Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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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

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Defendant-Appellant Steven Henson appealed his convictions and sentence related to his involvement in a drug distribution conspiracy in and around Wichita, Kansas. He argued: (1) his convictions should have been vacated and the case remanded for a new trial because the trial court erroneously deprived him of chosen counsel; (2) the trial court erred by instructing the jury it could find the requisite mental state for his crimes based on a “deliberate ignorance” or “willful blindness” theory of knowledge; (3) the case should be remanded for resentencing based upon the purported procedural and substantive unreasonableness of his sentence to life in prison; and (4) the Tenth Circuit should reconsider a prior precedent and, in doing so, hold that one of the district court’s jury instructions misstated the law. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Henson's convictions and sentence. View "United States v. Henson" on Justia Law

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Wyoming state prisoner Gregory Hawes appealed the dismissal of his habeas corpus petition filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2254 to challenge his kidnapping conviction. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a certificate of appealability (“COA”) on the issue of whether application of the Wyoming kidnapping statute to him was constitutional under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Tenth Circuit found that under the statute, whether a kidnapping ends with a “safe release” of the victim can affect the defendant’s sentence. At trial, the state district court imposed the burden to show safe release on Hawes. The jury found that he had not proved safe release, which subjected him to higher statutory minimum and maximum sentences. A state court denied his post-conviction challenge to the imposition of this burden, relying on Wyoming Supreme Court decisions holding that a kidnapping defendant had to prove safe release rather than the prosecution having to prove lack of safe release. To the Tenth Circuit, Hawes argued the Wyoming court’s application of the statute violated his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99 (2013), Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684 (1975). The Tenth Circuit found Hawes made colorable arguments, but he could not not surmount the habeas restrictions that required the Court to (1) give deference to the state court’s application of Supreme Court law under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) and (2) accept the state court’s interpretation of state law. Accordingly, dismissal of his petition for habeas relief was affirmed. View "Hawes v. Pacheco, et al." on Justia Law

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Defendants James Hald, Monterial Wesley, and Walter Sands appealed the denials of their district-court motions for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A). They were among many prisoners who sought to be released from prison confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each claimed that his underlying health conditions and mounting infections at his correctional facility satisfied the statute’s “extraordinary and compelling reasons” requirement for early release. Before granting a sentence reduction, the district court had to consider whether the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) supported the reduction. The Tenth Circuit found each of the Defendants was denied relief by the United States District Court for the District of Kansas based on the court’s discretionary analysis of the section 3553(a) factors. The principal issue for the Tenth Circuit's review was whether, as argued by Hald and Sands, a district court was permitted to deny relief based on its assessment of the 3553(a) factors without first making a determination on the existence of “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” To this, the Tenth Circuit rejected the argument, holding that district courts were free to deny relief on the basis of any one of section 3582(c)(1)(A)’s requirements without considering the others. The Court also rejected the other arguments raised by Sands and Wesley. Accordingly, the denial of all three motions for compassionate release was affirmed. View "United States v. Hald, et al." on Justia Law