Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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Bowman, a prisoner at the Western Illinois Correctional Center, reported abuse by prison guards in a grievance he filed within the prison. The prison denied the complaint. The state’s Administrative Review Board affirmed. Bowman then filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983,. As trial was fast approaching, the defendant correctional officers filed a motion, alleging that his case, which had been pending for nearly three years, should be dismissed on summary judgment for his failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The defendants had already filed an unsuccessful summary judgment motion and the second motion came nearly two years after the deadline the court had set for any motion based on a failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The defendants offered no reason for the late second motion. Defense counsel indicated that she had learned only recently that Bowman (who was proceeding pro se) did not name the defendants or allege a failure to intervene in his grievance, so he failed to exhaust his remedies. The district court allowed the motion. The Seventh Circuit vacated. Nothing in the record supported the district court’s allowing the second summary judgment motion without making the “excusable neglect” finding required by FRCP 6(b)(1)(B). View "Bowman v. Korte" on Justia Law

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Day was indicted for conspiracy to commit wire fraud after participating in a fraudulent “credit repair” scheme. The government offered Day a plea deal that would have yielded a probable sentencing range of 51-63 months’ imprisonment. Day’s federal defender advised him to accept the deal. His father urged him to consult a private lawyer—an acquaintance with no experience in criminal law. That lawyer brought in an attorney experienced in federal criminal law. The two told Day that he was not guilty and should reject the offer. Day hired the two lawyers. The federal defender withdrew and offered to make her file available. The government extended the same offer six weeks before trial. Though they had not yet reviewed the case materials, Day’s new lawyers advised him to reject it. Day declined the deal. At the final pretrial hearing, Day again rejected the plea offer. The lawyers later told Day he would lose at trial. Day told them to get the best deal they could. They instead advised him to throw himself on the mercy of the court. Day pleaded guilty without an agreement, facing a sentencing range of 87-108 months. The district judge imposed a 92-month sentence. Day sought relief under 28 U.S.C. 2255, arguing that his attorneys were constitutionally ineffective. The Seventh Circuit vacated. The government conceded the deficient-performance element of Day’s Sixth Amendment claim. The facts set forth in his motion, if proven, could establish prejudice. View "Day v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 2008, Sutton pled guilty to distributing cocaine base and carrying a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime. The district court sentenced Sutton to the then statutory minimum 15 years’ imprisonment. In announcing the sentence, the court emphasized that it had no authority to reduce the sentence further or amend it later, except on the government’s motion, and that the court’s authority had been so limited since the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The First Step Act of 2018 subsequently permitted a defendant sentenced for a covered offense (which includes Sutton’s crack cocaine charge) to move for the district court to impose a reduced sentence. The district court denied Sutton’s motion. On Sutton’s pro se appeal, the Seventh Circuit recruited counsel for supplemental briefing on the narrow question of the proper vehicle for a First Step Act motion--how the First Step Act interacts with the Sentencing Reform Act. The Seventh Circuit then affirmed the denial of relief. The First Step Act is its own procedural vehicle; the only limits on the district court’s authority under the First Step Act come from the interpretation of the First Step Act itself, which gives the court broad discretion. In this case, the district court did not abuse its discretion. View "United States v. Sutton" on Justia Law

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During Ramirez’s 2001 Wisconsin state court trial, the prevailing interpretation of the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause was that a defendant had no confrontation right to cross-examine an unavailable declarant if the declarant’s statements were adequately reliable, which could be established where the statements fell within a firmly rooted hearsay exception. Applying hearsay exceptions, the court admitted several out-of-court statements accusing Ramirez of sexually assaulting his stepdaughter. The jury convicted Ramirez of multiple counts relating to the sexual assaults. In 2004, while Ramirez’s conviction was pending on direct review, the Supreme Court held that a defendant is entitled to cross-examine a declarant if the declarant’s statements were “testimonial”—e.g., were statements that the declarant “would reasonably expect to be used prosecutorially.” Ramirez urged his lawyer, Hackbarth, to raise a confrontation claim under Crawford. Hackbarth instead raised other claims, each of which Wisconsin state courts rejected. Ramirez filed a federal habeas corpus petition, arguing that Hackbarth’s representation was ineffective based on her omission of the confrontation claim. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court in granting relief. An attorney exercising reasonable professional judgment would have recognized that the confrontation claim was clearly stronger than the claims Hackbarth raised. Raising a confrontation claim while Ramirez’s conviction was pending on direct review would have given him a reasonable chance of prevailing. View "Ramirez v. Tegels" on Justia Law

