Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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Aristy-Rosa, a citizen of the Dominican Republic, was admitted to the U.S. in 1993 as a lawful permanent resident. Several years later, he was convicted of attempted criminal sale of cocaine and was sentenced to five years’ probation. Aristy-Rosa received a notice, charging him as subject to removal because he had committed a crime relating to a controlled substance, 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(B)(i), his controlled substances conviction constituted an aggravated felony, section 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), and he was an alien who was inadmissible under 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(2)(A)(i)(II) at the time of his application for adjustment of status. Aristy-Rosa conceded removability and sought no relief from removal. An IJ ordered Aristy-Rosa removed. Aristy-Rosa did not appeal but later filed unsuccessful motions to reopen his removal proceedings to apply for adjustment of status and other relief.In 2017, New York Governor Cuomo fully and unconditionally pardoned Aristy-Rosa for his controlled substance conviction. Aristy-Rosa moved to reopen his removal proceedings, arguing that the pardon eliminated the basis for his removal. The IJ denied the motion, reasoning that it was time- and number-barred and that a pardon fails to extinguish the basis for removal where the underlying conviction was for a controlled substance offense. The BIA and Third Circuit dismissed his appeals. Section 1227(a)(2)(B), which provides for the removal of an alien convicted under any law relating to a controlled substance, contains no pardon waiver. View "Aristy-Rosa v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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Peroza-Benitez awoke, hearing Reading Police Officers breaking down his apartment door. They were executing a search warrant related to suspected drug offenses. Peroza-Benitez climbed out of his window onto the roof wearing undergarments and flip flops and led officers on a rooftop chase. Officer Smith radioed that Peroza-Benitez had a firearm. Peroza-Benitez apparently dropped the firearm, which landed in an alley. Peroza-Benitez denies having a firearm. Peroza-Benitez entered an abandoned building and attempted to escape through a window. Smith and Haser grabbed Peroza-Benitez and attempted to hoist him back inside; he resisted. Haser punched Peroza-Benitez. The officers let go. Peroza-Benitez fell and landed in a below-ground, concrete stairwell. Officers’ testimony differs as to whether Peroza-Benitez voluntarily moved upon landing. Peroza-Benitez testified that he was knocked temporarily unconscious. Officer White tased Peroza-Benitez, without providing a verbal warning. Peroza-Benitez was taken to the hospital, where he underwent surgery for arm injuries and a fractured leg.The district court rejected his 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit on summary judgment, citing qualified immunity. The Third Circuit vacated. There was a “clearly established” right for an injured, visibly unarmed suspect to be free from temporarily paralyzing force while positioned as Peroza-Benitez was. A reasonable jury could conclude that Haser “repeatedly” punched Peroza-Benitez in the head and caused him to fall, in violation of that right. Tasing a visibly unconscious person, who just fell over 10 feet onto concrete, also violates that person’s Fourth Amendment rights. View "Peroza-Benitez v. Smith" on Justia Law

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Morton pleaded guilty to drug crimes. The government claims that during the investigation, it intercepted telephone calls between Morton and Fagan, revealing that Morton sold cocaine to Emanuel. Morton asked Fagan to collect the proceeds from Emanuel in exchange for a finder’s fee. This transaction was not mentioned in Morton’s plea agreement. Morton separately agreed to provide information about her knowledge of and participation in any crimes, without any promise of immunity. Morton testified as a government witness in several matters.When Morton was called to testify at a hearing to revoke Fagan’s supervised release, based on Fagan’s attempt to collect Emanuel’s debt, Morton invoked the Fifth Amendment. The court directed her to answer or risk charges of criminal contempt. Morton declined. The government indicted Morton under 18 U.S.C. 401(3); the court did not allow the government to introduce the plea or cooperation agreements into evidence, nor did it allow Morton's attorney to testify about the advice he provided; it allowed the introduction of excerpts from the revocation hearing transcript when the court warned Morton her invocation of the Fifth Amendment was inappropriate. Convicted, Morton was sentenced to 37 months’ imprisonment, consecutive to her 97-month sentence for her drug offenses.The Third Circuit vacated the contempt conviction. Without knowing whether Morton’s testimony at the revocation hearing could have tended to incriminate Morton in new crimes, the court order requiring Morton to testify was invalid. Without a valid court order, there is no criminal contempt. View "United States v. Morton" on Justia Law

