a mitigating role adjustment.   The Second Circuit vacated Defendant’s sentence. The court explained that Defendant’s conviction and sentence stem from his role in furthering the 110 Gang’s violent and extensive criminal enterprise. Yet the district judge failed to analyze Defendant’s criminal conduct against the backdrop of the criminal conduct of other 110 Gang members even though such an analysis might well have qualified Defendant for a mitigating role adjustment. View "United States v. Wynn" on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed the district court’s judgment of conviction on charges including racketeering conspiracy, in violation of the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), 18 U.S.C. Section 1962(d) and conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering and attempted murder in aid of racketeering, in violation of the Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering Act (“VICAR”), 18 U.S.C. Section 1959(a)(5). Defendant argued that his firearms conviction should be vacated because the predicate offenses on which the conviction was based are not “crimes of violence” in light of United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019).   The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment and concluded that Defendant’s section 924(c) conviction remains valid even after Davis because one of the predicate offenses underlying the conviction – attempted murder in aid of racketeering – is a categorical crime of violence. The court explained that to determine whether Defendant’s section 924(c) charge is properly based on a crime of violence, it must determine whether any one of section 924(c) predicate offenses listed in his indictment – racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering, attempted murder in aid of racketeering, and murder-for-hire conspiracy – “categorically involve[s] the use of force.” Further, because second-degree murder under New York law is a crime of violence, there can be no doubt that attempt to commit second-degree murder under New York law is itself categorically a crime of violence. This conviction for attempted murder in aid of racketeering serves as one of the predicate offenses underlying Defendant’s section 924(c) conviction. View "United States v. Pastore" on Justia Law

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Defendant was sentenced to a 40- month term of imprisonment for being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 922(g)(1). In calculating Defendant's advisory sentencing range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, the district court concluded that Defendant’s prior conviction for attempted second-degree gang assault in violation of New York Penal Law Sections 120.06 and 110.00 was a qualifying “crime of violence” for which his base offense level would be raised from 14 to 20. On appeal, Defendant argued that his conviction is not a crime of violence under the categorical approach because New York courts have deemed attempted second-degree gang assault a legal impossibility.   The Second Circuit vacated Defendant’s sentence and remanded for resentencing. The court held (1) Defendant’s conviction for attempted second-degree gang assault is not a crime of violence within the meaning of U.S.S.G. Section 4B1.2(a)’s force clause. Further, the court could discern no coherent element that constitutes the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force. (2) Defendant’s intent to have the presence and aid of others actually present does not categorically involve the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force. (3) Defendant’s conviction does not fall within the definition of “attempt[]” as that term is used in Application Note 1 to U.S.S.G. Section  4B1.2. (4) Attempted second-degree gang assault is not enumerated as “aggravated assault” as that phrase is used in U.S.S.G. Section 4B1.2(a)’s enumerated offenses clause. View "United States v. Castillo" on Justia Law