Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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After Albuquerque Police Officers Demsich and Melvin entered plaintiff-appellant Bradley Soza’s front porch with guns drawn, handcuffed him, and patted him down as part of a burglary investigation, Soza sued the Officers under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging the Officers violated his clearly established Fourth Amendment rights when they seized him without probable cause and entered the curtilage of his home without a warrant. The Officers moved for summary judgment, asserting qualified immunity, which the district court granted. Because the law regarding the constitutionality of the Officers’ actions was not clearly established, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that the Officers were entitled to qualified immunity. View "Soza v. Demsich, et al." on Justia Law

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In 2018, defendant-appellant Timothy Hisey pled guilty to the federal offense of unlawfully possessing firearms. Among the elements was a prior conviction for “a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.” At his plea hearing, Hisey admitted that he had a prior felony conviction in Kansas. After pleading guilty, Hisey moved to vacate his conviction under 28 U.S.C. 2255, arguing that his guilty plea had been unknowing and involuntary. The district court dismissed the motion based on procedural default because Hisey failed to raise this claim in his direct appeal. The Tenth Circuit reversed, finding Hisey has overcame the procedural default by showing actual innocence: he did not commit the underlying offense (unlawfully possessing firearms after a felony conviction) because he had no prior conviction punishable by more than a year in prison. View "United States v. Hisey" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Sean Tennison was caught buying a quarter of a kilogram of methamphetamine from a drug distribution network and was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and with possession with intent to distribute more than fifty grams of meth. He was subsequently arrested about a year later with over a kilogram of meth and various drug distribution instruments. At trial, the government presented evidence of Tennison’s initial purchase as well as Rule 404(b) evidence of the meth and the distribution apparatus in his possession when he was arrested. The jury convicted him on both counts and the district court sentenced him to 175 months of imprisonment. Tennison appealed, arguing: (1) the court erred by admitting Rule 404(b) evidence of his later arrest; (2) the evidence was insufficient to convict him; and (3) his sentence was disproportionate to his co-defendants. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Tennison's convictions. View "United States v. Tennison" on Justia Law

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Jose Burciaga-Andasola appealed his convictions for distributing methamphetamine and heroin, arguing that the district court violated Federal Rule of Evidence 605 by improperly testifying as a witness during his jury trial. Andasola’s convictions arose from a February 2017 drug deal: an FBI informant called Andasola, asked to buy three ounces of heroin, and planned to meet up with Andasola later in the week. During this call and others, Andasola discussed the product he was selling using coded language; the meeting was recorded using a hidden camera. The informant delivered packages he received from Andasola to an FBI agent. When weighed and tested, these packages held about two pounds of methamphetamine and half a pound of heroin. Three weeks later, in another recorded meeting with the informant and an undercover agent, Andasola collected payment for the earlier drug deal and discussed prices for future deals. At trial, the government presented testimony from law enforcement in addition to the informant’s phone calls with Andasola arranging the drug deal, hidden-camera video of both the drug deal and the later meeting with the undercover agent to collect payment, and transcripts of and screenshots from the audio recordings and the hidden-camera videos. Andasola testified in his own defense. On cross-examination, Andasola at times suggested that he did not remember the events shown in the video, testifying at one point that though it looked like he was in the videos, Andasola asserted the “video’s been changed” to look like he handed the packages to the informant, which he “never did.” Because defense counsel’s question as to the differences Andasola observed “between that video and this video” implied that there were two videos, the government asked the district court to instruct the jury that there was only one video. In the end, the jury convicted Andasola of both offenses, and the district court imposed concurrent 150-month prison sentences and a five-year term of supervised release. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the district court erred, but that the government established the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, Andasola's convictions were affirmed. View "United States v. Andasola" on Justia Law

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After law enforcement executed a search warrant on Defendants Huanyu Yan and You Lan Xiang’s home (“Doane home”) and seized 878 marijuana plants, Defendants moved to suppress arguing the exception to the good faith rule applied. When law enforcement seizes evidence in good faith reliance on a search warrant issued by a detached and neutral magistrate, that evidence will not be subject to suppression even if a court later invalidates that warrant. The district court disagreed and denied their motion. Defendants proceeded to a joint jury trial where a jury convicted them of: (1) Conspiracy to Manufacture and Possess with Intent to Distribute 100 or more Marijuana Plants; (2) Manufacturing and Possessing with Intent to Distribute 100 or more Marijuana Plants; and (3) Using and Maintaining a Drug-Involved Premises. At the close of the government’s case, Mr. Yan moved for judgment of acquittal, arguing the government offered insufficient evidence to sustain his conspiracy conviction. The district court denied his motion. Defendants appealed the district court’s suppression ruling, and Mr. Yan separately appealed the district court’s denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court. View "United States v. Xiang" on Justia Law

