Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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Bracey was convicted of murder in 1995. The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Plummer, an alleged eyewitness, and Bell, who claimed Bracey had confessed to him. At trial, both acknowledged that they had received favorable plea agreements in exchange for their testimony. Bracey's appeal and state habeas petitions were unsuccessful. In 2010, Bracey learned the Commonwealth had disclosed only some of the cases that were pending against Plummer and Bell. State courts rejected Bracey's petition under Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act as time-barred; the factual basis of the claim could have “been ascertained [earlier] by the exercise of due diligence.” The district court dismissed Bracey's 2011 federal habeas petition as untimely under 28 U.S.C. 2244(d)(1)(D), reasoning that the plea agreements were public records; Brace filed his petition more than one year after the “factual predicate” for his Brady claim “could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.” The Third Circuit denied review.Three years later, the circuit held (Dennis) that a defendant has no burden to “scavenge for hints of undisclosed Brady material” even if the material part could be found in public records. The prosecution’s “duty to disclose under Brady is absolute.” Bracey moved for reconsideration under Rule 60(b). The Third Circuit vacated a summary denial. Dennis effected a material change in Circuit law. A defendant can reasonably expect—and is entitled to presume—that the government fulfilled its Brady obligations because the prosecution’s duty to disclose in no way hinges on defense efforts. View "Bracey v. Superintendent Rockview SCI" on Justia Law

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Lucas, a financial advisor, wanted to take over Burke Farm to obtain funding from a New Jersey program that paid property owners for easements to preserve farmland. Lucas submitted a fraudulent application to assume Burke Farm’s mortgage; obtained a $250,000 loan from a client under false pretenses; and forged a signature on the promissory note. The farm was owned by Diamond, LLC. Lucas, his wife, and his father used the proceeds of his fraud to acquire the LLC. Convicted of wire fraud, engaging in an illegal monetary transaction, loan application fraud, making false statements to the IRS, aggravated identity theft, obstructing a grand jury investigation, and falsifying records in a federal investigation, Lucas consented to the criminal forfeiture of Burke Farm in conjunction with his 60-month sentence. The LLC filed an unsuccessful objection, 21 U.S.C. 853(n)(6)(A),The Third Circuit reversed. The LLC acquired Burke Farm over five years before Lucas’s crimes and is a legitimate, separate legal entity from Lucas. The court noted that the government could have sought criminal forfeiture of Lucas’s interest in the LLC and civil forfeiture of his family’s interests. Although illicit proceeds were involved in the family’s acquisition of Diamond, the LLC acquired the farm legitimately years before. The government must turn square corners when it exercises its power to confiscate private property. View "United States v. Lucas" on Justia Law

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In September 2016, 10 co-defendants were charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and theft of government property; nine were also charged with aggravated identity theft. They had filed false tax returns using stolen identities to obtain illegal refunds. One of the grand jurors was an alleged victim of defendant Liverpool. The juror’s full name was listed in the original indictment and in an exhibit presented to the grand jury. An IRS agent had interviewed the alleged victim eight months earlier. When the government identified Liverpool and the other defendants during the proceedings and asked whether the jurors knew any of the defendants, there were no positive responses. The alleged victim voted to return a true bill.The government learned of this in 2017. In September 2018, the government filed a superseding indictment, which was returned by a new grand jury weeks before trial, with only minor changes to the original indictment. The government disclosed the grand jury defect to three defendants who had pleaded guilty. Two defendants unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the indictments, arguing that the defect in the original grand jury violated the Fifth Amendment and that the superseding indictment was issued after the limitations period expired. The Third Circuit dismissed an appeal for lack of jurisdiction. The order is not a “final decision” of the district court, 28 U.S.C. 1291, and is not a “collateral” order subject to immediate review. View "United States v. Alexander" on Justia Law

