Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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Gacho is serving a life sentence for two 1982 kidnapping-murders. Cook County Judge Maloney presided in his case. For years, Maloney had solicited cash for acquittals. He came down hard on defendants who did not pay. Gacho was tried jointly with Titone. Titone opted for a bench decision, having paid Maloney $10,000 for an acquittal. As federal investigators began closing in, Maloney reneged and found Titone guilty. The jury returned a guilty verdict against Gacho. After Maloney was indicted, Titone won a new trial based on judicial bias, but Gacho’s post-conviction proceedings dragged on for decades. In 2016 the Illinois Appellate Court rejected his due-process claim, reasoning that Gacho needed to prove that the judge was actually biased against him and had not done so.The Seventh Circuit reversed the denial of habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2254. Evidence that the presiding judge was actually biased is sufficient to establish a due-process violation but is not necessary. Constitutional claims of judicial bias also have an objective component: the reviewing court must determine whether the judge’s conflict of interest created a constitutionally unacceptable likelihood of bias. Ignoring that objective test was contrary to Supreme Court precedent. The acute conflict between Maloney’s duty of impartiality and his personal interest in avoiding criminal liability created a constitutionally unacceptable likelihood of compensatory bias in Gacho’s case. View "Gacho v. Wills" on Justia Law

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Saunders pleaded guilty to dealing in firearms without a license and possessing a firearm as a felon. Saunders, sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in January 2020, asked the court for compassionate release or, alternatively, to transfer him to home confinement in June 2020. Saunders cited “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” based on his serious risk from the novel coronavirus, given his history of chronic bronchitis, type 2 diabetes, blood clots, a heart attack, other heart problems, diabetic neuropathy, and hypertension, 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).The district court denied the motion, finding that the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors weighed against release because firearms trafficking is a serious crime that fuels Chicago's ongoing gun violence and Saunders had served only 19 months (including time served before sentencing) of his 60-month sentence. Saunders had not demonstrated that the Bureau of Prisons was unable to control the spread of COVID-19. The court recommended that the Bureau of Prisons place him in a medical facility, and it did so.The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The court did not abuse its broad discretion in finding that the section 3553(a) factors weighed against release despite the health threat that Saunders faces. Courts are not compelled to release every prisoner with extraordinary and compelling health concerns. The court lacked authority to change Saunders’s place of imprisonment and did not err by declining to review his request for home confinement. View "United States v. Saunders" on Justia Law

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McIntosh sued Wexford, a private company that provides prison health care, and jail officials for acting with deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs, 42 U.S.C. 1983. McIntosh alleged that a nurse funneled him unprescribed medication and that staff members failed to prevent him from attempting suicide after he became addicted to the painkillers and suffered from acute mental illness. McIntosh was then a pretrial detainee; his claim arose not under the Eighth Amendment,, but under the Due Process Clause. McIntosh was required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act to exhaust all available administrative remedies. McIntosh claims he timely filed grievances as prescribed by the jail’s procedures but that Sergeant Strubberg told him that the internal administrative process was on hold pending the outcome of a criminal investigation into how he had obtained large quantities of unprescribed pain medication. Wexford and the jail officials claim that McIntosh submitted no grievances. The district court referred the case to a magistrate, who heard testimony from McIntosh and Sergeant Strubberg of the St. Clair County Jail. McIntosh supported his testimony with two affidavits from fellow inmates. The magistrate accepted McIntosh’s version of events. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment.The Seventh Circuit vacated. The district court erred in rejecting the magistrate’s recommended finding without holding a new hearing upon which to base its own credibility determinations, given that witness credibility weighed heavily in the exhaustion-of-remedies inquiry. View "McIntosh v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc." on Justia Law

