Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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Small, a Michigan prisoner, pro se, filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 complaint, alleging that, without provocation, Officer Brock several times brandished a knife, threatened to kill Small, and motioned in a manner suggesting how Brock would use the knife to kill Small. On initial screening, the district court dismissed the complaint under 28 U.S.C. 1915(e)(2), 1915A(b), and 42 U.S.C. 1997e(c). The Sixth Circuit vacated the dismissal. Small plausibly alleged an Eighth Amendment violation. While verbal abuse and nonphysical harassment of prisoners do not alone give rise to a constitutional claim, the combination of multiple, unprovoked verbal threats to immediately end a prisoner’s life and the aggressive brandishing of a deadly weapon can violate the Eighth Amendment. Based on the allegations in Small’s complaint, Brock had no legitimate penological reason for repeatedly placing Small in fear of his life; it is reasonable to infer that Brock knew that his conduct would cause Small psychological harm. Unprovoked and repeated threats to a prisoner’s life, combined with a demonstrated means to immediately carry out such threats, constitutes conduct so objectively serious as to be “antithetical to human dignity.” Neither the force threatened by Brock (death) nor the resulting injury to Small (fearing for his life to the point of paranoia and psychological distress necessitating mental health treatment) was de minimis. View "Small v. Officer Brock" on Justia Law

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Three employees and a customer were in the Coldwater, Michigan store when two men, their faces obscured, entered. One pointed a semi-automatic weapon while the other locked the front door. The men led the victims from the sales floor to a back breakroom at gunpoint. They forced the victims to lie face-down and bound their wrists and ankles with zip ties, then looted the store and took the customer’s purse. They went out to a waiting getaway car driven by a third robber with cellphones and cash worth $42,129.44. Hill pleaded guilty to Hobbs Act robbery and aiding and abetting Hobbs Act robbery, 18 U.S.C. 1951 and 2. Hill’s presentence report suggested applying a four-level enhancement that applies when victims were “abducted to facilitate commission of the offense or to facilitate escape” U.S.S.G. 2B3.1(b)(4)(A). Hill argued that he should receive only a two-level enhancement that applies when victims were “physically restrained to facilitate commission of the offense or to facilitate escape,” 2B3.1(b)(4)(B). The court applied the four-level enhancement and imposed a sentence of 130 months’ imprisonment, based on Hill’s guidelines range of 130-162 months. With the two-level enhancement, Hill’s guidelines range would have been 110-137 months. The Sixth Circuit reversed. In the context of this “abduction” enhancement, the phrase “different location” refers to a place different from the store being robbed. A store’s backroom does not qualify as a “different location” from the store. View "United States v. xHill" on Justia Law

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In an infamous 2009 incident, the state of Ohio tried to execute death-row inmate Broom by way of lethal injection but was forced to abandon the effort when the execution team concluded—two hours into the process—that it could not maintain a viable IV connection to Broom’s veins. The state then returned Broom to his cell, to await a second execution attempt. That second execution attempt has not yet happened. The parties have spent 11 years litigating whether the U.S. Constitution bars Ohio from ever trying to execute Broom again. Broom relies on both the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual” punishment and the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on “double jeopardy.” The state courts, including the Ohio Supreme Court, have rejected Broom’s contentions on the merits, as did the district court below on habeas review. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. While calling Ohio’s treatment of Broom “disturbing, to say the least,” the court reasoned that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 permits reversal of a state court merits decisions in only a narrow set of circumstances and the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision rejecting Broom’s constitutional claims on the merits does not fall within that set of circumstances. View "Broom v. Shoop" on Justia Law

