Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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Defendant-appellant Nathaniel Johnson was arrested on a Greyhound bus after an encounter with Special Agent Jarrell Perry. Law enforcement found two packages of methamphetamine in Johnson’s backpack, and Johnson gave several incriminating statements. The district court denied Johnson’s motion to suppress the physical evidence and his statements. Johnson appealed. The Tenth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Court determined Perry had probable cause to arrest Johnson and to seize the bundle of clothing and backpack. But while seizing the items from the bus, Perry conducted an illegal search of the bundle by reaching inside Johnson’s open backpack and feeling the bundle in an exploratory manner. Then later, at the DEA office, still without a warrant, Perry conducted a second illegal search of the backpack and the bundle. And contrary to the government’s position, the plain-view exception to the warrant requirement could not apply because at neither point in time were the contents of the bundle or backpack a foregone conclusion. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Guy McDonald was arrested and charged for dealing methamphetamine. He pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate federal narcotics laws at the federal district court in Eastern Oklahoma. He received a sentence of 292 months’ imprisonment. McDonald appealed, arguing the district court erred in calculating his base offense level and in applying three sentencing enhancements to his sentence. Specifically, McDonald argued the district court improperly relied on facts alleged in his presentence investigation report given the objections he raised at the sentencing hearing. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "United States v. McDonald" on Justia Law

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Defendants Orlando Cortez-Nieto and Jesus Cervantes-Aguilar were convicted by a jury of four methamphetamine offenses committed within 1,000 feet of a playground. After their convictions Defendants moved for judgment of acquittal. The district court granted the motions in part, setting aside the convictions on the ground that there was insufficient evidence that any of the offenses of conviction occurred within 1,000 feet of a playground, but entering judgments of conviction on lesser-included offenses (the four offenses without the proximity element). In their consolidated appeal, Defendants argued: (1) that a jury instruction stating that the jury should not consider the guilt of any persons other than Defendants improperly precluded the jury from considering that two government witnesses were motivated to lie about Defendants to reduce or eliminate their own guilt, and the prosecutor improperly magnified this error by explicitly arguing that the jurors could not consider the witnesses’ guilt in assessing their credibility; (2) the district court should not have imposed judgments of conviction on the lesser-included offenses after determining that the original charges had not been proved because the jury had not been instructed on the lesser-included offenses; and (3) remand was necessary to correct a clerical error in the judgment forms. The Tenth Circuit determined only that the clerical error warranted correction. The Court affirmed the district court in all other respects. View "United States v. Cortez-Nieto" on Justia Law

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Rolando Cifuentes-Lopez admitted to having commercial sex with two minors and was sentenced to 24 years and 4 months in prison. He claimed that the district court erred in applying certain sentencing enhancements pursuant to the United States Sentencing Guidelines; one enhancement for a pattern of sexual conduct with a minor, and the other for his conviction on multiple counts. He argued that: (1) the application of a pattern of activity enhancement under U.S.S.G § 4B1.5(b)(1) should not apply to him because he engaged in only one prohibited sexual act with each minor; and (2) the application of the pattern of activity enhancement along with a multiple count enhancement, U.S.S.G. § 3D1.4, was impermissible double counting. The Tenth Circuit found the district court correctly applied the enhancements, and thus affirmed the district court's judgment. View "United States v. Cifuentes-Lopez" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Robert McCrary challenged his forty-eight-month prison sentence for possessing fentanyl with the intent to distribute it. Although within the twenty-year statutory maximum for that offense, McCrary’s forty-eight-month sentence was four times higher than the high end of the advisory guideline range. The district court varied upward after concluding McCrary’s post-offense rehabilitation did not outweigh the fact that the fentanyl McCrary distributed resulted in another’s death. On appeal, McCrary contended his sentence was both procedurally and substantively unreasonable. After review, the Tenth Circuit concluded the appeal waiver to which McCrary agreed precluded the Court's review of his procedural arguments and that his sentence was substantively reasonable. View "United States v. McCrary" on Justia Law

