Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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Holguin was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to imprisonment and supervised release while he was still serving a term of supervised release for an earlier conviction. The prosecution sought an additional consecutive prison term of 12-18 months for violating the conditions of the earlier term. Holguin countered that 18 U.S.C. 3553’s sentencing factors either did not support imposing any additional time or supported a sentence shorter than 12 months. The court imposed a consecutive 12-month term. The Fifth Circuit held that Holguin had forfeited his argument that the sentence was greater than necessary to accomplish the goals of sentencing by failing to object to the reasonableness of the sentence in the district court. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. Holguin’s district-court argument for a specific sentence (less than 12 months) preserved his claim on appeal that the sentence imposed was unreasonably long. A party who informs the court of the “action” he “wishes the court to take,” Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 51(b), ordinarily brings to the court’s attention his objection to a contrary decision. Judges, knowing their duty under section 3553(a) to impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to serve the purposes of sentencing, would ordinarily understand that a defendant in that circumstance was arguing that the shorter sentence would be “sufficient” and a longer sentence “greater than necessary.” Nothing more is needed to preserve a claim that a longer sentence is unreasonable. In any case, “reasonableness” is an appellate standard, not the substantive standard that trial courts apply under section 3553(a). View "Holguin-Hernandez v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for a defendant convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm who has at least three convictions for “serious drug offense[s],” 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(1). A state offense ranks as a “serious drug offense” if it “involv[es] manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance.” Shular pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed Shular’s 15-year sentence, ACCA’s mandatory minimum, based on his six prior cocaine-related convictions under Florida law. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. A “categorical approach” is often used to determine whether an offender’s prior convictions qualify for ACCA enhancement. That approach looks “only to the statutory definitions" of the prior offenses; the court must come up with a “generic” version of a crime (the elements of the offense as commonly understood) and then determine whether the statutory elements of the offense of conviction match those of the generic crime. Section 924(e)(2)(A)(ii)’s “serious drug offense” definition does not require a categorical approach but requires only that the state offense involved the conduct specified in the statute. The statutory text and context show that 924(e)(2)(A)(ii) refers to conduct, not offenses. State laws in existence at the time of 924(e)(2)(A)(ii)’s enactment lacked common nomenclature; the solution to identify offenses by the conduct involved, not by the name of the offenses. View "Shular v. United States" on Justia Law

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A jury found McKinney guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. The judge weighed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and sentenced McKinney to death. Nearly 20 years later, the Ninth Circuit held on habeas review that the Arizona courts violated Supreme Court precedent (Eddings), by failing to properly consider as relevant mitigating evidence McKinney’s posttraumatic stress disorder. On return to the Arizona Supreme Court, McKinney argued that he was entitled to a jury resentencing, but the court reweighed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, as permitted by “Clemons,” and upheld both death sentences. The Supreme Court affirmed. A Clemons reweighing is a permissible remedy for an Eddings error; when an Eddings error is found on collateral review, a state appellate court may conduct a Clemons reweighing on collateral review. Clemons did not depend on any unique effect of aggravators as distinct from mitigators. The Court’s holdings in Ring v. Arizona and Hurst v. Florida, that a jury must find the aggravating circumstance that makes the defendant death-eligible, do not mean that a jury is constitutionally required to weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances or to make the ultimate sentencing decision. While an Arizona trial court, not the jury, made the initial aggravating circumstance finding that made McKinney eligible for the death penalty, his case became final on direct review long before Ring and Hurst, which do not apply retroactively on collateral review, The Arizona Supreme Court’s 2018 decision reweighing the factors did not constitute a reopening of direct review. View "McKinney v. Arizona" on Justia Law

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Haymond was convicted of possessing child pornography, which carries a prison term of zero to 10 years. After serving 38 months, while on supervised release, Haymond was found with what appeared to be child pornography. The government sought to revoke his supervised release and secure an additional prison sentence. A district judge, acting without a jury, found by a preponderance of the evidence that Haymond knowingly downloaded and possessed child pornography. Under 18 U.S.C. 3583(e)(3), the judge could have sentenced him to a prison term of zero to two additional years. Because possession of child pornography is a section 3583(k) enumerated offense, the judge instead imposed that provision’s five-year mandatory minimum. The Tenth Circuit vacated, finding section 3583(k) unconstitutional. The Supreme Court vacated. A plurality concluded that the application of section 3583(k) in this case violated Haymond’s right to trial by jury. A judge’s sentencing authority is limited by the jury’s factual findings of criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt. Based on the facts reflected in the jury’s verdict, Haymond faced a zero-10 year prison term, while the facts the judge found increased the legally prescribed range of allowable sentences. Rejecting an argument that Haymond’s sentence for violating his supervised release terms was authorized by the jury’s verdict because his supervised release was always subject to the possibility of judicial revocation and 3583(k)’s mandatory prison sentence, the justices stated the mandatory minimum five-year sentence becomes possible only as a result of additional judicial factual findings by a preponderance of the evidence. Unlike traditional parole or probation, section 3583(k) exposes a defendant to an additional prison term beyond that authorized by the jury’s verdict. The justices stated that the Tenth Circuit may address, on remand, whether declaring the last two sentences of section 3583(k) “unconstitutional and unenforceable” sweeps too broadly. View "United States v. Haymond" on Justia Law