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In 2004, Flowers was charged with possessing with intent to distribute over 50 grams of crack cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(A); because Flowers had two prior felony drug convictions, his minimum sentence was life in prison. Flowers pled guilty; the government agreed to allege only one prior drug offense, meaning his mandatory minimum would be 20 years. As a career offender, his Guidelines sentencing range was 262-327 months. The court found no basis supporting a departure and imposed a 262-month sentence. The Supreme Court subsequently held that the Guidelines are advisory. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the mandatory minimum for Flowers’ conviction to 10 years; the First Step Act of 2018 made those reductions retroactive if the 2010 law modified the statutory penalties. Flowers sought resentencing, arguing that the Act modified his statutory minimum and that if he were sentenced today, he would not qualify as a career offender. HIs Ohio conviction no longer qualifies as a felony drug offense. Flowers noted his educational accomplishments and limited disciplinary record in prison. The government argued that Flowers’ Guidelines range was unchanged. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. Although it is unclear whether the district court indicated that Flowers was ineligible for a reduction because his Guidelines range did not change and the First Step Act only concerns statutory sentencing ranges, any error was harmless. The court considered all of his arguments and rejected them on the merits. View "United States v. Flowers" on Justia Law

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Plain-clothes Euclid officers approached Wright’s parked SUV with weapons drawn. Thinking he was being robbed, Wright, an African-American, tried to back up. Officers flashed their badges. Wright stopped the SUV. Officers opened the driver’s door. Wright had no weapon. The officers simultaneously deployed a taser and pepper-sprayed him at point-blank range, while Wright remained seated. Wright had trouble getting out because of a colostomy bag stapled to his abdomen. He was recovering from an operation. The encounter caused bleeding. The officers arrested Wright “arising from a drug investigation,” although they found no drugs on him. Wright was detained for more than nine hours and subjected to an intrusive body scan after the officers knew of Wright’s medical condition. No drug-related charges were ever brought against him. The Sixth Circuit reinstated Wright's civil rights case. Even if the officers had no knowledge of Wright’s medical condition, other facts, construed in Wright’s favor, could support a reasonable juror’s finding that Wright did not actively resist. An officer may not tase a citizen not under arrest merely for failure to follow orders when the officer has no reasonable fear for his safety. With respect to the Monell claim, the evidence includes the Chris Rock video, played during the city's use-of-force training, in which the comedian talks about police misconduct. There was an offensive cartoon in Euclid’s police-training manual, showing an officer in riot gear beating a prone, unarmed civilian with a club, with the caption “protecting and serving the poop out of you.” Wright has sufficient evidence of municipal policy. View "Wright v. City of Euclid" on Justia Law

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Detroit police discovered Ralston dead in her home, with multiple stab wounds, plus “defensive-type” cuts and bruises. Ralston was clutching long brown hair, which was never matched to any person. Blood was found throughout Ralston’s house. Days later, police arrested Smith. There was no physical evidence linking Smith to Ralston’s death. Smith’s acquaintances (Dennis and Evans) testified that Smith had confessed to killing a woman “at a safe house” that he had intended to rob. Ralston’s son confirmed that Smith was at the house the night before Ralston's death. Smith was convicted of first-degree felony murder and assault with intent to commit armed robbery. A juror reported that he and others had changed their votes based on a belief that Smith would receive a relatively light sentence for felony murder. The court declined to grant an evidentiary hearing and imposed the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Michigan courts upheld the convictions. Smith returned to state court to (unsuccessfully) seek relief from judgment with an affidavit from Evans’s brother, attesting that he spoke with Evans and Dennis on the day that Smith allegedly confessed, that they said Smith had only said that the police wanted to speak with him, and they thought that they might receive a reward for providing information. The federal district court construed Smith’s habeas claim to be an actual innocence claim and denied relief. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the state court should have granted a post-trial evidentiary hearing to determine whether the jury improperly relied on prejudicial information; there was insufficient evidence for conviction; and the courts erred in refusing to consider new evidence of Smith’s innocence. View "Smith v. Nagy" on Justia Law

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In February 2018, a confidential informant purchased 14.18 grams of methamphetamine from West for $300 in a Walmart restroom. Two months later, the same confidential informant met West inside a Meijer restroom and paid West $900 for 116.112 grams of simulated methamphetamine. Leaving Meijer, West entered the rear passenger side of a vehicle in which the driver’s seat was occupied by Johnson. Johnson’s girlfriend sat in the front passenger seat. Officers stopped and searched the vehicle, discovering a semi-automatic pistol under the front passenger seat. West was charged with knowingly and intentionally distributing methamphetamine in February 2018, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), and for being a felon in possession of a firearm in April 2018, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). West pleaded guilty to the drug charge; the government dismissed the felon-in-possession charge. The district court determined that West’s base offense level should be increased by two levels under U.S.S.G. 2D1.1(b)(1) because a firearm was possessed in relation to West’s drug-related offense, resulting in a Guidelines range of 37-46 months. The Sixth Circuit affirmed West’s 40-month sentence. The court rejected arguments that the district court abused its discretion in determining that he possessed the gun found in the vehicle and that the transaction was not “relevant conduct” under U.S.S.G. 1B1.3(a)(2). The district court adequately considered the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors. View "United States v. West" on Justia Law

