Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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In 1995, a Pennsylvania jury found Abdul-Salaam guilty of first-degree murder, robbery, and conspiracy. After a one-day penalty phase hearing in which Abdul-Salaam’s counsel presented three mitigation witnesses, the jury sentenced Abdul-Salaam to death. Abdul-Salaam, after exhausting his state remedies, filed a federal petition for habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. 2254, challenging his sentence, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to investigate adequately and to present sufficient mitigation evidence at sentencing. The Third Circuit reversed the denial of relief. Trial counsel could not have had a strategic reason not to investigate Abdul-Salaam’s background, school, and juvenile records, to acquire a mental health evaluation, or to interview more family members about his childhood abuse and poverty, counsel’s performance was deficient. There is a reasonable probability that the un-presented evidence would have caused at least one juror to vote for a sentence of life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Abdul-Salaam has met the prejudice prong of the ineffective assistance of counsel inquiry. View "Abdul-Salaam v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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In 2017, New Jersey replaced its system of pretrial release, which had long relied on monetary bail, based on a finding that the system resulted in the release of defendants who could afford to pay for their release, even if they posed a substantial risk of flight or danger to others, and the detention of poorer defendants who presented minimal risk and were accused of less serious crimes. Following a constitutional amendment, the New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Act, 3 N.J. Stat. 2A:162–15, created a new framework that prioritizes the use of non-monetary conditions of release over monetary bail. The Reform Act establishes a multi-step process the court must follow when deciding to release or detain an eligible defendant after considering multiple factors. Plaintiffs challenged the Act as a violation of the Eighth Amendment, the Due Process Clause, and the Fourth Amendment, seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the state “from taking any actions to enforce statutory provisions [of the Act] . . . that allow imposition of severe restrictions on the pre-trial liberty of presumptively innocent criminal defendants without offering the option of monetary bail.” The Third Circuit affirmed the district court, finding that there is no federal constitutional right to deposit money or obtain a corporate surety bond to ensure a criminal defendant’s future appearance in court as an equal alternative to non-monetary conditions of pretrial release. View "Holland v. Rosen" on Justia Law

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In 1998, Ramos threw a brick at a child, who then required medical treatment; Ramos pled guilty to aggravated assault. In 1999, Ramos was apprehended with heroin and convicted of manufacturing, delivering, or possessing with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance, and knowingly possessing a controlled substance. In 2001, Ramos broke into a store and stole furniture; he pled guilty to burglary. In 2008, Philadelphia police observed Ramos selling crack cocaine out of a truck, arrested Ramos, and recovered a loaded handgun from the vehicle. Ramos pled guilty, stipulating that he was a career offender. The court concluded that Ramos had three predicate drug or violent felony convictions under the Armed Career Criminal Act and was subject to a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence. Factoring in Ramos’s acceptance of responsibility, the court determined that Ramos’s Guidelines range was 248-295 months’ imprisonment. The court sentenced Ramos to 180 months of imprisonment. In 2016, Ramos sought post-conviction relief (28 U.S.C. 2255), arguing that, under the Supreme Court’s “Johnson” decision his burglary conviction was no longer a career offender predicate. The Third Circuit applied the modified categorical approach to Pennsylvania’s divisible aggravated assault statute and held that Ramos’s conviction for second-degree aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, 18 Pa. C.S. 2702(a)(4), is categorically a crime of violence. View "United States v. Ramos" on Justia Law