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During a traffic stop, law-enforcement officers ordered the passenger, defendant-appellant Colt Malone, to exit the car. He complied, and the officers found a pistol. Based on the presence of this pistol, the government charged Malone with possession of a firearm after a felony conviction. Malone moved to suppress evidence of the pistol, arguing that the officers had violated the Fourth Amendment by prolonging the traffic stop. The district court denied the motion to suppress, leading Malone to enter a conditional guilty plea and to appeal. After review of the trial court record, the Tenth Circuit affirmed: "[e]ven if the officers had detoured from the mission of the traffic stop, the district court had made a factual finding that the officers did not prolong the stop and Mr. Malone waived any challenge to that finding. So introduction of the pistol into evidence would not have violated the Fourth Amendment." View "United States v. Malone" on Justia Law

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Claud “Rick” Koerber was indicted by a grand jury for wire fraud, tax fraud, and mail fraud relating to a real estate investment scheme. A superseding indictment added to his wire fraud and tax evasion counts, charging him with additional counts for securities fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion. More than five years passed without a trial, resulting in the district court’s dismissing the case with prejudice under the Speedy Trial Act. On the government’s appeal of that decision, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s dismissal-with-prejudice order, identifying errors in its application of the Speedy Trial Act factors. On remand, after reapplying the factors, the district court decided to dismiss without prejudice. So in 2017 the government reindicted Koerber for the offenses earlier charged in the superseding indictment. Koerber’s first trial ended in a hung jury. His second trial ended in jury convictions on all but two counts. The court later imposed a 170-month prison sentence. On appeal, Koerber challenged his prosecution and conviction, claiming a range of errors: from evidentiary rulings, to trial-management issues, to asserted statutory and constitutional violations. After reviewing the briefing, the record, and the relevant law, the Tenth Circuit found no reversible error and affirmed. View "United States v. Koerber" on Justia Law

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Carl Cushing and Kris Hall were convicted by a jury of a drug conspiracy to distribute large quantities of methamphetamine. On appeal, Cushing and Hall raised a number of challenges to their convictions. The Tenth Circuit held that, among other things, the evidence was sufficient to convict both Cushing and Hall of the drug conspiracy, the district court did not err in admitting res gestae evidence to provide the jury appropriate context to the crime, and the expert testimony presented at trial was properly admitted. Accordingly, judgment was affirmed as to each defendant. View "United States v. Cushing" on Justia Law

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During a heated argument at a campsite in Yellowstone National Park, defendant-appellant Jeffery Harris pointed a gun at another camper. Rather than charge Harris under the federal assault statute, the federal prosecutor applied the Assimilative Crimes Act (ACA), 18 U.S.C. 13, to charge Harris with a Wyoming statute that prohibited “threaten[ing] to use a drawn deadly weapon on another unless reasonably necessary [for defense.]” Harris was convicted at trial. On appeal, he contended the federal assault statute precluded assimilation of the Wyoming state assault statute in this case. Determining whether the federal assault statute precluded conviction on the Wyoming state assault statute required the Tenth Circuit to apply the analysis set forth in Lewis v. United States, 523 U.S. 155 (1998), an issue of first impression in the Tenth Circuit. The Court agreed with Harris that the Wyoming statute should not have been assimilated, and accordingly reversed and remanded. View "United States v. Harris" on Justia Law

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Alan Williams pleaded guilty to a single count of bank fraud and stipulated to restitution tied to that count and two others that were later dismissed. The government got its conviction, and Williams limited his sentencing exposure and possible future charges. In this appeal, Williams attempted to step back from his bargain, seeking to keep the favorable plea deal, but to contest the restitution he stipulated was owed. Furthermore, he contested the district court’s apportionment of that total restitution between WebBank and Wells Fargo Bank, as recommended by the Presentence Report (PSR). The Tenth Circuit surmised Williams' first hurdle was to overcome the appeal waiver included in his Plea Agreement. To this, the Court concluded the appeal waiver did not bar his total-restitution challenge: the Plea Agreement allowed Williams to appeal the apportionment of the total restitution and the substantive reasonableness of his prison sentence as well. However, addressing the merits of Williams’s challenges, the Court no reason to disturb the order and sentence, and affirmed. View "United States v. Williams" on Justia Law