Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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Andrus was six years old, his mother sold drugs out of their apartment. She turned to prostitution and regularly left her five children to binge on drugs. She often was high and had drug-addicted, sometimes violent, boyfriends. When Andrus was 16, he served as a lookout while others committed a robbery. During 18 months in juvenile detention, he was exposed to gangs, drugs, and extended solitary confinement, resulting in suicidal urges. In 2008, Andrus, then 20, attempted a carjacking while under the influence of PCP-laced marijuana. Andrus fired multiple shots, killing two people. At his capital murder trial, Andrus’ defense counsel declined to present an opening statement or evidence. In his closing argument, counsel conceded Andrus’ guilt. The jury found Andrus guilty of capital murder. During the punishment phase, the prosecution presented evidence of Andrus' aggressive behavior in juvenile detention; that Andrus had gang tattoos; that Andrus had hit, kicked, and thrown excrement at prison officials while awaiting trial; and that Andrus was involved in an aggravated robbery. Counsel raised no material objections. In mitigation, counsel focused on Andrus’ basic biographical information, without revealing the circumstances of Andrus’ childhood; the only expert witness focused on the general effects of drug use on adolescent brains. A prison counselor testified that Andrus “started having remorse.” Andrus testified about his childhood. The jury sentenced Andrus to death. In Andrus’ state habeas proceeding, Andrus’ life history came to light. Andrus’ counsel offered no reason for failing to investigate Andrus’ history. The trial court recommended a new sentencing proceeding. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated. Andrus demonstrated counsel’s deficient performance under Strickland, but the Court of Criminal Appeals may have failed properly to engage with the question of whether Andrus established that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced him. View "Andrus v. Texas" on Justia Law

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The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) established the three-strikes rule, which generally prevents a prisoner from bringing suit in forma pauperis (IFP) if he has had three or more prior suits dismissed on the grounds that they were frivolous, malicious, or failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 28 U.S.C. 1915(g). Colorado inmate Lomax sued prison officials to challenge his expulsion from the facility’s sex-offender treatment program and moved for IFP status. He had already brought three unsuccessful legal actions during his time in prison. The district court and Tenth Circuit rejected Lomax’s argument that two of the dismissals should not count as strikes because they were without prejudice. The Supreme Court affirmed. Section 1915(g)’s three-strikes provision refers to any dismissal for failure to state a claim, whether with prejudice or without. A Section 1915(g) strike-call hinges exclusively on the basis for the dismissal, regardless of the decision’s prejudicial effect. Courts can and sometimes do dismiss frivolous actions without prejudice. View "Lomax v. Ortiz-Marquez" on Justia Law

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Banister was convicted by a Texas court of aggravated assault and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment. After exhausting his state remedies, he unsuccessfully sought federal habeas relief. Banister timely filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), which allows a litigant to file a motion to alter or amend a district court’s judgment within 28 days from the entry of judgment, with no possibility of an extension. That motion was denied. Banister filed a notice of appeal in accordance with the timeline for appealing a judgment after a Rule 59(e) denial. A timely Rule 59 motion suspends the finality of the original judgment for purposes of appeal. The Fifth Circuit construed Banister’s Rule 59(e) motion as a successive habeas petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. 2244(b), and dismissed his appeal as untimely. The Supreme Court reversed Because a Rule 59(e) motion to alter or amend a habeas court’s judgment is not a second or successive habeas petition, Banister’s appeal was timely. The phrase “second or successive application” does not simply refer to all habeas filings made successively in time, following an initial application. Rule 59(e) applies in habeas proceedings, deriving from courts’ common-law power to alter or amend their own judgments before any appeal. The purposes of AEDPA--reducing delay, conserving judicial resources, and promoting finality--are served by Rule 59(e), which offers a narrow window to seek relief; limits requests for reconsideration to matters properly raised in the challenged judgment; and consolidates proceedings into a single final judgment for appeal. View "Banister v. Davis" on Justia Law