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The Third Circuit affirmed Welsans’s conviction for distribution and possession of child pornography (18 U.S.C. 2252). The court rejected an argument that his due process right to a fair trial was violated because the prosecution informed the jury, through evidence and argument, that his pornography files included deeply abhorrent videos and images of bestiality, bondage, and acts of violence against very young children. While the challenged evidence was inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 and the prosecutor’s closing argument improperly appealed to the passions of the jury, the misconduct did not so infect Welshans’s trial with unfairness as to violate due process. The evidence against Welshans was overwhelming; there was no dispute that his computers contained child pornography; Welshans was the sole user of the computers; he installed and used a file-sharing network, which was used to distribute child pornography; Welshans used the Internet account from which the child pornography was distributed. Welshans nonetheless claimed, based solely on his credibility, that he did not know that there was child pornography on his computers. The court remanded for resentencing. Welshans’s attempt to put files in the computer’s recycling bin when he knew the police were coming did not merit the application of the obstruction of justice enhancement. View "United States v. Welshans" on Justia Law

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Ricks, a former inmate at a Pennsylvania State Corrections facility, alleged that during a routine morning pat-down, Corrections Officer Keil rubbed his erect penis against Ricks’ buttocks through both men’s clothing. When Ricks stepped away and verbally protested to Keil’s supervisor, Lieutenant Shover, Ricks alleges that Shover “slammed” Ricks against the wall, causing injuries to his face, head, neck, and back. The district court dismissed his 42 U.S.C. 1983 complaint, stating that “a small number of incidents in which a prisoner is verbally harassed, touched, and pressed against without his consent do not amount” to an Eighth Amendment violation. The Third Circuit reversed. A single incident of sexual abuse can constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment if the incident was objectively sufficiently intolerable and cruel, capable of causing harm, and the official had a culpable state of mind rather than a legitimate penological purpose. Although his sexual abuse claim as to Shover under a participation or failure-to-intervene theory was properly dismissed, Ricks’ excessive force claim stands on a different footing and should have been permitted to survive the motion to dismiss. View "Ricks v. Shover" on Justia Law

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Ricks, a former inmate at a Pennsylvania State Corrections facility, alleged that during a routine morning pat-down, Corrections Officer Keil rubbed his erect penis against Ricks’ buttocks through both men’s clothing. When Ricks stepped away and verbally protested to Keil’s supervisor, Lieutenant Shover, Ricks alleges that Shover “slammed” Ricks against the wall, causing injuries to his face, head, neck, and back. The district court dismissed his 42 U.S.C. 1983 complaint, stating that “a small number of incidents in which a prisoner is verbally harassed, touched, and pressed against without his consent do not amount” to an Eighth Amendment violation. The Third Circuit reversed. A single incident of sexual abuse can constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment if the incident was objectively sufficiently intolerable and cruel, capable of causing harm, and the official had a culpable state of mind rather than a legitimate penological purpose. Although his sexual abuse claim as to Shover under a participation or failure-to-intervene theory was properly dismissed, Ricks’ excessive force claim stands on a different footing and should have been permitted to survive the motion to dismiss. View "Ricks v. Shover" on Justia Law

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An unidentified 911 caller reported that a man had been electrocuted near Valley Forge Park and “may have been scrapping.” Officers found a deceased man next to an electrical box. At the restaurant from which the call originated, an officer spoke with a security guard who said a white male driving a small Ford pickup truck had recently used the phone. The identifying information was broadcast. Approximately four minutes later and four blocks away, an officer spotted a vehicle matching the description—driven by Kalb—and stopped it. Kalb admitted placing the call. He was taken to the Upper Merion Township police station and admitted to driving his friend to the scrapping location. Kalb was indicted for destruction of property on U.S. land, 18 U.S.C. 1363 and aiding and abetting, 18 U.S.C. 2. The court granted Kalb’s motion to suppress on October 21, then held a conference call and scheduled a status conference for November 29. During that call, the government “sought leave to review the transcript of the suppression hearing before proceeding.” On November 29, the government filed a motion to reconsider the suppression order. The Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the motion as untimely. A motion for reconsideration, filed after the statutory appeal period elapsed but considered on the merits, does not keep the appeal period from expiring; 18 U.S.C. 3731 imposes a 30-day jurisdictional filing requirement, which can be stopped only by a timely-filed motion for reconsideration. View "United States v. Kalb" on Justia Law

