Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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Stephens called 911 and reported that Gibbons hit her and had a gun in his truck. The police responded. Stephens obtained a temporary restraining order, prohibiting Gibbons from possessing firearms and from returning to Stephens’s house. The next day, Gibbons went to Stephens’s house. Stephens was talking on the phone; the friend called the police. Gibbons left Stephens’s house. Trooper Conza arrived. Stephens stated that Gibbons had waved a gun throughout their argument. Conza told Stephens to go to the police barracks and reported over the radio that Gibbons had brandished a firearm. Conza, with Troopers Bartelt and Korejko, visited the nearby home of Gibbons’s mother, James. James stated that she did not know where Gibbons was and that he might be off his schizophrenia medication. While driving to the barracks, Stephens saw Gibbons walking alongside the road and called 911. The Troopers responded. Bartelt parked his car and, exiting, observed that Gibbons was pointing a gun at his own head. Bartelt drew his weapon, stood behind his car door, and twice told Gibbons to drop his weapon. Gibbons did not comply. Bartelt shot Gibbons twice within seconds of stopping his car. Gibbons died that night. In James’ suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the Third Circuit held that Bartelt is entitled to qualified immunity because he did not violate Gibbons’s clearly established rights. Bartelt’s pre-standoff knowledge of Gibbons differs from that of officers involved in cited cases. Bartelt could reasonably conclude that Gibbons posed a threat to others. View "James v. New Jersey State Police" on Justia Law

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In 1976, the body of 15-year-old “Kathy” was found near her Indiana County, Pennsylvania home. Kathy’s death involved a brutal assault, rape, and a gunshot to the head. Kathy's sisters, ages nine and 12, stated that she had gotten into a car with a man with blue eyes, black hair that came below his ears and curled at the ends, sideburns, heavy eyebrows, and a heavy mustache. Fogle had “straight reddish-blonde hair that dropped down his back and a matching, full beard that reached his waist.” After three years, Fogle became a suspect because a psychiatric patient described seeing Kathy get in a car with Fogle and his brother. The story was largely inconsistent with statements by Kathy’s sisters. Jailhouse informants were recruited and counseled by law enforcement with promises of leniency. The prosecutors “either knew about, encouraged, or permitted” this strategy. A jury found Fogle guilty of second-degree murder. In 2015, Fogle obtained DNA evidence excluding both himself and his brother as the source of semen collected from Kathy. His conviction was vacated. The Commonwealth declined to pursue new charges, describing the case as lacking “prosecutorial merit.” Fogle, having spent three decades in prison, sued the prosecutors and Indiana County under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of their motions to dismiss based on absolute immunity. Only truly prosecutorial functions, not investigative conduct, justify complete protection from suit. Fogle’s complaint alleges actions that fall outside the narrow doctrine of absolute immunity. View "Fogle v. Sokol" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Attorney General (OAG) charged Walker with forgery and computer crimes. The prosecutor and the lead investigator requested that Penn State produce Walker’s emails from her employee account. At Penn’s request, they obtained a subpoena. The subpoena was missing information regarding the date, time or place where the testimony or evidence would be produced, or which party was requesting the evidence. The subpoena was incomplete and unenforceable. The prosecutor offered the subpoena to Penn’s Assistant General Counsel, who instructed an employee to assist. After the OAG obtained Walker’s emails, the pending criminal charges were dismissed with prejudice. Walker filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court dismissed, citing qualified immunity because Walker did not have a clearly established right to privacy in her work emails. A Third Circuit panel affirmed, reasoning that Penn produced the emails voluntarily, rather than under coercion resulting from the invalid subpoena and was acting within its legal authority and through counsel. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Walker's amended complaint, alleging violations of the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. 2701 (SCA). The SCA is inapplicable because Penn does not provide electronic communication services to the public. Penn acted within its rights as Walker’s employer in voluntarily disclosing her work emails. Penn’s search of its server to produce Walker’s emails is not prohibited by the SCA, regardless of whether its counsel was induced by deceit or knowingly cooperative. It is the law of the case that Penn consented to disclose Walker’s emails. View "Walker v. Coffey" on Justia Law

