Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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The mobile home park is a one-square-mile residential community of fewer than 100 dwellings, in North Judson, Indiana. In 2004-2013, Thomas was connected to eight fires there. He collected insurance proceeds on properties that he owned or that were owned by relatives: $75,000, $50,000, $60,000, and $426,227. In 2018, he was charged with mail fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1341, because he had used the mail to collect the insurance proceeds. The district court ruled that two “distractor” fires were part of the scheme and did not implicate Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) but that the 2004 fire was too far removed in time to be part of the scheme. The 2004 fire was admissible as modus operandi evidence and to prove identity. A jury convicted Thomas on all counts. He was sentenced to 90 months’ imprisonment.The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the fires were not part of a scheme because they were not a chain of continuous and overlapping events, but rather discrete episodes of alleged criminality and that the fires were inadmissible character evidence. Thomas was charged with mail fraud, not arson. The district court properly decided that six of the fires were part of Thomas’s scheme and not “other acts.” View "United States v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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A jury found Harden guilty of conspiring to distribute heroin and found that Schnettler's death had “resulted from” the use of that heroin. He was sentenced to life in prison under 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(B), which increases the maximum statutory term of imprisonment for a drug offense on a finding that “death or serious bodily injury result[ed] from the use of [the] substance.” After an unsuccessful appeal, Harden moved under 28 U.S.C. 2255 to vacate his sentence, asserting that his attorney was ineffective in agreeing to a jury instruction that repeated section 841(b)(1)(B) but did not elaborate that his heroin had to be the “but-for” cause of Schnettler’s death and failing to present expert testimony to rebut evidence that his heroin caused that death. The court denied his motion without an evidentiary hearing.The Seventh Circuit affirmed. In this case, the instruction was a correct statement of the law; no evidence would have led the jury to find that heroin was merely a “contributing” cause of death, so competent counsel would not suspect that the instruction might be confusing. Schnettler died from the toxicity of a single drug; the only issue concerned the timing of his use of the heroin and his death. Given the evidence that counsel did consult an expert, the decision not to call that expert “is a paradigmatic example of the type of strategic choice.” View "Harden v. United States" on Justia Law

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McGee, Frazier, and Glaspie, were transporting heroin from Chicago to Minneapolis. Police stopped their vehicle for speeding. None of the men had valid driver’s licenses. The vehicle was registered to McGee’s girlfriend. McGee consented to a canine “free air sniff.” The canine alerted to the presence of drugs. Officers found more than 100 grams of heroin and fentanyl inside the vehicle. McGee was charged with possession with intent to distribute, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1). Glaspie told police that McGee asked him to accompany McGee on the trip and that McGee had hidden the drugs. An inmate housed with McGee told investigators that McGee said that the heroin belonged to McGee and that McGee paid Frazier to drive. While in jail, McGee called McMillan, a drug dealer with whom he worked. McMillan scolded McGee for hiding the drugs badly and blamed McGee for failing to instruct Frazier to slow downMcGee pleaded guilty. The district court applied a two-level enhancement for being an “organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor in the criminal activity” under USSG 3B1.1(c), calculated McGee’s Guidelines range as 92-115 months (without the leadership enhancement, 77-96 months), and sentenced McGee to 84 months’ imprisonment. The Seventh Circuit vacated. The court erred in imposing the leadership enhancement. The evidence suggests McGee was a “middleman.” The court miscalculated McGee’s criminal history points by erroneously considering a DUI conviction from 2007 View "United States v. McGee" on Justia Law