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Flowers was tried six times for the murder of four Mississippi furniture store employees. Flowers is black; three of the victims were white. At the first two trials, the prosecution used peremptory strikes on all qualified black prospective jurors. Two juries convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The convictions were reversed based on prosecutorial misconduct. At the third trial, the state used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed his conviction again, citing Batson v. Kentucky. Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials. At the sixth trial, the state exercised six peremptory strikes—five against black prospective jurors, allowing one black juror to be seated. The trial court rejected a Batson objection, finding that the prosecution had offered race-neutral reasons. The jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The Mississippi Supreme Court twice affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. The trial court at Flowers’ sixth trial committed clear error in concluding that the peremptory strike of black prospective juror Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. Under Batson, once a prima facie case of discrimination is established, the state must provide race-neutral reasons for its peremptory strikes. The judge then must determine whether the stated reasons were pretextual. The Batson Court rejected arguments that: a defendant must demonstrate a history of racially discriminatory strikes to make establish race discrimination; a prosecutor could strike a black juror based on an assumption that the black juror would favor a black defendant; race-based peremptories should be permissible because black, white, Asian, and Hispanic defendants and jurors are “equally” subject to race-based discrimination; and that race-based peremptories are permissible because both the prosecution and defense could employ them. The history of the state’s peremptory strikes in Flowers’ earlier trials supports the conclusion that its sixth trial peremptory strikes were motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. The prosecution spent far more time questioning the black prospective jurors than the accepted white jurors—145 questions asked of five black prospective jurors and 12 questions asked of 11 white seated jurors. Wright was struck, the state claimed, in part because she knew several defense witnesses and had worked at Wal-Mart where Flowers’ father also worked; several white prospective jurors also knew individuals involved in the case or had relationships with members of Flowers’ family. The prosecution did not ask questions to explore those relationships. View "Flowers v. Mississippi" on Justia Law

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Rehaif entered the United States on a nonimmigrant student visa to attend university but was dismissed for poor grades. He subsequently shot firearms at a firing range and was prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. 922(g), which makes it unlawful for certain persons, including aliens illegally in the country, to possess firearms, and section 924(a)(2), which provides that anyone who “knowingly violates” the first provision can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. The jury was instructed that the government was not required to prove that Rehalf knew that he was unlawfully in the country. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed his conviction. The Supreme Court reversed. In a prosecution under sections 922(g) and 924(a)(2), the government must prove both that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and that he knew he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm. The Court noted a longstanding presumption that Congress intends to require a defendant to possess a culpable mental state regarding each statutory element that criminalizes otherwise innocent conduct. The statutory text supports the application of presumption requiring "scienter." The term “knowingly” is normally read as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime and clearly applies to section 922(g)’s second element, possession. There is no basis for interpreting “knowingly” as applying to the second element but not the first (status). Possessing a gun can be an innocent act; it is the defendant’s status that makes a difference. Without knowledge of that status, a defendant may lack the intent needed to make his behavior wrongful. Rehaif’s status as an alien “illegally or unlawfully in the United States” is a “collateral” question of law and a mistake regarding that status negates an element of the offense. View "Rehaif v. United States" on Justia Law