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While incarcerated, Howell tore his medial meniscus cartilage and his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Five months later, he had surgery to repair the meniscus. It was another 20 months before Howell had surgery to reconstruct his ACL, despite Howell’s continuing pain and efforts to have the surgery sooner. While his requests for the ACL surgery were still being rejected, Howell filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 alleging Eighth Amendment violations. A jury ruled in favor of the physician but against Wexford, a private company that provides medical services at the prison. The court entered judgment as a matter of law in favor of Wexford.The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the evidence about Wexford’s treatment of other incarcerated people. Howell did not show that their situations were fairly comparable to his. The court also did not err in granting Wexford’s Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law. Howell blamed his pain and delayed surgery on Wexford’s “collegial review process,” which requires an off-site Wexford physician to review and approve an on‐site Wexford physician’s recommendation that an incarcerated person be referred to an off‐site healthcare provider. The collegial review process is not unconstitutional on its face, and Howell did not offer evidence that would let a reasonable jury find that the collegial review process caused any violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. View "Larry Howell v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc." on Justia Law

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Young drove Hughes to get a haircut. Hughes stated that he had a gun that he was returning to its owner at the barbershop. Young came back hours later. Young did not ask about the gun but believed that Hughes had left it. Chicago police received an anonymous tip that the two were driving around with a gun. Officers spotted the vehicle and saw that Hughes was not wearing a seatbelt. They lawfully stopped the car and approached with guns drawn. Hughes told Young, “take this.” Young replied, “hell no.” Hughes wiped the gun and placed it on the center console. The officers saw this, arrested both men, and learned both were convicted felons. The officers' reports listed Hughes as the gun's possessor and owner. Young was charged as an armed habitual criminal. A judge found probable cause to detain him. Young could not pay the $100,000 bond. Young stayed in pretrial detention for a year before being acquitted. Young sued Chicago and several officers under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for holding him in pretrial detention without probable cause and ignoring and fabricating evidence to detain him.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the summary judgment rejection of all of his claims. “It does not matter that Young said the gun wasn’t his—protesting innocence is not a get-out-of-pretrial-detention-free card." Nor does it matter that the police allegedly later falsified evidence. They had all the probable cause they needed from the arrest scene. View "Young v. City of Chicago" on Justia Law

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East Troy police, conducting a “sting” operation, used a confidential informant to lure Juarez-Nieves into delivering cocaine at Roma’s restaurant. Nieves showed up with Davis and Lara, who parked their car in the restaurant lot, next to an empty vehicle. The police arrived in their marked squad car and started to park behind the empty car, Lara began slowly to pull out of his parking spot. Officer Knox had to step aside to avoid the car. As Lara headed for the exit, Deputy Ortiz, standing 50 feet away, fired shots into the car. A shot hit Davis. Lara kept driving for a brief time but crashed the car. The police apprehend Lara and Nieves as they fled on foot. Medical personnel pronounced Davis dead. Davis’s Estate argued that Ortiz’s use of deadly force was unreasonable.The district court found that Ortiz’s testimony was not enough to establish as a matter of law that Ortiz was aiming exclusively for the driver. Instead, Ortiz said that his “intent was to stop the threat that was coming at [him].” The district court found that a jury could conclude that Ortiz was shooting at the car generally and that deadly force was excessive in those circumstances. The court denied Ortiz’s motion for qualified immunity. The Seventh Circuit dismissed an interlocutory appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Disputes of material fact on which immunity depend must be resolved by the trier of fact. View "Estate of Christopher J. Davis v. Ortiz" on Justia Law

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Morgan transferred funds to an acquaintance in New Mexico, who used those funds to buy seven guns and mail them to Morgan’s Chicago residence. Morgan admits that the firearms were sent to his home and that "friends and family" had access to the residence, but could not recall in whose hands the guns came to rest. Officers recovered six of the guns. Several were linked to gang-related homicides, including one of a child. Morgan was charged under 18 U.S.C. 371 (conspiracy) and 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(3) (unlicensed receipt of a firearm). He pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge. The PSR calculated a sentencing guidelines range between 24-30 months’ incarceration, considering Morgan’s acceptance of responsibility.The court acknowledged his acceptance of responsibility but stated that Morgan distributed the guns knowing that they would be used by gang members, not just friends and family. Morgan agreed. The court sentenced Morgan to 48 months’ incarceration and imposed discretionary conditions of release, including condition 16, which authorized the probation office to visit Morgan at home, work, school, or other locations and confiscate any contraband in plain view, and condition 23, which authorized the probation office to search Morgan’s “person, property, house, residence, vehicle, papers, [computers], or office,” if the search was supported by reasonable suspicion. The Seventh Circuit rejected most of Morgan’s challenges but remanded. The district court failed to justify supervised-release condition 23 with reference to the sentencing criteria, 18 U.S.C. 3553. View "United States v. Morgan" on Justia Law