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Defendant Zachary Babcock appealed the denial of his motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate and correct his sentence on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel. He argued his counsel failed to object to a sentencing-guidelines enhancement under USSG § 2K2.1(a)(4)(A) based on prior Utah convictions of a “controlled substance offense” as defined by USSG § 4B1.2(b). The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals had previously held Colorado and Kansas statutes that prohibited a "mere offer" to sell a controlled substance, without requiring proof of intent to actually distribute or complete a sale, did not satisfy the definition of "controlled substance offense." The Tenth Circuit found guideline commentary stated that an attempt to commit a controlled-substance offense was itself a controlled-substance offense, and the Court's opinions left open the possibility that an offer-to-sell statute could satisfy the conditions necessary to be considered an attempt-to-sell statute. Defendant contended his trial counsel should have argued at sentencing: (1) that an offer to sell under the Utah statute was not necessarily an attempt to commit a controlled-substance offense; and (2) that the guideline commentary stating that an attempt to commit a controlled-substance offense was also a controlled-substance offense improperly expanded the text of the guideline.The Tenth Circuit determined defense counsel's failure to make those two arguments did not constitute deficient performance because the first argument lacked merit and the second "would have been a stretch at the time." View "United States v. Babcock" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Briar Adams was convicted of aggravated battery. The district court applied U.S. Sentencing Guideline § 2K2.1(a)(4) to defendant who had a prior conviction in Kansas for aggravated battery. In considering that conviction, the court classified aggravated battery as a crime of violence and sentenced Adams to 51 months’ imprisonment. Adams challenged this classification, arguing that Kansas’s crime of aggravated battery included conduct that wouldn’t create a crime of violence under the sentencing guidelines. To this, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed: "in Kansas an aggravated battery could stem from battery against a fetus, and the guidelines’ definition of a crime of violence wouldn’t cover battery against a fetus. Because the Kansas crime of aggravated battery doesn’t constitute a crime of violence," the Court vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Adams" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jason Reed pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. At sentencing, the district court concluded Defendant’s previous convictions for drug distribution qualified him for enhanced criminal penalties under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The district court applied the ACCA enhancement and sentenced Defendant to 15 years’ imprisonment—the mandatory minimum. Defendant argued on appeal: (1) his guilty plea was unknowing or involuntary because his counsel erroneously advised him that the ACCA was unlikely to apply; (2) the district court lacked the power to decide whether his prior federal drug-trafficking convictions qualified as ACCA predicate felonies; and (3) he was given insufficient notice that the ACCA might apply to him. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed defendant's sentence. View "United States v. Reed" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant David Wells brutally assaulted his wife, V.W. A grand jury issued an indictment charging Wells with committing: (1) aggravated sexual abuse in “Indian country;” (2) assault with the intent to commit aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country; (3) assault resulting in serious bodily injury in Indian country; and (4) assault with a dangerous weapon in Indian country. After a petit jury convicted Wells on all four counts, the district court sentenced him to a lengthy term of incarceration. Wells appealed, challenging his convictions and sentence. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals determined none of Wells’s challenges to his conviction were meritorious. At sentencing, however, the district court erred in adjusting upward Wells’s total offense level on the basis Wells obstructed justice when he violated an order directing that he have no contact with V.W. The Tenth Circuit remanded the matter to the district court for the narrow purpose of vacating Wells’s sentence and conducting any further necessary proceeding with regard to the section 3C1.1 obstruction-of-justice adjustment. View "United States v. Wells" on Justia Law

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In his trial for assaulting his uncle with a knife, defendant-appellant Shayne Armajo sought to introduce evidence of his uncle’s assaults in order to bolster a self-defense claim. The issue defendant’s appeal presented for the Tenth Circuit’s consideration was whether the district court abused its discretion when it ruled that this was a permissible use under Rule 404(b) but nevertheless excluded most of the proffered evidence under Rule 403 because its probative value was substantially outweighed by the risk of undue prejudice. Evidence of a victim’s prior violent acts may be admissible in a self-defense case to prove the defendant’s state of mind, but it is subject to Rule 403’s balancing test. As applied here, the Court found the district court reasonably concluded that the probative value of the victim’s alleged assaults was substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice. Consequently, the Court held the district court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded the contested evidence. View "United States v. Armajo" on Justia Law