Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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Messina filed suit, accusing Coello—who was dating Messina’s former boyfriend— of harassment. Coello pled not guilty and the charge was dismissed. Subsequently, private attorney Estabrooks requested an appointment to prosecute Messina’s complaint. New Jersey Court Rules permit courts to appoint a “private prosecutor to represent the State in cases involving cross-complaints.” This 2007 prosecution did not involve a cross-complaint and Estabrooks did not disclose that she was also representing Messina in custody and other civil actions against Coello’s boyfriend. Without recording any findings as to the need for a private prosecutor or the suitability of Estabrooks, Municipal Judge DiLeo approved her application. Irregularities continued at trial and post-conviction. Without addressing Coello’s lack of representation or her evidence, DiLeo reinstated her jail term based on a letter from Estabrooks.In 2016, a New Jersey state court vacated Coello's harassment conviction. The prosecution, by then familiar with allegations of judicial misconduct against DiLeo, did not oppose the motion. In 2020, Coello filed this federal civil rights action against Estabrooks, DiLeo, and municipal defendants. The district court dismissed most of her claims as untimely, reasoning that at the time of her trial and sentencing, Coello had reason to know of her alleged injuries. The Third Circuit reversed the dismissal, citing the special timeliness rules governing her precise claims. Under Heck v. Humphrey, her claims all imply the invalidity of her criminal prosecution; she could not file suit until her conviction was vacated View "Coello v. DiLeo" on Justia Law

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Defendant was indicted for various child pornography offenses in February 2018. Defendant expressed his intention to represent himself and the district court permitted him to do so, but appointed the Federal Public Defender's Office as standby counsel. However, subsequently, Defendant announced to the court he was invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and largely refused to participate in the proceedings. After holding a hearing, the district court held that Defendant waived and forfeited his right to represent himself and appointed the Federal Public Defender's Office as his attorney. Ultimately, Defendant was convicted and sentenced to 180 months of imprisonment.On appeal, Defendant challenged the district court's determination that he waived and forfeited his right to represent himself. The court affirmed Defendant's conviction. The court explained "the right to represent oneself is not absolute, however; judges 'may terminate self-representation by a defendant who deliberately engages in serious and obstructionist misconduct.'" Here, Defendant stopped communicating with the court, failed to open his legal mail and repeatedly violated court orders. Thus, the Third Circuit held that the district court did not err in concluding that "it would be impossible to conduct a fair trial with a pro se defendant who refused to cooperate or engage at all with the court." View "USA v. Thomas Noble" on Justia Law

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Defendant, a former scientist employed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), pled guilty to a single count of conspiracy to steal trade secrets, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1832(a)(5) based on allegations he stole company documents. At sentencing, the government sought a sentencing enhancement based on the “loss” attributable to Defendant's conduct. However, the district court denied the government's request for an enhancement.On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed. The court noted that finding that under the commentary to U.S.S.G. 2B1.1, the definition of “loss” includes losses that the defendants intended. However, here, it was uncontested that GSK did not suffer any actual loss. Further, the court determined that the government failed to prove that Defendant purposely sought to inflict pecuniary harm on GSK. View "USA v. Yu Xue" on Justia Law

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Four defendants, who have multiple ties to organized crime, were convicted for their roles in the unlawful takeover and looting of FirstPlus Financial, a publicly traded mortgage loan company. Their scheme began with the defendants’ and their co-conspirators’ extortion of FirstPlus’s board of directors and its chairman, using lies and threats to gain control of the company. Once they forced the old leadership out, the defendants drained the company of its value by causing it to enter into expensive consulting and legal-services agreements with themselves, causing it to acquire (at vastly inflated prices) shell companies they personally owned, and using bogus trusts to funnel FirstPlus’s assets into their own accounts. They ultimately bankrupted FirstPlus, leaving its shareholders with worthless stock.Each defendant was convicted of more than 20 counts of criminal behavior and given a substantial prison sentence. In a consolidated appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting challenges to the investigation, the charges and evidence against them, the pretrial process, the government’s compliance with its disclosure obligations, the trial, the forfeiture proceedings, and their sentences. The government conceded that the district court’s assessment of one defendant’s forfeiture obligations was improper under a Supreme Court decision handed down during the pendency of this appeal and remanded that assessment. View "United States v. Scarfo" on Justia Law

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Rodriguez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute more than 100 grams of heroin and possession with intent to distribute an unspecified amount of heroin and more than 50 grams of methamphetamine. He was sentenced to 262 months’ imprisonment, based on a 262–327-month Sentencing Guidelines range that reflects sentence enhancements for being the organizer or leader of a criminal activity involving five or more participants and for maintaining premises for distributing drugs.The Third Circuit affirmed. The district court found that Rodriguez “set the prices,” “issue[d] edicts,” “dictated to whom and for how much the drugs were to be sold,” and provided drugs to his co-conspirators for distribution and did not clearly err by applying the “leader” sentence enhancement. The court also upheld the application of the “premises” enhancement. Rodriguez directed the activities at the premises in question and those premises were one of the “places where essential parts of drug operation[s] were conducted.” The ownership of premises was not dispositive. View "United States v. Rodriguez" on Justia Law