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Hamzeh’s friend contacted the FBI, concerned that Hamzeh planned to commit a mass killing. The FBI involved another informant, who began working with the two at a restaurant. Both recorded their conversations with Hamzeh, who spoke about committing acts of terrorism to be martyred as part of his Islamic faith, carrying out a Middle East shooting, committing a domestic shooting at a Masonic lodge, and acquiring weapons for these crimes. The FBI instructed the informants to offer to arrange a purchase if Hamzeh wanted a weapon so authorities could set up a sting operation. Hamzeh and the informants negotiated with undercover FBI Agents posing as arms dealers for the purchase of two machine guns and a silencer. Hamzeh carried the unregistered weapons to his vehicle and was arrested.The government moved to admit excerpts of the informants’ recorded conversations with Hamzeh to show lack of entrapment. The court expressed concern with a jury convicting Hamzeh of possession based on his plans and “disturbing talk” rather than the elements of the offense and stated that motive was irrelevant under 26 U.S.C. 5861(d). The court excluded much of the government’s evidence. In an interlocutory appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed, noting repeated errors in excluding evidence as “not probative” or irrelevant, which affected the court’s further findings under Rule 403. It also erred in excluding the machinegun-availability evidence as irrelevant; the evidence is conditionally admissible, subject to Hamzeh’s introduction of evidence he did not have the ability to commit the crime. View "United States v. Hamzeh" on Justia Law

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Collins pleaded guilty to participating in a heroin distribution ring and was sentenced to 180 months’ imprisonment, the statutory mandatory minimum. Collins sought to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing that, at sentencing, the government breached the plea agreement by failing to move for a downward departure from the statutory minimum. The government explained that Collins had refused its requests to provide “complete and truthful testimony.” Collins disputed that assertion.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the sentence. Collins did not raise this argument in the district court, so the demanding “plain error” standard applies. Even if there might have been a breach of the plea agreement, it was not plain. Even if there had been a plain error, Collins did not suffer any prejudice from it. His sentence was the lowest the law would permit, and the plain-error review does not entitle Collins himself to choose to withdraw his guilty pleas. View "United States v. Collins" on Justia Law

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Agents seized electronic devices with 184,000 pornographic images and videos of children from Stephens’s home. Before charges were filed, officers discovered that Stephens in the meantime had downloaded 10,000 more child pornography images and videos and had shared some files. Stephens pleaded guilty to transporting child pornography, 18 U.S.C. 2252A(a)(1).A probation officer calculated his guideline range as 151-188 months' imprisonment and recommended a 108-month sentence, reasoning that the computer enhancement is outdated, but suggested that an upward variance could be appropriate because Stephens possessed a large quantity of child pornography and because the first search had no deterrent effect. Stephens asked for the five-year mandatory minimum sentence, arguing that adopting 15 offense levels’ of enhancements would result in an artificially high sentence; citing his psychosexual evaluation, which concluded that, as a “no-contact” offender, Stephens was unlikely to sexually offend in the future; and noting his autism spectrum disorder, avoidant personality disorder, and depression diagnoses. He believed: “I did nothing wrong.” His attorney explained that Stephens had taken a cognitive skills class, behavioral treatment, and engaged ub reflection.The Seventh Circuit affirmed his 151-month sentence, finding that the district court adequately considered the arguments in mitigation, the probation officer’s recommendation, and the sentencing factors, 18 U.S.C. 3553(a). The court had noted images that depicted violent, traumatic, and sadistic abuse, “[t]he number of children seriously and irreversibly traumatized,” and doubts that Stephens could “realize the pure evil of these images.” View "United States v. Stephens" on Justia Law