Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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The FBI began monitoring Pitts after he made social media posts encouraging Muslims to pursue military training. Pitts expressed a desire to meet with an al-Qaeda operative; the FBI deployed an undercover agent to play that role. The two planned a bombing in downtown Cleveland. The FBI arrested Pitts after he pitched follow-up attacks in Philadelphia and San Francisco. Pitts pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, threatening the President, and threatening the President’s family and was sentenced to 168 months’ imprisonment.The Sixth Circuit rejected, as meritless, arguments that the district court improperly accepted his plea because there was no factual basis for it in the record, because he was not competent to enter it, and because he did not understand its terms. The change-of-plea proceedings, the PSR, and the affidavit attached to the complaint provided a factual basis for Pitts’s guilty plea, establishing that Pitts intended to provide material support— including his personal efforts—to al-Qaeda, that Pitts knew al-Qaeda had engaged in terrorism, and that he had made substantial steps toward the commission of the crime. The only professional opinion in the record, arranged at Pitts’s counsel’s request, found Pitts competent. There was nothing that gave the court “reasonable cause” to consider Pitts incompetent. The court did not address sentencing arguments that were barred by the appellate waiver in Pitts’s valid plea agreement. View "United States v. Pitts" on Justia Law

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Cuyahoga County planned for CCCC to house detainees and prisoners from nearby communities in exchange for significant payments. CCCC was already severely overcrowded and understaffed. In March 2018, Cleveland transferred inmates to CCCC. In May, the County Council agreed that CCCC’s issues were “mission-critical” but no action was taken.On June 20, 2018, Johnson was detained at CCCC, awaiting trial for petty theft. During intake, a nurse noted that he was “likely a suicide risk" having previously attempted self-harm. No protective action was taken. Days later, Johnson told a nurse that he was “suicidal.” No action was taken. CCCC correctional officers were aware that Johnson was a suicide risk. On June 29, Officers placed Johnson in solitary confinement for allegedly trying to steal food; no one checked on him. That evening, Johnson was found hanging in the cell. CCCC lacked a device for cutting him down. On July 1, Johnson died.The Department of Justice reviewed and reported CCCC's “appalling conditions,” including medical staff lacking proper licenses, mental health appraisals not being conducted in a timely manner, and deliberate use of food deprivation as punishment. CCCC housed 2,420 individuals; its capacity was 1,765. There were 96 correctional officer vacancies.Moderwell sued corrections officers and executives under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court granted the defendants judgment on Eighth Amendment claims and dismissed an excessive force claim against the executives but concluded that the complaint sufficiently alleged excessive force against the officers and deliberate indifference to serious medical needs against the executives. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Plaintiff’s deliberate indifference claims against the officers rely on the same facts as the excessive force claims, so denying qualified immunity did not impose additional discovery burdens. Whether precedent clearly established a right that was violated by the executives requires factual development. View "Moderwell v. Cuyahoga County" on Justia Law

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Owens was convicted of five counts of possessing or aiding and abetting the possession of a firearm during a crime of violence (18 U.S.C. 924(c)), one carjacking, four counts of bank robbery by force or violence, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. A single section 924(c) conviction carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Each subsequent 924(c) conviction then (2004) triggered an additional 25 years, even if those convictions were part of a single indictment. If Owens had agreed to cooperate, the government would have allowed him to plead guilty to a single count. After Owens rejected the government’s offers, he was convicted and sentenced to 1260 months.Owens’s co-conspirators pleaded guilty and were sentenced, respectively, to 21 months, 33 months, 39 years, and 25 years of incarceration. In 2019, Owens sought resentencing, noting that he would not be subject to the same lengthy sentence if sentenced today because the First Step Act amended 18 U.S.C. 924(c), so that his sentence would be 25 years. Appointed counsel argued that Owens was punished for going to trial and emphasized his “remarkable” record of rehabilitation. Owens then moved for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1).The district court denied Owens’s motion, concluding that the disparity between Owens's sentence and the sentence that he would receive today was not an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for compassionate release. The court did not consider any other factors. The Sixth Circuit reversed, directing the court to consider whether Owens’s rehabilitative efforts and the lengthy sentence he received because of exercising his right to a trial may, in combination with the First Step Act’s changes, constitute an extraordinary and compelling reason for compassionate release. View "United States v. Owens" on Justia Law

