Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
by
The case revolves around Jonathan Goerig, who was found parked in a high-school parking lot. A police officer, acting on a tip, approached Goerig and began questioning him. The officer noticed Goerig's shorts were pulled down and his suspicious responses led the officer to order him out of his truck. Evidence found in the truck revealed that Goerig planned to meet a minor for sex.Prior to the current review, the District Court had denied Goerig's motion to suppress the evidence found in his truck, his statements to the arresting officers, and all evidence recovered from his phone and iCloud account. The court held that the officer had not seized Goerig until he told him to get out of the truck and by then, he had reasonable suspicion. It also ruled that police had validly seized all the evidence.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's judgment. The court held that the police officer did not seize Goerig until he ordered him to step out of the truck. Until then, the officer was just asking him questions. The court also held that by the time the officer ordered Goerig out of the truck, he had reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop. The court further held that the arrest was proper and that the police validly searched and seized all the evidence. The court concluded that the Terry stop, arrest, and searches and seizures were proper, and thus affirmed the District Court's judgment. View "USA v. Goerig" on Justia Law

by
The case involves defendants Abdur Rahim Islam and Shahied Dawan, who were charged with multiple counts of fraud and bribery related to their roles in Universal Community Homes and Universal Education Companies. During their nearly six-week-long trial, five original jurors were discharged and replaced by alternates. When one of the remaining jurors contracted COVID-19, the defendants refused to proceed with eleven jurors, leading the District Court to declare a mistrial based on manifest necessity. The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause barred their reprosecution. The District Court denied the motion.The case was previously tried in March 2022, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict, leading to a retrial in September 2022. During the retrial, three jurors were discharged during the first phase of the trial due to various personal reasons. After the jury acquitted all four defendants of the honest services wire fraud charges, the trial continued with the remaining charges against Islam and Dawan. However, two more jurors were discharged due to personal reasons, and another juror contracted COVID-19, leading to the declaration of a mistrial.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that the District Court’s declaration of a mistrial was manifestly necessary, affirming the decision as to Islam. However, the court dismissed Dawan’s appeal as moot because he was acquitted on all other counts, and any remaining double jeopardy issues with respect to him were no longer live. The court found that the District Court had considered and exhausted all reasonably available alternatives before declaring a mistrial, and therefore did not abuse its discretion when it discharged the jury. View "USA v. Islam" on Justia Law

by
The case revolves around Victor Cora-Alicea, who was involved in a drug trafficking operation led by Ramone Velazquez. Cora-Alicea, who had no supervisory responsibilities and was merely tasked with bagging drugs, was arrested and pleaded guilty to violations of drug trafficking laws. His sentencing was calculated based on a base offense level of 31, with reductions for his safety-valve eligibility, minor role, and acceptance of responsibility, resulting in a total offense level of 24. His criminal history category I was based on a nonexistent criminal record. The District Court set his Guidelines range at 51–63 months. Cora-Alicea requested a mitigation-based variance from the range, arguing that his life history, personal characteristics, and an anticipated change to the Guidelines for people with zero criminal history points justified a variance to approximately 24 months’ imprisonment.The District Court sentenced Cora-Alicea to 45 months on each count, to be served concurrently, followed by a total of three years on supervised release. The court took into consideration his zero-point status but ignored Cora-Alicea’s other bases for a variance. Cora-Alicea appealed the District Court’s judgment, arguing that the court procedurally erred at sentencing by dismissing the majority of his personal mitigation evidence offered in support of a variance under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) on the ground that it was “already taken into account” by the downward adjustments under the Guidelines.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that the District Court had erred in its interpretation of the Guidelines. The court noted that the safety-valve provision, minor-role, and acceptance-of-responsibility adjustments considered in Cora-Alicea’s sentencing had nothing to do with the myriad of mitigating circumstances he raised under § 3553(a). The court concluded that the District Court's erroneous legal conclusion preempted any weighing of the mitigation evidence against the Guidelines range or the other sentencing factors. As a result, the court vacated Cora-Alicea’s sentence and remanded his case to the District Court for resentencing. View "USA v. Cora-Alicea" on Justia Law