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In 2013, Raia ran for election to the Hoboken city council and chaired a political action committee, promoting a ballot referendum to weaken rent control laws. Raia’s PAC cut $50 checks to hundreds of voters. Raia claimed that those voters had done get-out-the-vote work, such as wearing campaign-branded t-shirts and handing out campaign literature. Raia lost the election. The government concluded that Raia instructed campaign workers to collect unsealed mail-in ballots so that he could verify whether each bribed voter cast his ballot as directed before having a $50 check issued to the voter. Charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, 18 U.S.C. 371, with the underlying offense being the use of the mails to facilitate an “unlawful activity” in violation of the Travel Act, 18 U.S.C. 1952(a)(3) (state bribery offenses), Raia’s co-conspirators pleaded guilty. Raia was convicted.The court calculated Raia’s Guidelines range as 15–21 months’ imprisonment and sentenced Raia to three months. The government appealed, claiming that the court miscalculated the Guidelines offense level by not applying a four-level aggravating role enhancement under U.S.S.G. 3B1.1(a) and a two-level obstruction of justice enhancement under section 3C1.1. The Third Circuit vacated and remanded for the district court to make whatever factual findings are necessary to determine whether either or both of the enhancements apply. View "United States v. Raia" on Justia Law

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In consolidated appeals, the government challenged the sentences given to Campbell, one year plus one day for possession of guns and ammunition as a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g), and Yusuf, 30 months for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1349, and aggravated identity theft, section 1028A(a)(1). Each pled guilty and agreed not to argue for a sentence outside the range recommended by the Sentencing Guidelines. The government contends that both defendants breached their plea agreements by actually seeking sentences below the guidelines-recommended ranges.The Third Circuit vacated the sentences. Although courts must give both defense counsel and the defendant an opportunity to speak before imposing a sentence, Rule 32(i) does not give defendants license to disavow their obligations under a plea agreement. The defendants affirmatively advocated for sentences below the agreed-upon guidelines range. The court also rejected Campbell's claim that evidence discovered during the traffic stop leading to his arrest should have been suppressed under the Fourth Amendment; the police officer involved was justified in stopping Campbell’s vehicle and did not impermissibly extend the duration of the stop. View "United States v. Yusuf" on Justia Law

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Counterman entered a plea of guilty to possession with intent to distribute in excess of 50 grams of methamphetamine, money laundering, and aiding and abetting. His contemporaneously-filed plea agreement stated that the possession charge carried a mandatory minimum period of imprisonment of 20 years. The government subsequently submitted an “Information of Prior Convictions” under 21 U.S.C. 851(a), which resulted in the imposition of an enhanced sentence of 144 months.The Third Circuit vacated. Under 21 U.S.C. 851(a)(1), no person convicted of Counterman's drug offense "shall be sentenced to increased punishment by reason of one or more prior convictions, unless before trial, or before entry of a plea of guilty, the United States attorney files an information with the court . . . stating in writing the previous convictions to be relied upon.” The court rejected arguments that Counterman received actual notice of the enhancement and that the sentence imposed falls within the pre-enhancement range contemplated by statute and the Sentencing Guidelines. The filing of a 21 U.S.C. 851(a)(1) information is mandatory. Counterman, without actual notice of the government’s intent to rely on a particular prior conviction for an enhancement and the attendant opportunity to contest it, waived his trial rights. The error affected Counterman’s substantial rights and the fundamental fairness of the proceeding. View "United States v. Counterman" on Justia Law

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While Walker waited in a car, two of his accomplices robbed a house, one holding a 12-year-old boy at gunpoint. All of Walker’s codefendants pleaded guilty. A jury convicted Walker of conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery, 18 U.S.C. 1951(a), attempted Hobbs Act robbery, and using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, 18 U.S.C. 924(c). Walker was sentenced to a combined 72 months’ imprisonment on the conspiracy and attempt counts and a consecutive term of 60 months for the section 924(c) count.On rehearing following the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision, United States v. Davis, the Third Circuit affirmed. Attempted Hobbs Act robbery is categorically a crime of violence under the “elements” clause of section 924(c). The court rejected Walker’s argument that his conviction must be vacated because a person can be convicted for attempted Hobbs Act robbery based on nothing more than an intent to complete the robbery and a non-violent substantial step, without actually committing a violent act and with only the intent to do so. View "United States v. Walker" on Justia Law