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Officer Wimmersberg detected an IP address requesting child pornography using a peer‐to‐peer file‐sharing network, Freenet. As a member of an FBI Task Force, she was certified to investigate on Freenet and had previously conducted more than 40 similar investigations. Wimmersberg determined that the IP address belonged to Wehrle. Wimmersberg and others executed a search warrant on his residence and found a photo album in Wehrle’s bedroom, The album contained a photograph depicting A.E. lying on a blanket with his penis exposed. The background matched Wehrle’s living room. Officers seized electronic devices and discovered over one million images and videos of child pornography, including additional pornographic images of A.E. Wehrle acknowledged he had downloaded child pornography using Freenet. Wehrle attempted to disqualify Wimmersberg as an expert witness, but the court found her to be "credible" and that her credentials and qualifications did not suggest that the evidence was not properly obtained or any problem with the investigation.The district court found Wehrle guilty and sentenced him to a below‐guidelines term of 40 years’ imprisonment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The district court did not abuse its discretion by failing to qualify Wimmersberg as an expert witness. The admission of trade inscriptions found on the seized devices did not violate the rule against hearsay and the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause; 18 U.S.C. 2251(a), which criminalizes the production of child pornography, does not violate the Commerce Clause. Wehrle’s sentence was not substantively unreasonable. View "United States v. Wehrle" on Justia Law

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On August 17, 2004, Randall opened fire on Copeland’s vehicle while Copeland drove by. Copeland’s car was struck by gunfire. No one was injured. Armfield and Nelson were present. Later that evening, Randall spotted Copeland again. Armfield and Nelson armed themselves. They tracked down Copeland. As Copeland approached an intersection, Randall gave the signal. Armfield and Nelson sprang from their car and fired into Copeland's vehicle, killing him.The state charged the three with first-degree murder. Two separate trials occurred simultaneously before the same judge, with the juries and defendants shuffling in and out depending on the evidence presented. During deliberations, the Armfield/Randall jury requested a transcript of certain witnesses’ testimony. The court, by mistake, tendered a transcript containing the prosecutor’s opening statements from Nelson’s case. The Armfield/Randall jury had not heard this version, in which the prosecutor referenced a videotaped statement from Nelson that purported to implicate all three defendants in the murder. In Armfield's trial, the state leaned primarily on two witnesses. The jury convicted Armfield of first-degree murder. Illinois courts rejected Armfield’s appellate argument that disclosing the reference to Nelson’s confession deprived him of a fair trial and a collateral attack, arguing that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of federal habeas relief. Armfield’s Confrontation Clause claim failed because the state’s strong case against him renders any constitutional error harmless. Armfield cannot show trial counsel’s shortcomings resulted in prejudice. View "Armfield v. Nicklaus" on Justia Law

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In 1996, Higgs, Haynes, and Gloria picked up three women. They ultimately drove the women to the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, federal land. Haynes shot and killed the women with Higgs's gun. Higgs and Haynes were charged with three counts of each: first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree murder committed in the perpetration of kidnapping, kidnapping resulting in death, and using a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence.The court imposed concurrent life sentences on Haynes. Higgs’s jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts and recommended a death sentence for each murder and kidnapping count under the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act. The court imposed nine death sentences, with 45 consecutive years for the 924(c) convictions. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Higgs unsuccessfully pursued post-conviction relief.In 2016 Higgs unsuccessfully asked the Fourth Circuit for permission to file a new 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion, seeking to invalidate his section 924(c) convictions based on the Supreme Court’s 2019 “Davis” holding that 924(c)(3)(B), providing enhanced penalties for using a firearm during a “crime of violence,” is unconstitutionally vague.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a subsequent petition in the jurisdiction in which Higgs is incarcerated. Higgs cannot satisfy the 28 U.S.C. 2255(e) savings clause and therefore may not pursue habeas relief under section 2241. There is nothing structurally inadequate or ineffective about using section 2255 to bring a Davis-based claim. View "Higgs v. Watson" on Justia Law