by
The case involves Alice Chu, who was indicted in September 2019 and convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and five counts of health care fraud. Chu's trial was initially set for February 22, 2021, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chief Judge of the District of New Jersey issued multiple standing orders that delayed trials and excluded these delays from Speedy Trial Act (STA) calculations. Chu's trial eventually commenced on March 1, 2022.Chu moved to dismiss multiple times on STA grounds, arguing that the delays denied her right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment and that the government abused the grand jury process causing inexcusable delay. The District Court denied these motions. After her conviction, Chu filed two motions for a new trial, claiming she was unfairly prejudiced by trial testimony about prior bad acts and that newly discovered evidence could change the probability of a conviction at trial. The District Court denied both motions.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's decisions. The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that the exclusions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic did not violate defendants’ rights under the STA. The Court also found no clear error in the District Court’s adoption of the factual findings contained within the COVID Standing Orders. The Court of Appeals further agreed with the District Court that Chu failed to show that the government’s “sole or dominant purpose” was to impermissibly delay her trial. The Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying Chu's motions for a new trial and that the evidence at trial was sufficient to prove Chu’s knowledge and intent to commit health care fraud. View "United States v. Chu" on Justia Law

by
The case involves Terril Edwards, who was convicted in 2008 on three counts: possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime, and possession of a firearm by a felon. Based on Edwards’s criminal history, the District Court determined that the statutory minimum for the Drug Trafficking Charge was life imprisonment. In 2011, Edwards filed a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence, which the District Court denied. In 2019, following the passage of the First Step Act of 2018, Edwards filed a motion for resentencing. The District Court granted the motion and resentenced Edwards to a total of 240 months.Edwards's conviction and sentence were affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In 2020, Edwards filed a second motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Rehaif v. United States. The District Court transferred the petition to the Third Circuit to determine whether it could consider the successive petition.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that Edwards's second motion was a second or successive motion because a First Step Act resentencing is unrelated to the validity of the judgment it amends and thus does not result in a new, intervening judgment under Magwood. The court also held that Edwards had not satisfied the requirements of § 2255(h) because Rehaif did not announce a “new rule of constitutional law” made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court. Finally, the court held that Edwards could not challenge his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, as the Supreme Court had foreclosed this possibility in Jones v. Hendrix. As a result, the court denied Edwards's requests. View "In re Edwards" on Justia Law

by
The case involves Carlos Hill, who was convicted in 2013 for possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), a law that makes it illegal for a person convicted of a crime punishable by more than a year in prison to possess a firearm. In 2019, Hill sought to challenge his conviction following the Supreme Court's decision in Rehaif v. United States, which overturned previous interpretations of § 922(g)(1) and held that the government must prove that the person knew they belonged to the prohibited group. Hill requested the appointment of counsel to pursue his Rehaif claim in a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The District Court denied his request, ruling that Hill's § 2255 motion was second or successive and that he did not qualify for relief under Rehaif.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit disagreed with the District Court's ruling. The appellate court determined that Hill's § 2255 motion was not second or successive, and that Rehaif announced a new substantive rule that is retroactive for non-successive § 2255 motions. The court concluded that the District Court's order was incorrect and vacated it, remanding the case for further proceedings. The appellate court also issued a certificate of appealability for Hill's appeal, finding that jurists of reason would find it debatable whether Hill has stated a valid constitutional claim and whether the District Court was correct in its procedural ruling. View "United States v. Hill" on Justia Law