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Frei, age 48, used Facebook to contact teenage girls until the Metro Nashville Police Department became aware of his activities. Convicted of eight counts of child-exploitation-related crimes, including four counts of sexual exploitation of a minor under 18 U.S.C. 2251, Frei was sentenced to 318 months' imprisonment and lifetime supervised release.The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting challenges to a jury instruction regarding 18 U.S.C. 2251 and that the sentence was substantively unreasonable. Pattern Jury Instruction 16.01 explains that the jury must find: That the defendant employed, used, persuaded, induced, enticed, or coerced] a minor, to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of that conduct; 16.01(2)(C) defines the phrase “for the purpose of” as meaning that the defendant acted with the intent to create visual depictions of sexually explicit conduct, and that the defendant knew the character and content of the visual depictions. Frei proposed adding: The defendant must have engaged in sexually explicit conduct with the specific intent to produce a visual depiction. It is not enough for the government to simply prove that the defendant purposely produced the visual depiction. The Pattern Jury Instruction allowed Frei to argue that he did not have sex with his victim for the sole purpose of creating the visual depictions. Section 2251(a) does not have a sole-purpose provision. View "United States v. Frei" on Justia Law

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The Prison Litigation Reform Act’s “three-strikes rule,” 28 U.S.C. 1915(g), provides that a prisoner accrues a strike when he brings a frivolous lawsuit. After three strikes, the Act prohibits inmates from filing those lawsuits without paying the initial court fee. Simons, a Michigan prisoner, broke a prison window. Prison officials removed money from his commissary account to make repairs. Simons filed a pro se complaint, targeting this seizure of funds as a violation of state and federal law. The district court allowed Simons to proceed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. 1915(b)(1), then screened Simons’s lawsuit under 28 U.S.C. 1915A and rejected Simons’s federal claims on the merits. The court stated the dismissal would count as a “strike.”The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Simon’s challenges to the underlying dismissal lacked merit. The court’s “opinion” calling the dismissal a strike is not a judgment, and will not, alone, prohibit Simons from filing a free lawsuit in the future. Section 1915(g) calls on a later court that has before it a civil action brought by the prisoner to engage in a backward-looking inquiry and determine whether the prisoner “on 3 or more prior occasions” has brought an action or appeal that was “dismissed on the grounds that [it was] frivolous, malicious, or fail[ed] to state a claim.” View "Simons v. Washington" on Justia Law

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The government uncovered substantial evidence that Sheckles was a Louisville distributor for a large drug trafficking ring. Sheckles pleaded guilty but reserved the right to appeal the district court’s refusal to suppress much of this evidence.The Sixth Circuit affirmed his conviction, rejecting arguments that officers did not have “probable cause” for the warrants to track his phone and search his apartments, engaged in an “unreasonable” “seizure” when they stopped his car and detained him, and engaged in an “unreasonable” “search” when they looked through his storage unit. Information in the officers’ affidavit provided a “substantial basis” for the state judge’s finding that probable cause existed to obtain the phone’s location data. The totality of the circumstances permitted the state judge to find probable cause to search this apartment. Officers at least had a “reasonable suspicion” to initiate the stop, after seeing Sheckles leaving an apartment they were about to search, and the handgun they later discovered gave them probable cause to arrest Sheckles at that point. Handcuffing “does not affect the legitimacy of the Terry stop” as long as the facts justify the precaution. The court concluded that a third party had actual authority to consent to the search of the storage unit. View "United States v. Sheckles" on Justia Law