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The plaintiffs challenged Indiana’s Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) as it applies to offenders who have relocated to Indiana from other states. A 2006 SORA amendment applied the statute’s requirements to any “person who is required to register as a sex offender in any jurisdiction.” Indiana does not require any person to register if the offense occurred prior to SORA, provided that person remains a resident of Indiana. Persons with pre-SORA convictions who relocate to Indiana from another state where registration was required must register in Indiana, even if Indiana would not have required them to register had they committed their offenses in Indiana and never left.The Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding that this application of SORA violates the plaintiffs’ right to travel. The amendment relies exclusively upon another state’s decision to require an offender to register and is necessarily using an offender’s travel as the trigger for its registration requirement. Indiana has created two classes of otherwise similarly-situated citizens based on whether they previously lived (or were otherwise present) in a state that required them to register. The distinction is purposeful; it expressly looks to what obligations have been imposed on a person elsewhere to determine what obligations he will now have in Indiana. The Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits this differential treatment. View "Hope v. Commissioner of Indiana Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Ramirez crashed his car into a truck and fled from the police. Speeding off, he hit a passenger who had jumped from his car. He ran a red light, drove around other cars in parking lots “at a high rate of speed,” then fled on foot. A search of his car revealed a loaded revolver and ammunition, which Ramirez confessed were his. Ramirez pleaded guilty (without an agreement) to possessing a firearm as a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g). The PSR factored in Ramirez’s flight and acceptance of responsibility and his criminal history, which included a drive-by shooting from 19 years earlier, burglary, theft, drug use, aggravated battery, resisting arrest, and parole violations, resulting in a guidelines range of 46-57 months’ imprisonment.The court addressed the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors and concluded a two-level enhancement for reckless endangerment during his flight did not adequately account for the severity of his conduct, which endangered many people, and that Ramirez’s criminal history score understated his true history because it excluded some older convictions. Ramirez argued that he had aged out of crime at age 44, but admitted that he had spent much of his life in prison. The court concluded that a sentence within the guidelines range would not effectively deter him from endangering others. The Seventh Circuit affirmed his 72-month sentence. The district court appropriately handled the “aging out” argument as no data supported it, and reasonably justified its above-guidelines sentence. View "United States v. Ramirez" on Justia Law

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Barrera sold a handgun to a fellow Latin Kings gang member, who was actually a government informant wearing a wire. Barrera, who had prior felonies, was indicted for unlawful possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). An order barred Barrera from disclosing any discovery because of the risks that the video’s dissemination posed to further law-enforcement efforts and the informant’s safety. Barrera, while released on bond, posted the video to Snapchat, naming the informant and sending the posts to fellow Latin Kings. The government moved to revoke Barrera’s pretrial release. The defense argued that Barrera would not receive adequate treatment for his skin and lung cancer and a recent stroke and relayed Barrera’s intent to plead guilty. The court advised Barrera of the potential guideline range, explained that the range was only advisory, accepted his guilty plea, and, given assurances that the corrections facility could care for Barrera’s medical conditions, revoked his release. The court subsequently imposed a 110-month prison term, based on a 110-120 months guideline range.The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The court adequately explained the sentence in light of the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors, noting Barrera’s post-arrest conduct; that trafficking guns to gang members often leads to the deaths and injuries of innocents; and Barrera’s history and characteristics, including his medical needs. The judge’s comments were relevant in assessing the nature and circumstances of Barerra’s offense and the need to protect the public and deter unlawful conduct. View "United States v. Barrera" on Justia Law

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Stamps sold methamphetamine to police informants. Police executed a search warrant at his apartment. In one bedroom, police found two bags of methamphetamine, each containing over 25 grams. In the other bedroom, police found a loaded handgun under Stamps’s mattress with his wallet and $1,079 in cash. Stamps confessed to having sold drugs for five years. Stamps later admitted owning a handgun, but for self-defense after receiving threats based on his wrongful implication in a murder investigation. Someone had fired shots into his apartment. Stamps pled guilty to one count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute 50 grams or more (21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1)). The PSR recommended a two-level increase under U.S.S.G 2D1.1(b)(1) based on the firearm and did not recommend Stamps receive safety-valve relief (18 U.S.C. 3553(f)). The court agreed, stating that “it is not clearly improbable that ... handgun … was connected with the defendant’s relevant drug trafficking conduct,” calculated a 70-87-month guideline range with a 60-month mandatory minimum, and sentenced Stamps to 60 month's imprisonment.The Seventh Circuit vacated. Rather than evaluating whether Stamps had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the gun was unrelated to his drug offense, the court found only that Stamps could not prove that it was “clearly improbable” that the gun was connected to his drug offense, imposing a higher burden than required for Stamps to prove safety valve eligibility. The error was not harmless. View "United States v. Stamps" on Justia Law