by
This case revolves around Harvey Robinson, who was convicted of multiple crimes including three counts of first-degree murder. The prosecution sought the death penalty for each of the murder counts, arguing that Robinson posed a future danger to society if he was ever released from prison. During sentencing, a juror asked the judge whether a life sentence would entail parole. The judge initially speculated that while current law doesn't permit parole, the law might change in the future. Later, the judge corrected his statement, firmly asserting that life imprisonment meant no parole.Robinson's case went through several layers of courts. During his appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's decision, arguing that the prosecution did not make an issue of Robinson's future dangerousness and there was no error in the trial court's instruction. The state courts and a federal district court denied him collateral relief.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court's ruling. The court noted that the judge's final instruction to the jury made it clear that Robinson, if sentenced to life imprisonment, would not be eligible for parole. The court concluded that even if the judge's initial speculation about parole had been problematic, his subsequent correction absolved any error. The court also concluded that the prosecution had indeed raised the issue of Robinson's future dangerousness, contrary to the state court's ruling. Thus, the court upheld the denial of habeas corpus. View "Robinson v. Secretary, Pennsylvania Department Of Corrections" on Justia Law

by
This case involves a criminal defendant, William Barksdale, who was denied the right to testify in his own defense during a supervised release revocation hearing. Barksdale had previously pled guilty to conspiring to commit wire fraud, was sentenced to twenty months in prison and five years' supervised release. Near the end of his supervised release, his probation officer reported ten potential violations of his release terms to the District Court. During the revocation hearing, Barksdale repeatedly expressed his desire to testify, but the judge denied his request, stating that Barksdale had chosen not to testify. The judge then found Barksdale guilty of nine release violations and sentenced him to thirty months in prison.Barksdale appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, arguing that the District Court denied him his right to testify in his own defense. The Circuit Court reviewed the District Court's findings of fact for clear error, its legal rulings de novo, and its ultimate decision to revoke supervised release for abuse of discretion.The Circuit Court found that on the record before them, the District Court judge had erred in denying Barksdale his right to testify. The Court ruled that nowhere on the record did Barksdale himself waive that right, and thus he was denied his constitutional right to testify. The government was then required to prove that this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, which they failed to do. The Court noted that even if Barksdale's testimony could have reduced his sentence only slightly, that is enough to make the error harmful.Finally, despite Barksdale's request for a new judge on remand, the Circuit Court found no evidence of bias or appearance of bias from the District Court judge. Therefore, the case was remanded to the same judge for a new revocation hearing. View "United States v. Barksdale" on Justia Law

by
The case revolves around a defendant, Davit Davitashvili, who was charged with violating federal law by transmitting threats to injure his ex-wife, Olga Volosevich, and other unnamed individuals. This was after a long history of abusive behavior towards Volosevich, culminating in threatening messages sent to her via the messaging app Viber. Davitashvili appealed his conviction, arguing that his threats towards unnamed individuals were constitutionally protected speech.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit disagreed with Davitashvili's claim. It noted that Davitashvili's threats towards "others" were not protected speech under the First Amendment, as they targeted particular individuals, supporting a conviction. The court pointed out that the jury instructions required the jury to find that Davitashvili’s communication threatened to "injure a person or a group of people," which accurately reflected the relevant federal law.As for the defendant's argument that his conviction was based on an invalid theory (threatening unspecified "others"), the court held that the jury likely would have convicted Davitashvili based on his threats to Volosevich alone, even if the "kill others" theory was excluded. The court concluded that the trial was error-free and affirmed the judgment of conviction. View "USA v. Davitashvili" on Justia Law

by
The case arose from appellant Khamal Fooks' claim that his attorney misled him about the parole eligibility related to his plea agreement. Fooks had pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, conspiracy, and carrying an unlicensed gun in a Pennsylvania state court. He later alleged that his lawyer incorrectly assured him he would be eligible for parole after ten years, when in reality, he had to serve at least twenty. His allegations, if true, would demonstrate that his lawyer’s advice was ineffective.Both the state and the federal district courts dismissed his claims without providing an opportunity for an evidentiary hearing. Fooks then appealed this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The Circuit Court found that Fooks' allegations, if proven, would indeed establish ineffective assistance of counsel, thereby warranting habeas relief.The Circuit Court held that the district court erred in not affording Fooks an evidentiary hearing to substantiate his allegations. The court emphasized the importance of giving petitioners a fair chance to prove their allegations and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing. The court did not rule on Fooks' entitlement to relief, instead emphasizing the need for a fair opportunity to present evidence supporting his claims. View "Khamal Fooks v. Superintendent Smithfield SCI" on Justia Law