Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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Wilson recruited people near Escanaba and taught them how to package, transport, price, and sell heroin and crack cocaine. One or two women would travel as passengers to pick up the drugs from Wilson and would conceal the drugs in their vaginal cavities until returning to the Upper Peninsula. The drugs were then removed and sold. Eventually, a member of the conspiracy went to the police with information. They set up controlled buys that confirmed the trafficking of drugs. Subsequent police raids turned up heroin and crack cocaine, cash, a drug ledger, cell phones, and MoneyGram receipts that listed who sent and received money. The police extracted the phones’ call logs and contact lists and obtained call records and subscriber information from the phone companies by subpoena. The phone records revealed a network of coconspirators, including Smith-Kilpatrick, Wilson, his mother, and two others. Wilson and another pleaded guilty. Smith-Kilpatrick and two others were convicted. The Sixth Circuit affirmed Smith-Kilpatrick’s conviction, rejecting arguments that the trial court made evidentiary errors; no rational jury could have convicted her based on the evidence, and her 96-month sentence was procedurally and substantively unreasonable. The court upheld the admission of records of phone calls and wire transfers, hotel records, and car rental documents and of out-of-court statements by co-conspirators. View "United States v. Smith-Kilpatrick" on Justia Law

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Benton, a former schoolteacher, was convicted by a jury for having sex with a 12-year-old student. The judge sentenced her to 25-38 years’ imprisonment. With new appellate counsel, Benton raised constitutional and evidentiary arguments. Her conviction was affirmed. Months later, the Supreme Court handed down its “Lafler” decision, holding that defendants could establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel by proving that their lawyer’s incompetence caused them to reject a favorable plea offer. Benton sought postconviction relief, alleging that her attorney told her she had 20 minutes to decide whether to accept a plea offer: a year in jail for a guilty plea to a lesser charge. Her lawyer allegedly told Benton she would lose custody of her infant children. She rejected the deal. Benton claims she would have accepted the plea had the attorney conveyed that the termination of her parental rights would not be automatic. Benton’s appellate counsel offered to stipulate to his own ineffectiveness in not raising the argument. Michigan courts and the federal district court rejected her petitions. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Benton has no good excuse for not timely raising her claim. Although Lafler was decided in 2012, Benton did not lack the tools to construct her claim in her 2011 appeal. View "Benton v. Brewer" on Justia Law

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Franklin County officers detected child pornography being downloaded via file-sharing software. They traced the downloads to Meckley's IP address. Meckley lived with Parrish. Parrish had a North Carolina conviction for “indecent liberties with children.” Days later, officers executed a warrant. Officers, wearing sidearms, asked Parrish to speak to them in their mobile forensic lab. Parrish agreed, told the agents he understood his Miranda rights, volunteered that he had nude pictures of his 12-year-old daughter on his cell phone, then surrendered the phone and its password. Parrish explained that he had discovered the videos on his daughter’s phone after she sent them to a man on Facebook, prompting Parrish to copy them to confront her. Parrish signed a consent form authorizing a search of his daughter’s phone. Forensic evidence confirmed that his daughter had sent the images on Facebook although Parrish had taken a separate inappropriate video of her. He had watched them repeatedly and had not confronted his daughter or her (custodial) grandparents. Convicted of receiving child pornography, 18 U.S.C. 2252, Parrish received a sentence of 180 months, the mandatory minimum for someone with a prior offense relating to “abusive sexual conduct involving a minor.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Even if the warrant technically did not permit a search of Parrish and the cell phone on him, the officers reasonably could have believed it did and Parrish consented to the seizure and search. The court rejected a constitutional challenge to the definition of “sexually explicit conduct” to include “lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person,” View "United States v. Parrish" on Justia Law