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Essex County Correctional Facility Officer Shaw was covering the women’s unit alone overnight. Some women, including E.S., “flashed” him with their buttocks. Shaw responded with sexual comments and spoke over an intercom connected to E.S.'s shared cell, stating that he was “going to come in there.” Around 3:00 a.m. Shaw entered the cell and raped E.S. Her cellmate remained asleep. E.S. told a male inmate (via hand signals), her mother and her attorney. The male inmate reported the incident. E.S. then formally reported the assault. She was examined and was found to have semen on her cervix. The government’s expert testified that the DNA mixture was “approximately 28.9 million times more likely in the African American population” that E.S. and Shaw were the sources than if E.S. and a “randomly selected unrelated individual” were the sources. Shaw is African American. Electronic records of the cell doors established that E.S.’s cell door was opened at 2:43:41 a.m. and closed at 2:50:39 a.m. Only Shaw was logged onto the computer that opened the door. Shaw denied the accusations, stated that he left the unit on his break during the time at issue, and testified that inmates were known to be engaging in sex in the gym. Convicted of deprivation of civil rights through aggravated sexual abuse, 18 U.S.C. 242, and obstruction of justice, 18 U.S.C. 1512(b)(3), Shaw was sentenced to 25 years’ incarceration. The Third Circuit affirmed, upholding jury instructions and rejecting a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. View "United States v. Shaw" on Justia Law

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A Wilmington barbershop employee watched an Accord in the parking lot for approximately 20 minutes and later testified that the passenger had a full beard and that the driver was wearing a red or pink scarf over his face, while repeatedly looking around the strip of stores and “pumping himself up to do something.” He could not identify the occupants; he could only tell that they were black males. When Delaware State Troopers arrived, the Accord left. The barbershop’s owner took a picture of the car’s license plate. Troopers discovered that the car had been reported stolen in an armed robbery and sent an email alert. Trooper Yeldell received the e-mail and patrolled the area the following morning. The car passed; Yeldell saw that the passenger (Foster) was wearing a red or pink scarf; the driver (Payton) was a black male with facial hair. Moments later, in the parking lot, Foster was outside of the Accord, holding an object. The second man was not present. Yeldell pulled out his gun and ordered Foster to the ground. Foster ran. Shot with a Taser, Foster fell, and a gun "went flying.” Officers recovered a loaded semi-automatic pistol. Payton was picked up while walking down the street, based on a generic description of a “black man.” The Accord was transported; a search revealed a loaded rifle, a scope, duct tape, and gloves, which were not in the car when it was stolen. No DNA or fingerprints connected either defendant to those items. The Third Circuit affirmed their convictions for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), finding there was reasonable suspicion to stop Payton and upholding the admission of the barbershop employees’ testimony and sentencing enhancements for use of a firearm in connection with another offense. View "United States v. Foster" on Justia Law

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In 2015, former Virgin Islands Senator James was charged with wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1343, and federal programs embezzlement, 18 U.S.C. 666(a)(1)(A), stemming from his use of legislative funds to ostensibly obtain historical documents from Denmark related to the Fireburn, an 1878 St. Croix uprising. The indictment specified: obtaining cash advances from the Legislature but retaining a portion of those funds for his personal use; double-billing for expenses for which he had already received a cash advance; submitting invoices and receiving funds for translation work that was never done; and submitting invoices and receiving funds for translation work that was completed before his election to the Legislature. James, who argued that he was engaged in legislative fact-finding, moved to dismiss the indictment on legislative immunity grounds. The district court denied the motion, stating that James’ actions were not legislative acts worthy of statutory protection under the Organic Act of the Virgin Islands. The Third Circuit affirmed. Under 48 U.S.C. 1572(d) legislators are protected from being “held to answer before any tribunal other than the legislature for any speech or debate in the legislature." The conduct underlying the government’s allegations concerning James is clearly not legislative conduct protected by section 1572(d). View "United States v. James" on Justia Law