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During former New Jersey Governor Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign, Fort Lee’s mayor refused to endorse Christie. Kelly, Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff, Port Authority Deputy Executive Director, Baroni, and another official decided to reduce from three to one the number of lanes reserved at the George Washington Bridge’s toll plaza for Fort Lee’s commuters. To disguise the political retribution, the lane realignment was said to be for a traffic study. Port Authority traffic engineers were asked to collect some numbers. An extra toll collector was paid overtime. The lane realignment caused four days of gridlock, ending only when the Port Authority’s Executive Director learned of the scheme. The Third Circuit affirmed the convictions of Baroni and Kelly for wire fraud, fraud on a federally funded program, and conspiracy to commit those crimes. The Supreme Court reversed. The scheme did not aim to obtain money or property. The wire fraud statute refers to “any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses,” 18 U.S.C. 1343. The federal-program fraud statute bars “obtain[ing] by fraud” the “property” (including money) of a federally funded program or entity, section 666(a)(1)(A). The statutes are limited to the protection of property rights and do not authorize federal prosecutors to set standards of good government. The Court rejected arguments that the defendants sought to take control of the Bridge’s physical lanes or to deprive the Port Authority of the costs of compensating employees. Their realignment of the access lanes was an exercise of regulatory power; a scheme to alter a regulatory choice is not one to take government property. The time and labor of the employees were an incidental byproduct of that regulatory object. Neither defendant sought to obtain the services that the employees provided. View "Kelly v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 48 states and in federal court, a single juror’s vote to acquit is enough to prevent a conviction; Louisiana and Oregon punish people based on 10-to-2 verdicts. Ramos was convicted in a Louisiana court by a 10-to-2 jury verdict and was sentenced to life without parole. The Supreme Court reversed. The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, as incorporated against the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense. Juror unanimity is a vital common law right. The Court rejected an “invitation” to “perform a cost-benefit analysis on the historic features of common law jury trials and to conclude that unanimity does not make the cut.” In overturning its 1972 “Apodaca” decision, the Court stated that the reasoning, in that case, was “gravely mistaken” and “sits uneasily with 120 years of preceding case law.” The fact that Louisiana and Oregon may need to retry defendants convicted of felonies by non-unanimous verdicts whose cases are still pending on direct appeal “will surely impose a cost, but new rules of criminal procedure usually do.” View "Ramos v. Louisiana" on Justia Law

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A deputy ran a license plate check and discovered that the truck belonged to Glover, whose driver’s license had been revoked. The deputy stopped the truck, assuming that Glover was driving. Glover was driving and was charged with driving as a habitual violator. The trial court granted his motion to suppress all evidence from the stop. The Kansas Supreme Court agreed that the deputy violated the Fourth Amendment by stopping Glover without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The Supreme Court reversed. When the officer lacks information negating an inference that the owner is driving the vehicle, an investigative traffic stop made after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner’s driver’s license has been revoked is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. An officer may initiate a brief investigative traffic stop when he has “a particularized and objective basis” to suspect wrongdoing. The level of suspicion required is less than necessary for probable cause and depends on “the factual and practical considerations of everyday life.” The deputy’s common sense inference that the owner of a vehicle was likely its driver provided reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. Empirical studies demonstrate that drivers with suspended or revoked licenses frequently continue to drive. Officers, like jurors, may rely on probabilities in the reasonable suspicion context. The presence of additional facts might dispel reasonable suspicion but this deputy possessed no information to rebut the reasonable inference that Glover was driving his own truck. View "Kansas v. Glover" on Justia Law

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Davis, previously convicted of two state felonies, pleaded guilty as a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2), and to possessing drugs with the intent to distribute, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C). The presentence report noted pending drug and gun charges stemming from a separate 2015 state arrest. The district court sentenced Davis to 57 months in prison, to run consecutively to any sentences that the Texas courts might impose. Davis did not object. Davis appealed, arguing that his 2015 state offenses and his 2016 federal offenses were part of the “same course of conduct,” and that under the Sentencing Guidelines (1B1.3(a)(2), 5G1.3(c)), the sentences should have run concurrently. The Fifth Circuit refused to consider Davis’ argument, characterizing it as raising factual issues; in the Fifth Circuit “[q]uestions of fact capable of resolution by the district court upon proper objection at sentencing can never constitute plain error.” The Supreme Court vacated, granting a petition for certiorari and a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis. The Fifth Circuit’s “outlier practice” of refusing to review certain unpreserved factual arguments for plain error lacks a legal basis. Rule 52(b) states: “A plain error that affects substantial rights may be considered even though it was not brought to the court’s attention.” Rule 52(b) does not immunize factual errors from plain-error review. Supreme Court precedent does not purport to shield any category of errors from plain-error review. View "Davis v. United States" on Justia Law

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Kansas adopted the “cognitive incapacity” test for the insanity defense, which examines whether a defendant was able to understand what he was doing when he committed a crime. A defendant may raise mental illness to show that he “lacked the culpable mental state required as an element of the offense charged,” Kan. Stat. 21–5209. Otherwise, a defendant may use evidence of mental illness to argue for a lesser punishment. Kansas does not recognize a moral-incapacity defense, which asks whether illness left the defendant unable to distinguish right from wrong with respect to his criminal conduct. Kahler, charged with capital murder after he killed four family members, unsuccessfully argued that Kansas’s insanity defense violated due process because it permits the conviction of a defendant whose mental illness prevented him from distinguishing right from wrong. Convicted, Kahler was sentenced to death. The Supreme Court affirmed. Due process does not require Kansas to adopt an insanity test that turns on a defendant’s ability to recognize that his crime was morally wrong. A state rule about criminal liability violates due process only if it “offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” Early common law reveals no consensus favoring Kahler’s approach. The tapestry of approaches adopted by the states indicates that no version of the insanity defense has become so ingrained in American law as to be “fundamental.” The defense sits at the juncture of medical views of mental illness and moral and legal theories of criminal culpability—areas of conflict and change--and is a matter for state governance, not constitutional law. View "Kahler v. Kansas" on Justia Law

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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