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Richardson was convicted of first-degree murder for killing his wife by causing her to fall from a cliff in Pictured Rocks National Park in 2006. The district court denied a federal habeas petition that claimed prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel for failing to argue that a witness’s testimony was obtained as a result of an illegal, warrantless search. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Richardson failed to demonstrate that the Michigan Court of Appeals’ rejection of his claims was objectively unreasonable based on Supreme Court precedent. The prosecutor’s reference to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the context of explaining circumstantial evidence and his references to two notorious murders were unnecessarily provocative but did not so infect the trial as to violate Richardson’s due process rights. Although the prosecutor did elicit testimony that Richardson had called his attorney, the purpose of the questioning was to elicit testimony concerning Richardson’s consciousness of guilt. The court also rejected claims based on the prosecutor’s presentation of “overwhelming evidence” of Richardson’s bad character, denigration of defense counsel and witnesses, and allegedly improper objections. Even if Richardson could demonstrate that his counsel was deficient for failing to make an argument that may have been futile at the time of his trial, he cannot demonstrate that he was prejudiced by counsel’s performance. View "Richardson v. Palmer" on Justia Law

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In 2013, Flack pled guilty to receipt of child pornography and possession of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. 2252A and was sentenced to 262 months’ imprisonment, the bottom of his Guidelines range. A year later, Flack unsuccessfully moved to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. 2255, arguing that his counsel had been ineffective. The Sixth Circuit held that Flack’s counsel had been ineffective for failing to argue that Flack’s convictions for both receipt and possession of the same child pornography violated the Double Jeopardy Clause. The court issued a “general remand,” with instructions to the district court to vacate one of the convictions. The order stated that, if the district court vacated Flack’s possession conviction, then “resentencing is not necessary” because his Guidelines range would remain the same. On remand, the district court vacated Flack’s possession conviction and imposed the same sentence of 262 months’ imprisonment. In its order, the court said it “need not conduct a resentencing hearing” because its previous sentence “properly account[ed]” for the sentencing factors listed in 18 U.S.C. 3553. The Sixth Circuit then vacated, acknowledging that it had “invited” the error. A resentencing pursuant to section 2255 must be conducted during a sentencing hearing. View "United States v. Flack" on Justia Law

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Williams and another man armed with a rifle forced the occupants out of a vehicle. Williams fled to another vehicle driven by a getaway driver; his accomplice drove off in the victims' vehicle. Later that morning, Williams and a juvenile carrying an AR-15 entered a credit union and yelled that it was a robbery. When a security guard drew his weapon, the two fled. Police arrested them after a chase; Hill, their driver, was also arrested. Williams and Hill were charged with the attempted armed robbery of a credit union and with brandishing a firearm during and in relation to that attempted armed robbery. Williams was also charged with carjacking and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to that carjacking. Williams pleaded guilty to all four counts and was sentenced to 205 months' imprisonment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting Williams’s arguments that the district court violated Federal Rule 11 because the plea colloquy failed to advise him as to the accomplice element of the crime and failed to provide a factual basis for the dangerous weapon element. Because aiding and abetting is a theory of liability embodied in every federal indictment, whether specifically charged or not, the court was not required to advise Williams about accomplice liability. The prosecutor, at the court’s direction, read the elements for attempted armed credit union robbery, which were also set out in the plea agreement. Williams affirmed that these elements matched his behavior. The court confirmed that Williams had read the plea agreement and discussed it with counsel. The court directed the prosecutor to summarize the factual basis for Williams’s guilty pleas. Williams agreed that this summary accurately reflected his behavior; the summary provided a sufficient factual basis for the dangerous-weapon element of attempted armed credit union robbery. View "United States v. Williams" on Justia Law

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Officers executed three search warrants as part of a Lexington, Kentucky drug-trafficking investigation—one at Salas’s residence, one at Pedroza’s residence, and one at a trailer that the two men used for construction work. At Salas’s home, officers discovered Barron in an upstairs bedroom. Both Pedroza and Barron were indicted for drug-related crimes. Barron pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and was sentenced to the mandatory minimum, 10 years in prison. Pedroza was found guilty by a jury of drug and firearm charges. Their cases were consolidated on appeal. The Sixth Circuit affirmed Pedroza’s conviction. The district court properly instructed the jury regarding dual-role testimony by a detective who offered fact-witness testimony regarding the investigation and expert-witness testimony identifying a substance as cocaine without a laboratory result. The court stated that “several law enforcement officers . . . testified to both facts and opinions” and cautioned the jury to give “[e]ach type of testimony . . . proper weight.” Because Barron is entitled to safety-valve relief, U.S.S.G. 5C1.2 and 2D1.1(b)(17), the court vacated his sentence and remanded. Barron did not constructively possess the firearm found in the home and cooperated with the government. View "United States v. Pedroza" on Justia Law