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Doreen Proctor reported drug activity in her neighborhood and cooperated with law enforcement. She was murdered. Tyler was acquitted of her murder in state court. A federal grand jury thereafter charged Tyler with witness tampering by murder, 18 U.S.C. 1512(a)(1)(C) and witness tampering by intimidation, 18 U.S.C. 1512(b)(3). Because legal errors resulted in overturned verdicts, Tyler was tried and found guilty three times. The district court set aside the third guilty verdict, concluding that there was insufficient evidence for a reasonable juror to conclude that Tyler had the intent to murder or intimidate Proctor to prevent her from communicating with a qualifying officer. The Third Circuit reversed and directed the district court to reinstate the guilty verdict. The district court erred in ruling that the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision, Fowler v. United States, applies only to situations where a defendant does not know the identity of a specific law enforcement officer to whom the witness would have communicated. There was sufficient evidence upon which a rational juror could conclude that Tyler acted with intent to prevent Proctor from communicating with law enforcement, and there was a “reasonable likelihood” that she would have communicated with a qualifying law enforcement officer had she not been murdered. View "United States v. Tyler" on Justia Law

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Folk was convicted of distribution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base, two counts of using a firearm to further a drug trafficking offense, and of felon in possession of a firearm. The PSR deemed Folk a career offender under U.S.S.G. 4B1.1 because he had prior felony convictions for “crimes of violence” and recommended enhancing Folk’s Guidelines range from 384-465 months to between 420 months and life imprisonment. The district court discussed Folk’s previous convictions: two robberies in 2001, simple assault in 2003, and terroristic threats in 2003, and adopted the PSR’s recommended range but sentenced Folk to 264 months’ imprisonment. His conviction was affirmed; Folk did not challenge his sentence or his career-offender designation. A subsequent 28 U.S.C 2255 motion argued that Folk's career-offender designation was invalid because the Supreme Court’s 2015 “Johnson” decision rendered section 4B1.2(a) void. The district court denied the motion. The Third Circuit affirmed. A challenge to an incorrect career-offender designation under the Guidelines is not an omission inconsistent with the rudimentary demands of fair procedure and is not cognizable under section 2255. An incorrect designation that results in a sentence within the statutory maximum is not a fundamental defect inherently resulting in a complete miscarriage of justice. The court denied Folk’s motion to expand the certificate of appealability because he does not satisfy the standard for a second 2255 motion. View "United States v. Folk" on Justia Law

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While running for office in Hoboken, New Jersey, Raia directed campaign volunteers to bribe voters with $50 payments to vote for him by absentee ballot and support a measure he favored. Convicted of conspiring to use the mails to promote unlawful activity, Raia was sentenced to three months imprisonment. With the government’s appeal of the sentence pending, Raia reported to the federal correctional institute. Shortly thereafter, he asked the Bureau of Prisons to move for compassionate release on his behalf. Before BOP responded, and before 30 days passed, Raia filed his own motion for compassionate release given the COVID-19 pandemic. Raia claimed he faces heightened risks because he is 68-years old and suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes, and heart issues. The district court denied the motion, concluding that the pending appeal divested it of jurisdiction. Raia then asked the Third Circuit to decide his compassionate-release motion or to return jurisdiction to the district court by dismissing the government’s appeal. The Third Circuit rejected the motion. The First Step Act empowers criminal defendants to request compassionate release for “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” 18 U.S.C 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), but those defendants must first ask the BOP to do so on their behalf, give BOP 30 days to respond, and exhaust available administrative appeals before submitting their motion to “the [sentencing] court.” View "United States v. Raia" on Justia Law