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Wilmington Trust financed construction projects. Extensions were commonplace. Wilmington’s loan documents reserved its right to “renew or extend (repeatedly and for any length of time) this loan . . . without the consent of or notice to anyone.” Wilmington’s internal policy did not classify all mature loans with unpaid principals as past due if the loans were in the process of renewal and interest payments were current, Following the 2008 "Great Recession," Wilmington excluded some of the loans from those it reported as “past due” to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve. Wilmington’s executives maintained that, under a reasonable interpretation of the reporting requirements, the exclusion of the loans from the “past due” classification was proper. The district court denied their requests to introduce evidence concerning or instruct the jury about that alternative interpretation. The jury found the reporting constituted “false statements” under 18 U.S.C. 1001 and 15 U.S.C. 78m, and convicted the executives.The Third Circuit reversed in part. To prove falsity beyond a reasonable doubt in this situation, the government must prove either that its interpretation of the reporting requirement is the only objectively reasonable interpretation or that the defendant’s statement was also false under the alternative, objectively reasonable interpretation. The court vacated and remanded the conspiracy and securities fraud convictions, which were charged in the alternative on an independent theory of liability, View "United States v. Harra" on Justia Law

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Davis answered a Craigslist.com ad, entitled “Wild child,” posted by Officer Block, who was conducting a sting operation. The ad stated that the poster was an 18-year-old woman. During their correspondence, Block posed as an eighth-grade girl, “Marisa.” They exchanged text messages for eight days. Davis showed repeated reluctance to engage in lewd conversation, expressed fear of getting caught, stated that he was gay, and claimed that he was 19; he was 30. His responses were permeated with innuendo. He addressed Marisa's virginity, plied her with compliments, asked when she was not supervised, repeatedly attempted to get her to meet, and offered her gifts. They agreed to meet and spend the day together at a water park. Marisa expressed concern about getting pregnant. Davis assured her that he would bring “protection.” Davis traveled from New York to Pennsylvania with three condoms in his pocket.Davis was convicted of use of an interstate facility to attempt to knowingly persuade, induce, entice and coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity, 18 U.S.C. 2422(b), and travel in interstate commerce with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor, section 2423(b). The Third Circuit affirmed his convictions and 127-month sentence, rejecting claims of insufficient evidence and of entrapment and upholding the application of a sentencing enhancement for Davis’s misrepresentation of his age and of his sexual orientation. View "United States v. Davis" on Justia Law

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Under the Controlled Substances Act, a person may not make, distribute, or sell drugs, 21 U.S.C. 841, and may not own or maintain a “drug-involved premises,” for using, sharing, or producing drugs (section 856). Section 856 was added in 1986 in response to the proliferation of crack houses and was extended to reach even temporary drug premises. Safehouse wants to try a new approach to combat the opioid crisis by opening a safe-injection site that would offer drug treatment and counseling, refer people to social services, distribute overdose-reversal kits, and exchange used syringes for clean ones, with a consumption room where users could inject themselves with illegal drugs, including heroin and fentanyl, that the user brings in from outside. The user would not be allowed to share or trade drugs on the premises. Staffers would watch users for signs of overdose and intervene with medical care as needed. Safehouse hopes to prevent diseases, counteract drug overdoses, and encourage drug treatment.The district court held that section 856(a)(2) does not apply to Safehouse’s proposed consumption room, declining to reach Safehouse’s Commerce Clause or Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb–2000bb-3, defenses. The Third Circuit reversed. Safehouse’s benevolent motive makes no difference; its safe-injection site falls within Congress’s power to ban interstate commerce in drugs. Courts are not arbiters of policy but must apply the laws as written. View "United States v. Safehouse" on Justia Law