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Prophet pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography, 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(4) and 11 counts of receipt of child pornography, section 2252(a)(2). The court applied a two-level enhancement for distribution (U.S.S.G. 2G2.2(b)(3)(F)) based on Prophet’s use of LimeWire, a peer-to-peer file-sharing network. Prophet maintained that he did not know that LimeWire made his files available to other users. The court noted that “distribution” “is not restricted to acts with intent only,” and sentenced Prophet to 168 months’ imprisonment plus 15 years of supervised release. The Third Circuit affirmed. Prophet moved to vacate his sentence in 2015 based on a Third Circuit holding that the offense of distribution of child pornography under section 2252(a)(2) based on the use of a peer-to-peer network requires evidence that another person accessed the material. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of the petition.Prophet subsequently challenged the application of a two-point Guidelines enhancement for distribution of child pornography, citing 2016’s U.S.S.G. Amendment 801, limiting the enhancement to those who “knowingly engaged in distribution.” The Third Circuit again denied relief. Amendment 801 is not a clarifying amendment that can be raised and retroactively applied under 28 U.S.C. 2255. The court noted that Prophet was released from prison in 2019 and is now serving supervised release. View "United States v. Prophet" on Justia Law

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Aguirre-Miron pleaded guilty to child-pornography offenses: three counts of production, 18 U.S.C. 2251(a), (e); one count of receipt, 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(2), (b)(1); and one count of possession, 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(4)(B), (b)(2). The district court adopted the calculations from the PSR. The Sentencing Guidelines require the grouping of certain closely related counts. The PSR grouped Aguirre-Miron’s receipt and possession counts but did not group Aguirre-Miron’s production counts; nor did it group the production counts with the receipt and possession counts. It listed four groups of offenses, determined that the offense level for the production counts was 38 and the offense level for the receipt and possession counts was 40, including a five-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. 2G2.2(b)(5) because Aguirre-Miron “engaged in a pattern of activity involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor” when he produced child pornography. With Aguirre-Miron’s combined offense level and other enhancements and reductions, the PSR offense level was capped by the Sentencing Guidelines at 43. The resulting Guidelines sentence was 130 years’ imprisonment.The court granted a downward variance, which produced a Guidelines range of 360 months to life imprisonment and sentenced Aguirre-Miron to 360 months’ imprisonment. The Third Circuit vacated, holding that the court miscalculated the Sentencing Guidelines range by not grouping the production counts with the receipt and possession counts under U.S.S.G. 3D1.2(c), which was a plain error that affected Aguirre-Miron’s substantial rights. View "United States v. Aguirre-Miron" on Justia Law

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Attorney Smukler ran political campaigns for 30 years and developed expertise with Federal Election Commission law. In 2012, U.S. Representative Brady ran for reelection in Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District in Philadelphia. Brady's challenger, Moore, struggled to raise money and personally loaned his campaign about $150,000. Brady agreed to give Moore $90,000 to drop out of the race. To steer the money to Moore, Smukler devised a plan that involved a bogus corporation, “dummy invoices,” and funneling cash through a political consulting firm. In the 2014 Democratic Primary for the Thirteenth Congressional District of Pennsylvania, Smukler dipped into the general election reserve on behalf of former U.S. Representative Margolies, then used friends and family as strawmen to evade federal election laws.Smukler was convicted on nine counts of election law violations. He was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment, plus fines and assessments. The Third Circuit vacated the convictions on two counts but otherwise affirmed. The court upheld the jury instructions defining the term “willfully,” except with respect to counts that charged Smukler with violating 18 U.S.C. 2 and 1001(a)(1) by causing the false statements of others within the Brady and Margolies campaigns. A proper charge for willfulness in cases brought under those sections in the federal election law context requires the prosecution to prove that defendant knew of the statutory obligations, that he attempted to frustrate those obligations, and that he knew his conduct was unlawful. View "United States v. Smukler" on Justia Law