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The Sixth Circuit affirmed Dunnican's convictions for being a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g); possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute it, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(D); and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime, 18 U.S.C. 924(c). The court upheld the introduction of data extracted from Dunnican's cellular telephone and text messages. The stipulations of Federal Rule of Evidence 902 were met and the evidence was properly authenticated. Dunnican’s text messages are not hearsay because they are Dunnican’s own statements, regardless of the medium. Text messages regarding Dunnican's other drug transactions were relevant under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) to show a necessary element of the charge: Dunnican’s intent to distribute the drug. The court properly allowed a DEA agent to offer expert opinion testimony that the marijuana appeared to be packaged for distribution. The agent offered no opinion on Dunnican’s mental state or intent but, drawing upon his training, experience, and the evidence, simply shared his subjective assessment of the facts. Dunnican was not entitled to a new trial following the dismissal of the only African-American jury member for health reasons. Dunnican’s speculation that there was “documented misconduct” during jury deliberations had no basis. A 21-month upward variance on Dunnican’s sentence was appropriate; the court reasonably concluded that an above-Guidelines sentence was necessary to advance the objectives of protecting the public and deterring Dunnican from future criminal conduct View "United States v. Dunnican" on Justia Law

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Inmates housed in the low-security Elkton Correctional Institution, on behalf of themselves and others, filed a petition under 28 U.S.C. 2241 to obtain release from custody to limit their exposure to the COVID-19 virus. They sought to represent all current and future Elkton inmates, including a subclass of inmates who—through age and/or certain medical conditions—were particularly vulnerable to complications, including death, if they contracted COVID-19. The district court entered a preliminary injunction in April 2020, directing the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to evaluate each subclass member’s eligibility for transfer by any means, including compassionate release, parole or community supervision, transfer furlough, or non-transfer furlough within two weeks; transfer those deemed ineligible for compassionate release to another facility where testing is available and physical distancing is possible; and not allow transferees to return to Elkton until certain conditions were met. The Sixth Circuit vacated the injunction. While the district court had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 2241, that section does not permit some of the relief the petitioners sought. The court rejected the BOP’s attempts to classify the claims as “conditions of confinement” claims, subject to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The district court erred in finding a likelihood of success on the merits of the Eighth Amendment claim. There was sufficient evidence that the petitioners are “incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm” but the BOP responded reasonably to the known, serious risks posed by COVID-19. View "Wilson v. Williams" on Justia Law

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Smith was indicted for knowingly and intentionally distributing a mixture of heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C). The government filed a notice that Smith was subject to an increased statutory maximum sentence under section 841(b)(1)(C) due to a prior state felony drug-trafficking offense. Pleading guilty, Smith waived his right to appeal the conviction and sentence save for five enumerated circumstances, including the right to appeal the determination that he was a career offender. The PSR indicated that Smith was a career offender based upon one prior state felony drug trafficking conviction and a state felony conviction for five counts of aggravated robbery. Smith argued that the First Step Act rendered his section 841(b)(1)(C) statutory enhancement invalid and that his state convictions were no longer predicate offenses for determining career-offender status. Smith asked to withdraw his guilty plea, citing the First Step Act and his contention that his state aggravated-robbery conviction was not a crime of violence. The district court rejected Smith’s request to withdraw his plea and imposed a within-Guidelines 150-month sentence. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Arguments regarding the First Step Act’s application to section 841(b)(1)(C) were not among the five issues Smith preserved for appeal. Employing the categorical approach, Smith’s violation of Ohio Revised Code 2925.03(A)(2) is a controlled substance offense under the Sentencing Guidelines. View "United States v. Smith" on Justia Law