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In 2012, Rad and others were charged with acquiring penny stocks, “pumping” the prices of those stocks by bombarding investors with misleading spam emails, and then “dumping” their shares at a profit. Rad was convicted of conspiring to commit false header spamming and false domain name spamming under the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM), 15 U.S.C. 7701(a)(2), which addresses unsolicited commercial email. The PSR recommended raising Rad’s offense level to reflect the losses inflicted on investors, estimating that Rad realized about $2.9 million in “illicit gains” while acknowledging that because “countless victims” purchased stocks, the losses stemming from Rad’s conduct could not “reasonabl[y] be determined.” Rad emphasized the absence of evidence that any person lost anything. Rad was sentenced to 71 months’ imprisonment. The record is silent as to how the court analyzed the victim loss issue. The Third Circuit affirmed. DHS initiated removal proceedings under 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), which renders an alien removable for any crime that “involves fraud or deceit” “in which the loss to the victim or victims exceeds $10,000.” The IJ and the BIA found Rad removable.The Third Circuit remanded. Rad’s convictions for CAN-SPAM conspiracy necessarily entail deceit under 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(43)(M)(i). The second element, requiring victim losses over $10,000, however, was not adequately addressed. The court noted that intended losses, not just actual ones, may meet the requirement. View "Rad v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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In 2005, Hart was convicted of possessing crack cocaine with intent to distribute. The Sentencing Guidelines recommended 35 years to life imprisonment; because of his extensive criminal record and the amount of crack, his mandatory minimum sentence was life. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act lowered Hart's mandatory minimum to 10 years. The 2018 First Step Act made those lower minimums retroactive. The Eastern District of Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney’s Office and Federal Defender’s Office formed a committee that identified prisoners who were eligible for lower sentences, calculated new sentences, and submitted them for court approval. The committee incorrectly believed that eligible inmates could be resentenced only within their new Guidelines range, not below it. For Hart, the committee negotiated a 35-year sentence, which Hart accepted. Hart later asked the court to lower his sentence more based on the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors. The court denied Hart’s motion, reasoning that Hart’s Guidelines range depended mainly on his criminal history, not on the amount of crack he had possessed. The court did not consider the 3553(a) factors nor Hart’s personal growth. The court added that Hart had gotten one sentence reduction and could not have another.The Third Circuit remanded. The Act’s section 404(c) bar on second resentencings is not jurisdictional and it is fair to accept the government’s waiver of that bar. When a court rules on a First Step Act resentencing motion, it must consider the applicable section 3553(a) factors. View "United States v. Hart" on Justia Law

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On February 24, 2003, Diodati arrived at work, unlocked the store, and entered. Someone behind her “pushed his way inside," and told her to turn off the alarm. Diodati did so. The masked intruder demanded money from the safe. Diodati handed him envelopes containing money; he set down a folder that he had been carrying and a gun. When the robber stood up, he picked up the gun but left the folder, and told her to go to the second safe, which was in her office. Taking about $7,000, the intruder went out the back and into to a running automobile. Detective Godlewski processed for fingerprints on the counter, the door that the robber tore partially off its hinges, and the Manila left by the intruder. Some prints belonged to Travillion, who was found guilty of the robbery and sentenced to a mandatory 10-20 years' imprisonment, consecutive to the separate sentence of life without the possibility of parole that he was serving as a result of a separate 2006 second-degree murder conviction.The Third Circuit granted Travillion habeas relief, finding that the Pennsylvania court’s adjudication of his insufficient evidence claim involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. Evidence that Travillion’s fingerprints were found on the easily movable folder and paper inside the folder and Diodati's description of the robber, which did not match Travillion but did not exclude him is not sufficient evidence for a rational trier of fact to place Travillion at the scene of the crime when the crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt. View "Travillion v. Superintendent Rockview SCI" on Justia Law

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Heatherly and William frequented an internet chat room where users regularly shared child pornography. One chat-room user repeatedly live-streamed himself raping and sexually abusing his six-year-old nephew. Heatherly and Staples encouraged him as he did so and repeatedly asked users for other child-pornography videos. The two were convicted of receiving child pornography and conspiring to receive child pornography, 18 U.S.C. 2251(d). The Sentencing Guidelines recommended 40-70 years’ imprisonment. The court sentenced Heatherly to 25 years and Staples to 30.The Third Circuit affirmed. The district court properly admitted videos shown in the chat room of children being violently sexually abused. After reviewing that evidence for itself, the court properly found that the risk of unfair prejudice did not substantially outweigh its probative value. The evidence was highly probative of the conspiracy and the defendants’ awareness of what they were involved in. The court also rejected challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, to venue, to the admission of other exhibits, to jury instructions on venue, to the calculation of the Sentencing Guidelines ranges, and to the denial of a motion to sever the defendants’ trials. View "United States v. Heatherly" on Justia Law