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Detective Mings submitted an affidavit relating that an informant had been inside PaWon’s home and seen him take a retail quantity of methamphetamine from his safe. The affidavit did not discuss the informant’s criminal history, his likely motivation for cooperation (lenience on pending charges), or his reliability. It contained some facts that corroborated his story, though many of those facts could have been learned by someone who had not been inside PaWon’s home. The informant’s statements were not recorded or transcribed. The state judge issued a warrant. The police found what they went looking for. At a hearing on PaWon’s motion to suppress, the informant did not appear and Mings had little memory of what was said in state court. The federal judge proceeded as if the informant had not testified and deemed the affidavit alone insufficient to establish probable cause but concluded that the police were entitled to rely on the warrant. After pleading guilty, PaWon was sentenced to 76 months’ imprisonment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. It would not have been impossible for an officer to have “an objectively reasonable belief in the existence of probable cause.” Nor would every reasonable officer believe that unrecorded oral presentations to a judge must be ignored. A federal court must assume the state judge was doing his job, absent contrary evidence, and would have issued a warrant only after finding that probable cause existed under the governing precedents. View "United States v. Patton" on Justia Law

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In 2003, McNair was sentenced for drug crimes. The court placed his Criminal History at Category II based on an Indiana conviction for driving without a license, calculated his Guidelines range at 324-405 months, and imposed a 360-month sentence, declining to consider McNair’s argument that his conviction was invalid. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. In 2005 McNair sought relief under 28 U.S.C. 2255, again disputing the state conviction. The court denied relief, reasoning that he needed to contest that conviction in state court. McNair's subsequent motions were dismissed as unauthorized successive collateral attacks. In 2017 McNair’s Indiana conviction was vacated. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of McNair’s subsequent federal petition. A section 2255 petition based on the vacatur of a state conviction may be maintained as an “initial” section 2255 motion on the theory that the claim was unripe until the state court acted. Such a petition must be brought within a year of “the date on which the facts supporting the claim or claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.” McNair's judgment date was 2003. He first asked the state judiciary for relief in 2007. McNair did not appeal the denial of that motion. For nine years he did nothing in state court. When McNair returned to federal court in 2017, 14 years had passed since the event that requires diligent action. Ignorance of the law does not justify tolling the limitations period. View "McNair v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 1998, Jones was convicted of two carjackings, armed bank robbery, and using firearms during those crimes of violence. His crime spree involved home invasion. He was sentenced, as a career offender under Sentencing Guideline 4B1.1, based on prior convictions for breaking and entering and armed robbery (during which Jones discharged his weapon), to 840 months in prison. In 2018, the court vacated that sentence; Jones no longer qualified as a career offender. At resentencing, Jones’s Guidelines range was 348–390 months. The court again sentenced Jones to 840 months in prison. Considering the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors, the court stated that Jones had a “history as a violent predatory individual” and the offenses were “horrific crimes of violence…. The defendant put the victims in great fear … fired the firearms in the house during one of the break-ins.” Some of that statement was inaccurate. The court stressed that Jones “would be a risk of serious criminal activity based on his prior criminal history”; Jones’s co-defendants, “with similar records [and] similar conduct,” had received sentences of 675 months and 728 months; and after his original federal sentencing, Jones received a 273-year sentence in Indiana for murder and robbery. The court reiterated its “intention … to give the statutory maximum.” The Seventh Circuit vacated. The district court did not sufficiently justify the extent of its deviation from the Guidelines. View "United States v. Jones" on Justia Law