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At Savage’s sentencing hearing for his 2005 drug, money laundering, and witness tampering convictions, the judge stated that the $5,000 fine was “due immediately.” The judge “recommended” participation in the Bureau of Prisons Inmate Financial Responsibility Program, under which the Bureau periodically takes money from an inmate’s prison trust account and forwards it to the court. Savage was subsequently charged with directing several killings from the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center. He was transferred to a Colorado federal super-maximum-security prison, where he is not permitted to work and earn money. Savage moved to modify the payment schedule under 18 U.S.C. 3572(d)(3), which provides that a court can modify a judgment that “permits payments in installments.” The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion. The sentencing court never permitted payment in installments but required immediate payment. Section 3572(d)(3) does not apply where the fine is due immediately. While the court “recommended” that Savage “participate in” the Program, nothing in section 3572(d) precludes the Bureau from setting a payment schedule to satisfy a fine that was due immediately. The court’s recommendation did not transform his fine payable immediately into one subject to installments. After exhausting his administrative remedies, Savage may object to the Bureau’s collection mechanism and seek an alternate payment schedule by filing a petition under 28 U.S.C. 2241. View "United States v. Savage" on Justia Law

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In 2014, Sampson pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). The district court denied his motion to withdraw his plea and sentenced him to 15 years' imprisonment. The Third Circuit affirmed. The district court denied his subsequent 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion, finding his claims waived or meritless. Sampson filed a 28 U.S.C. 2244 and 2255(h) motion seeking permission to file a second or successive 2255 motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. The Third Circuit denied the application, concluding that there was no new rule of constitutional law, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court, that was previously unavailable. Sampson cited the Supreme Court’s 2019 “Rehaif” holding that the government must prove that a defendant charged with violating section 922(g) knew both that he possessed a firearm and that he belonged to the relevant class of persons barred from possessing a firearm. Rehaif did not state a rule of constitutional law but only addressed what the statutes require for a conviction and the rule has not been made retroactive. Sampson was informed that the government was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Sampson knowingly possessed a firearm and pled guilty. View "In re: Sampson" on Justia Law

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James’s 10-year-old nephew found a loaded handgun in a drawer. The gun fired accidentally, wounding the boy’s six-year-old sister. She recovered. James pleaded guilty under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), to possession of a firearm by one convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year of incarceration. The PSR recommended 84-105 months' imprisonment, with two criminal history points for a 2011 conviction for “loitering and prowling at night time,” 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. 5506, a third-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year of incarceration. James had been sentenced to 60 days’ probation. Probation violations resulted in a nine-month sentence of incarceration. James argued that the sentence for “[l]oitering” and for all offenses “similar to” it should be excluded from his criminal-history score under U.S.S.G. 4A1.2(c)(2), which would result in a guidelines range of 70-87 months. The Third Circuit affirmed a 105-month sentence. Although section 5506 and its application to James are similar to the offenses that comprise loitering simpliciter, excluded by U.S.S.G. 4A1.2(c)(2), the court noted section 5506’s one-year maximum term of imprisonment. Section 5506’s mens rea requirement categorically distinguishes it from the “[l]oitering” offense listed in section 4A1.2(c)(2). Pennsylvania courts have construed section 5506, which refers to acting “maliciously” to contain a mens rea element akin to the Model Penal Code’s term “purposely.” View "United States v. James" on Justia Law

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Diaz was charged with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute drugs. His five co-defendants pled guilty. Albert-Heise, assigned to represent Diaz, accepted a new position. Dissatisfied with his newly-appointed attorney, O’Brien, Diaz requested new counsel, stating that O’Brien pressured him to plead guilty, did not accept Diaz’s advice on pretrial motions, and failed to share discovery. The district court then appointed Kalinowski. Diaz subsequently complained about Kalinowski’s failure to communicate with him. Kalinowski never complied with a court order to respond to Diaz. Diaz again requested new counsel. The court did not inquire further or schedule any hearing and granted a continuance without commenting on Diaz’s request for new counsel. Diaz and Kalinowski appeared together for a pretrial conference; neither raised any issue related to the representation. Twice more, Diaz wrote to the court complaining of Kalinowski. The case proceeded to trial with Kalinowski representing Diaz. The Third Circuit affirmed his conviction, despite expressing concern that the district court “may not have been as attentive to Diaz’s complaints regarding his counsel as it should have been,” and that certain testimony by a government witness violated Rule 701 (lay opinion testimony). The improper testimony did not prejudice Diaz so as to affect his substantial rights. The court did not clearly err when it attributed more than 20 grams of heroin to Diaz at sentencing. View "United States v. Diaz" on Justia Law