Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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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

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Georgetown Law invited Yung to interview an alumnus. Yung thought his interviewer was rude. Georgetown rejected Yung's application. Yung launched a cyber-campaign, creating fake obituaries for the interviewer’s wife and son, social-media profiles and blogs in the interviewer's name, containing KKK content and bragging about child rape. A Google search of the interviewer’s name revealed thousands of similar posts. In reports to the Better Business Bureau, Yung accused the interviewer of sexually assaulting a female associate and berating prospective employees. Impersonating the interviewer’s wife, he published an online ad seeking a sex slave. The interviewer’s family got hundreds of phone calls from men seeking sex. Strange men went to the interviewer’s home. The interviewer hired cyber-investigators, who, working with the FBI, traced the harassment to Yung.Yung, charged with cyberstalking, 18 U.S.C. 2261A(2)(B) & 2261(b) unsuccessfully challenged the law as overbroad under the First Amendment. Yung was sentenced to prison, probation, and to pay restitution for the interviewer’s investigative costs ($70,000) and Georgetown’s security measures ($130,000). The Third Circuit affirmed the conviction. A narrow reading of the statute’s intent element is possible so it is not overbroad--limiting intent to harass to “criminal harassment, which is unprotected because it constitutes true threats or speech that is integral to proscribable criminal conduct.” The court vacated in part. Yung could not waive his claim that the restitution order exceeds the statute and Georgetown suffered no damage to any property right. View "United States v. Yung" on Justia Law

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Federal prosecutors indicted Cannon and moved for his detention, 18 U.S.C. 3142. Because of the drug and firearms charges against Cannon, section 3142(e)’s presumption of detention pending trial applied. Because Cannon had complied with the conditions of his state court bond during his release, a magistrate granted Cannon’s request for pretrial release with conditions. Condition 1, required under the Bail Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. 3142(b), was that Cannon “must not violate federal, state, or local law while on release.”Cannon is a paraplegic and suffers from serious and painful medical conditions. Cannon's doctor had issued him a certification under Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act to obtain medical marijuana from an approved dispensary. The magistrate rejected Cannon's request for medical marijuana use, stating: "It’s still federally illegal, card or not.” Cannon replied that he “[did]n’t need it” before agreeing to abide by the conditions. A month later, Cannon unsuccessfully asked the court to modify the conditions and again requested an exemption. The Probation Office informed the court that on several occasions, Cannon had either tested positive for marijuana or admitted using marijuana.The court entered an order revoking Cannon’s bond. The Third Circuit affirmed; the use and possession of marijuana—even where sanctioned by a state— remains a violation of federal law. View "United States v. Cannon" on Justia Law

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The Bank Secrecy Act requires U.S. citizens to report interests in foreign accounts with a value exceeding $10,000, 31 U.S.C. 5314. Collins, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, has lived in the U.S. since 1994 and has bank accounts in the U.S., Canada, France, and Switzerland. In 2007, the balance of his Swiss account exceeded $800,000. Collins did not report any of those accounts until he voluntarily amended his tax returns in 2010. The IRS accepted Collins into its Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP). His amended returns for 2002-2009 yielded modest refunds stemming from large capital losses in 2002. Collins then withdrew from the OVDP, prompting an audit. Because Collins invested in foreign mutual funds, his Swiss holdings were subject to an additional tax on passive foreign investment companies, 26 U.S.C. 1291, which he failed to compute in his amended returns. The IRS audit determined that Collins owed an additional $71,324 plus penalties. In 2015 the IRS determined that since he withdrew from the OVDP, Collins was liable for civil penalties for “willful failure” to report foreign accounts. The IRS assessed a civil penalty of $308,064.The district court and Third Circuit affirmed, citing a “decades‐long course of conduct, omission, and scienter” by Collins in failing to disclose his foreign accounts. The disparity between Collins’s putative income tax liability and his penalty is stark but is consistent with the statute. View "United States v. Collins" on Justia Law

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Adams was not tried until 2017, nearly two years after his arraignment on firearms charges. Rejecting his motions to dismiss on Speedy Trial Act grounds, the district court described “numerous continuances [and] unnecessary motions,” caused by Adams’s “obstreperous behavior.” At one point, because of Adams’s demands, the judge canceled a scheduled trial date and did not set a particular date for that future hearing or for trial, without citing 18 U.S.C. 3161(h)(7)(A), which allows district courts to pause the speedy trial clock by entering a continuance, or state that this continuance would serve the “ends of justice.” Adams also argued that motions in limine filed by the government did not qualify for the Act’s exclusion of “delay resulting from any pretrial motion” under 3161(h)(1)(D), and that his motion for discovery did not toll the clock from its filing through its official disposition.The Third Circuit affirmed his convictions, concluding those periods of delay were excluded, The district court did not plainly err in failing to instruct the jury on the “knowledge-of-status” element under “Rehaif.” The record makes clear that Adams devised his straw-purchaser scheme precisely because he knew he was a felon who could not lawfully possess firearms. View "United States v. Adams" on Justia Law

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In 1979-1980, Lesko went on a multi-day “Kill for Thrill” spree with his friend, Travaglia, ending the lives of four individuals in Western Pennsylvania. For the killing of a 21-year-old police officer, Lesko was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Lesko proceeded through many levels of the Pennsylvania state courts and two rounds of federal habeas proceedings. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of his latest petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition, which challenged both his 1981 guilt-phase trial and his 1995 resentencing. The court rejected claims that the prosecution violated Lesko’s Brady rights by suppressing an agreement between a prosecution witness who was found in possession of Lesko’s gun (Montgomery) and the prosecution; a January 1980 police report; and information from the juvenile file of another prosecution witness, Rutherford. Lesko’s counsel did not perform ineffectively by violating his right to testify; Lesko was not prejudiced by any ineffectiveness in failing to properly investigate and present mitigating evidence at resentencing. View "Lesko v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law