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Officer Patterson stopped a vehicle with four passengers, including a seven-year-old. Another passenger, Owen, exited the vehicle holding a bag and attempted to flee. Patterson gave chase. Owen returned to the vehicle, retrieved a shotgun, and fired at Patterson. Patterson, who was not hit, tased Owen. Owen dropped the shotgun and attempted to flee, dropping the bag. Patterson arrested Owen and recovered the bag. An officer, trained in methamphetamine investigations, recognizing the dangers presented by the collection of items, took measures to reduce the risk of explosion. A methamphetamine task force neutralized the remaining items. Owen pleaded guilty to attempting to manufacture methamphetamine and discharging a firearm during and in furtherance of the drug trafficking offense. Owen’s base offense level was increased to 30 under USSG 2D1.1(b)(14)(D) because his methamphetamine offense created a “substantial risk of harm to the life of a minor,” then adjusted downward for accepting responsibility. His Guidelines range was 250 -282 months of imprisonment. The court determined that the quantity of chemicals was low but highly dangerous, with the potential for explosion, and that loosely storing those chemicals together and transporting them was an inherently dangerous endeavor. The Sixth Circuit affirmed Owen’s 250-month sentence, noting that any combustion would have been devastating to the minor, if not fatal. On balance, the likelihood of substantial injury to the child should the equipment combust constitutes a “substantial risk of harm to the life of a minor.” View "United States v. Owen" on Justia Law

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In 2007, 18-year-old Bennett lived with her boyfriend, Benson, who physically and emotionally abused Bennett. For a time, Stephanie McClure stayed at their apartment. When she moved out, McClure took Benson’s video game console and other items. Benson began telling Bennett and their friends about his plans to shoot and kill McClure. With Bennett and another friend in the car, Benson shot McClure. Bennett was charged with first-degree murder on a theory of aiding and abetting because she had directed Benson to McClure’s trailer park, pointed her out, and then driven the getaway car. She and Benson were tried jointly, before separate juries. Both attorneys adopted a feeble theory of defense: that the police and prosecutor singlemindedly focused on Benson and failed to investigate other potential suspects. Bennett’s attorney did not highlight Bennett’s behavior that suggested she lacked the requisite mens rea: that she alerted the police about the missing items, that Bennett unnecessarily involved another in the supposed plot, and that she displayed extreme emotional distress after hearing the gunshots. Bennett’s counsel did not proffer a single defense witness. Bennett was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of Bennett’s petition for habeas relief. Bennett did not initially raise her claim of ineffective assistance on direct appeal. Bennett did not meet the high standard required to establish constitutionally ineffective assistance by establishing that she was prejudiced by deficient representation View "Bennett v. Brewer" on Justia Law

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White was convicted of aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, aggravated murder, attempted murder, felonious assault, and having weapons while under disability. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As White was preparing for trial, his attorney, Armengau, was indicted by the same prosecutor’s office for serious felony offenses related to sexual misconduct, rape, and kidnapping involving his clients, relatives of his clients, and employees. White alleges that his attorney, the prosecution, and the court all failed to inform him about Armengau’s indictment or issues it might have raised regarding his representation. With newfound knowledge after his conviction, and with different counsel, White appealed, arguing constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel. The Ohio court denied White’s appeal, declining to consider his ineffective-assistance claim for lack of sufficient evidence to allow the court to fully adjudicate the merits. The court issued its ruling almost four months after the deadline for White to file a post-conviction motion in state court. The Ohio Supreme Court declined to accept jurisdiction. White filed a pro se federal habeas petition. The Sixth Circuit vacated a denial of relief. Due to procedural hurdles in state court and because White did not have the aid of an attorney in his post-conviction proceedings, he had no meaningful opportunity to raise his ineffective-assistance claim. Based on Supreme Court precedent, White has cause to overcome his default. View "White v. Warden, Ross Correctional Institution" on Justia Law