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Schaul's business, ChildRite, provided incontinence supplies for special-needs individuals. In 2009-2013, Schaul submitted claims for Medicaid reimbursement for four million units; approximately one million of those units did not exist. He obtained $582,844.10 from Medicaid for those nonexistent items. Charged with health care fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1347, Schaul entered into a plea agreement that described a scheme to defraud Medicaid, substantially identical to that described in the indictment. It stated that Schaul’s counsel had “fully explained” the indictment and the charges and that Schaul fully understood the nature and elements of the crimes. The agreement erroneously stated that the government needed to prove that the defendant “knowingly or willfully" executed the scheme.” The statute requires proof that the defendant acted “knowingly and willfully.” At his hearing, Schaul agreed with the government’s factual allegations and stated that he had discussed the charges with counsel; that he understood the charge; that he had no questions; and that he was satisfied with his counsel’s representation. When the prosecutor explained the elements of the offense, he read from the plea agreement, which incorrectly stated the mens rea element. The court imposed a 24-month sentence plus $582,844.10 in restitution. After his attorney moved to withdraw, Schaul filed an unsuccessful motion to delay the date of his reporting to the Bureau of Prisons. Schaul filed a motion to reconsider, stating, for the first time, that he could “prove … there was no intent to commit fraud.” The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion. The misrepresentation of the elements of the offense constituted plain error but did not affect Schaul’s substantial rights. The record affirmatively demonstrates that he knowingly and willfully violated the law. View "United States v. Schaul" on Justia Law

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Chicago Police Officers testified that Washington, standing with his back to them, turned his head as their unmarked squad approached and walked away. He removed a shiny, polished chrome handgun from his waistband and tossed it over a fence into a yard. The officers questioned Washington and recovered the handgun. Washington was charged with unlawfully possessing a firearm as a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g). The government moved to introduce a YouTube video posted three months before the arrest, depicting Washington and another displaying a chrome handgun, arguing that the gun in the video was the same gun that was recovered from the yard. The court rejected a Rule 404(b) objection and permitted the government to introduce still photos from the video. At trial, an ATF Agent, who examined the gun recovered from the yard, described its features and told the jury that the gun recovered by police and the pistol in the still photos from the video had many similarities. The Seventh Circuit affirmed Washington's conviction. Evidence of recent past possession of the same gun is admissible for a non-propensity purpose—to show the defendant’s ownership and control of the charged firearm—although evidence of past possession of a different gun would raise Rule 404(b) concerns. The judge minimized its potential for unfair prejudice by limiting the government to still photos. View "United States v. Washington" on Justia Law

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Jackson was driving with Freeman as a passenger, Chicago Police Officer Petrus, on patrol with other officers, observed an object hanging from Jackson’s rearview mirror that appeared to be an air freshener. Petrus ran Jackson's license plate through a database, then pulled Jackson over for violating a city ordinance regarding the obstruction of the driver’s clear view. During the traffic stop, the officers discovered a loaded rifle beside the front passenger’s seat and two loaded handguns underneath the driver’s seat. The men were charged as felons in possession of firearms, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). At a suppression hearing, Petrus testified that she believed the law to be that a driver “cannot have anything obstructing the driver’s view” and that the air freshener obstructed the driver’s view. She explained that her “verbiage was off” when she first spoke to Jackson and said that “can’t have anything hanging from there [the rearview mirror]” and that she was “trying to gain control of the situation.” The court concluded that “this type of air freshener is enough justification to pull the car over,” finding Petrus “very credible.” The Seventh Circuit affirmed. All that is required for a traffic stop is reasonable suspicion; the officer had an articulable and objective basis for suspecting that the air freshener obstructed Jackson’s clear view in violation of the city municipal code, so the stop was lawful. View "United States v. Freeman" on Justia Law