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McDonough processed ballots as a board of elections commissioner in a Troy, New York primary election. Smith was specially appointed to investigate and to prosecute a case of forged absentee ballots in that election. McDonough alleges that Smith fabricated evidence against him and used it to secure an indictment and at two trials before McDonough’s December 21, 2012 acquittal. On December 18, 2015, McDonough sued Smith under 42 U.S.C. 1983, asserting fabrication of evidence. The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit as untimely under a three-year limitations period. The Supreme Court reversed. The statute of limitations began to run when the criminal proceedings against McDonough terminated in his favor—when he was acquitted at the end of his second trial. An accrual analysis begins with identifying the specific constitutional right at issue--here, an assumed due process right not to be deprived of liberty as a result of a government official’s fabrication of evidence. Accrual questions are often decided by referring to common-law principles governing analogous torts. The most analogous common-law tort is malicious prosecution, which accrues only once the underlying criminal proceedings have resolved in the plaintiff’s favor. McDonough could not bring his section 1983 fabricated-evidence claim before favorable termination of his prosecution. The Court cited concerns with avoiding parallel litigation and conflicting judgments and that prosecutions regularly last nearly as long as—or even longer than—the limitations period. View "McDonough v. Smith" on Justia Law

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The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), intended to combat sex crimes and crimes against children, requires a broad range of sex offenders to register and imposes criminal penalties; 34 U.S.C. 20913 describes the “[i]nitial registration” requirements. Under subsection (b)'s general rule an offender must register “before completing a sentence of imprisonment with respect to the offense giving rise to the registration requirement.” Subsection (d) provides that the Attorney General “shall have the authority” to “specify the applicability” of SORNA’s registration requirements to pre-Act offenders and “to prescribe rules for [their] registration.” The Attorney General issued a rule that SORNA’s registration requirements apply in full to pre-SORNA offenders. The district court and the Second Circuit rejected a claim by a pre-SORNA offender that subsection (d) unconstitutionally delegated legislative power. The Supreme Court affirmed. Four justices concluded that section 20913(d) does not violate the nondelegation doctrine. Congress may confer substantial discretion on executive agencies to implement and enforce the laws as long as Congress “lay[s] down by legislative act an intelligible principle to which the person or body authorized to [exercise that authority] is directed to conform.” The Supreme Court has already interpreted 20913(d) to require the Attorney General to apply SORNA to all pre-Act offenders as soon as feasible. To “specify the applicability” does not mean “specify whether to apply SORNA” to pre-Act offenders but means “specify how to apply SORNA” to pre-Act offenders; no Attorney General has used section20913(d) in any more expansive way. Section 20913(d)’s delegation falls within constitutional bounds. View "Gundy v. United States" on Justia Law

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Gamble pleaded guilty under Alabama’s felon-in-possession-of-a-firearm statute. Federal prosecutors then indicted him for the same instance of possession under federal law. Gamble argued that the federal indictment was for “the same offence” as the one at issue in his state conviction, exposing him to double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the denial of his motion, invoking the dual-sovereignty doctrine, according to which two offenses “are not the ‘same offence’ ” for double jeopardy purposes if “prosecuted by different sovereigns.” The dual sovereignty doctrine is not an exception to the double jeopardy right but follows from the Fifth Amendment’s text. As originally understood, an “offence” is defined by a law, and each law is defined by a sovereign. Where there are two sovereigns, there are two laws and two “offences.” The Court stated that “Gamble’s historical evidence is too feeble to break the chain of precedent linking dozens of cases over 170 years.” View "Gamble v. United States" on Justia Law

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Quarles pled guilty as a felon in possession of a firearm but objected to enhanced sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. 924(e). He claimed that his 2002 Michigan conviction for third-degree home invasion did not qualify as a "violent felony," defined by section 924(e) to include “burglary.” The generic statutory term “burglary” means “unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or structure, with intent to commit a crime.” Quarles argued that Michigan’s statute, which applies when a person “breaks and enters a dwelling or enters a dwelling without permission and, at any time while ... entering, present in, or exiting the dwelling, commits a misdemeanor,” swept too broadly by encompassing situations where the defendant forms the intent to commit a crime at any time while unlawfully remaining in a dwelling, while generic remaining-in burglary occurs only when the defendant has the intent to commit a crime at the exact moment when he first unlawfully remains in a building or structure. The district court, Sixth Circuit, and a unanimous Supreme Court rejected that argument. Generic remaining-in burglary occurs when the defendant forms the intent to commit a crime at any time while unlawfully remaining in a building or structure. In ordinary usage, “remaining-in” is a continuous activity, so burglary occurs if the defendant forms the intent to commit a crime at any time during the continuous event of unlawfully remaining in a building or structure. Congress singled out burglary because of its inherent potential for harm to persons; the possibility of a violent confrontation does not depend on the exact moment when the burglar forms the intent to commit a crime while unlawfully present in a building or structure. Michigan’s home-invasion statute substantially corresponds to or is narrower than generic burglary. View "Quarles v. United States" on Justia Law