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For several years, Adair sold prescription opioid pills in Pittsburgh. She pleaded guilty to a 10-count indictment. At sentencing, the court increased her offense level by four points for being an organizer or leader of extensive criminal activity, U.S.S.G. 3B1.1(a). Although Adair timely pleaded guilty, the government did not move for a one-point reduction for acceptance of responsibility, section 3E1.1(b). The district court calculated Adair’s Sentencing Guidelines range as 188-235 months and granted a downward variance so that Adair received a 168-month prison term for the longest of her concurrent sentences.The Third Circuit affirmed, upholding the imposition of a four-point increase for the organizer-leader enhancement and rejecting an argument that the court should have compelled the government to move for a one-point reduction for acceptance of responsibility. View "United States v. Adair" on Justia Law

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In 2015, Mitchell was convicted of drug-and gun-related offenses, including two counts of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime, and aiding and abetting such possession, 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1). After the enactment of the 2018 First Step Act, the Third Circuit vacated Mitchell’s 1,020-month sentence, finding that the sentencing court violated his due process rights.The Third Circuit held that the provisions of the First Step Act do apply to Mitchell’s resentencing. The Act is ambiguous; it applies, prospectively, to all offenses committed after the Act’s enactment but, retroactively, “to any offense that was committed before the date of enactment of this Act, if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of [that] date.” The court chose to interpret it broadly to allow the Act’s provisions to apply to a defendant whose pre-Act-unconstitutional sentence was vacated after the Act’s enactment. Because Mitchell’s sentence was fully vacated, he was an unsentenced defendant after the enactment of the Act and entitled to benefit from it. View "United States v. Mitchell" on Justia Law

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El-Battouty was a leader of a large-scale online child pornography ring for almost two years. Using an alias, El-Battouty posted several thousand times on the internet chat platform, Discord's servers, which were organized into text channels that functioned as chatrooms. They operated as hierarchical distribution networks for sexually explicit images and videos of minors. Users shared methods to coerce children into producing pornography. El-Battouty used a fictional online persona to deceive minors into believing they were playing a “game” of progressively lewder sex acts with a fellow minor, surreptitiously recorded and then distributed this content to other users on the Discord servers. An undercover FBI agent monitored and preserved content. A search of El-Battouty’s residence pursuant to a warrant recovered digital devices containing thousands of archived sexually explicit images and videos of minors. The devices and El-Battouty’s own statements established his access and use of the servers.Convicted of engaging in a child exploitation enterprise, 18 U.S.C. 2252A(g), he was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment, a life term of supervised release, and restitution. The Third Circuit affirmed. The central issue was whether El-Battouty acted alone or conspired with other users on the Discord servers. The statute presents common words and phrases, which the district court explained to the jury in a straightforward way. View "United States v. El-Battouty" on Justia Law

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Marsalis is a nursing-school dropout but on dating websites, he was “Dr. Jeff,” a high-flying physician at the University of Pennsylvania and also a NASA astronaut. When an unsuspecting woman fell for Marsalis’s ruse, he drugged her drink, then offered to let her recover at his apartment. As the woman blacked out, he sexually assaulted her. In total, 10 women accused Marsalis of rape, each telling a version of that same story. A jury acquitted him of rape, convicting him only of two sexual assaults. The judge found that he was a sexually violent predator and sentenced him to the maximum: up to 21 years in prison. On state habeas review, Marsalis argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present an alibi defense and investigate a victim’s medical condition. The court dismissed his petition, and the Superior Court affirmed.Marsalis filed this federal habeas petition, arguing that trial counsel should have objected to a doctor’s expert testimony. The district court rejected the ineffective-counsel claim because Marsalis had not raised it during state habeas. The Third Circuit affirmed. Marsalis’s federal habeas challenge was untimely and a jury would have convicted him even if his lawyer had been adequate. View "Marsalis v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Inmate Rivera was temporarily transferred in order to represent himself in a trial challenging his conditions of confinement. He was assigned to the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) from which inmates may access a “mini law library.” Rivera’s trial was scheduled to begin on a Monday. On Friday, his request for continuing access to the library throughout his trial was approved. The library, however, did not contain any physical books, only two computers. Both were inoperable. Rivera had no way to access the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Rules of Evidence, and the court rules. Rivera’s request to borrow paper copies from the main law library was summarily denied. The judge refused to admit his evidence on hearsay grounds. The jury entered a defense verdict. According to Rivera, access to the Rules would likely have changed the outcome of his trial.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Rivera’s 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit on qualified immunity grounds. At the time of the alleged violation, Supreme Court and Third Circuit precedents had not clearly established a prisoner’s right to access the material after he filed a complaint. “Going forward, however, there should be no doubt that such a right exists. The ability of a prisoner to access basic legal materials in a law library … does not stop once a prisoner has taken the first step towards the courthouse’s door.” View "Rivera v. Monko" on Justia Law