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In 2016, Harvey pleaded guilty to distributing a controlled substance. He was sentenced to 156 months’ imprisonment. Harvey filed an unsuccessful section 2255 motion for habeas corpus relief claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. On June 12, 2020, Harvey sought compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A), arguing that “[t]he ongoing coronavirus pandemic presents extraordinary and compelling reasons where a defendant is susceptible to infection,” he cited his “chronic bronchitis” and the spread of COVID-19 cases at the facility in which he was incarcerated.The district court denied Harvey’s motion without holding a hearing. The one-page form stated that the court considered the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors and applicable Sentencing Commission policy statement. A checked box stated: “DENIED after complete review of the motion on the merits.” Weeks later, the court filed a five-page “OPINION." The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The form order was not necessarily procedurally defective; the facts in the record provide a reasonable basis for the denial of Harvey’s motion. Harvey admitted “that he had been selling drugs for over a year”; the prosecutor asserted at sentencing that Harvey’s house contained “a gun” and “ammunition”; Harvey had earlier drug-related convictions and had served only about 25% of his custodial sentence. The record can be read to support the conclusion that section 3553(a) did not favor Harvey’s release. View "United States v. Harvey" on Justia Law

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In May 2017, Jackson was convicted of three counts of carjacking and three counts of brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. 924(c). While Jackson’s appeal was pending, Congress enacted the First Step Act. Three months later, the Sixth Circuit vacated one of his section 924(c) convictions and remanded for resentencing. The district court determined that the First Step Act’s amendments to section 924(c) apply retroactively to someone who, like Jackson, had his sentence vacated after the Act became law and sentenced him accordingly, reducing the 32-year mandatory minimum sentences he faced under section 924(c) to 14 years. Because Jackson no longer faced 57 years of mandatory minimum sentences, the district court increased his sentence for the three carjackings from 87 months’ imprisonment to 108 months.The Sixth Circuit vacated. The district court should not have applied the amended section 924(c), which applies for a defendant on whom “a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of” December 21, 2018. As of that day, a sentence had been imposed on Jackson. That the first sentence was later vacated does not alter Jackson’s status on the day the First Step Act became law. View "United States v. Jackson" on Justia Law

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Jackson and Combs pleaded guilty to participating in a cocaine distribution ring. Jackson was sentenced to 192 months’ imprisonment due to his role as a leader in the drug-distribution conspiracy, U.S.S.G. 3B1.1(a).. Combs was sentenced to 188 months’ imprisonment due to his career-offender status, U.S.S.G. 4B1.1. The Sixth Circuit affirmed as to Jackson, who recruited and supervised participants and held a substantial amount of the cash proceeds. The court also rejected Jackson's challenge to the mandatory-minimum 20-year sentence he received in accordance with 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(A), due to his prior marijuana-trafficking conviction.The court initially held that Combs’s Kentucky trafficking offense categorically qualified as a “controlled substance offense” under the Guidelines; U.S.S.G. 4B1.2 and Combs’s designation as a career offender. The court rejected Combs’s argument that distribution requires a commercial aspect. In an amended opinion, the Sixth Circuit cited intervening circuit precedent and reversed the career-offender finding for Combs. Conspiracy to distribute controlled substances is not a controlled substances offense under U.S.S.G. 4B1.2(b). View "United States v. Combs" on Justia Law

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Stampe and Loden were charged with conspiring to distribute at least 500 grams of methamphetamine. Stampe pled guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government in its case against Loden. Before Stampe’s sentencing, the government dropped Loden’s case after “discover[ing] circumstances apart from evidence of . . . guilt which prevent[ed] . . . moving forward.” The government told Stampe that Loden’s dismissal did not affect its case against her; the dismissal related to inappropriate conduct by a confidential informant. Stampe moved to compel the government to disclose the information that led to the dismissal of Loden’s conspiracy charge or to review that evidence in camera and moved to withdraw from her plea agreement.Relying on government representations both that the informant’s misconduct happened after Stampe’s arrest and that the government had complied with disclosure obligations, the district court denied Stampe’s motions. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Even assuming Stampe said enough to trigger Rule 16 or Brady disclosure in the abstract, her arguments fail because of the court’s reliance on the government’s representations that items sought were immaterial. While Stampe believed that she might avoid some prison time because of her putative cooperation in Loden’s case, the plea agreement did not require that possibility; it was not the “principal purpose” of the agreement. View "United States v. Stampe" on Justia Law