Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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In 2012, Damian McElrath, a young man diagnosed with multiple serious mental health disorders, killed his mother. Georgia charged McElrath with three crimes: malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault. At trial, McElrath asserted an insanity defense. The jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity on the malice-murder charge but guilty but mentally ill on the felony-murder and aggravated-assault charges. The state courts, however, decided that these verdicts were "repugnant" because they required contradictory conclusions about McElrath's mental state at the time of the crime. They therefore nullified both the "not guilty" and "guilty" verdicts and authorized McElrath’s retrial.The Supreme Court of the United States held that the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment prevents the State from retrying McElrath for the crime that had resulted in the “not guilty by reason of insanity” finding. The court clarified that a jury’s determination that a defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity is a conclusion that “criminal culpability had not been established,” just as much as any other form of acquittal. Despite the seemingly inconsistent findings, the court emphasized that, once rendered, a jury’s verdict of acquittal is inviolate, and the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits second-guessing the reason for a jury’s acquittal. The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Georgia and remanded the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion. View "McElrath v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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From 2014-2016, Counterman sent hundreds of Facebook messages to C.W., a local musician. Each time C.W. tried to block him, Counterman created a new Facebook account and resumed contacting C.W. Several of his messages envisaged violent harm. C.W. stopped walking alone, declined social engagements, canceled performances, and eventually contacted the authorities. Counterman was charged under a Colorado statute making it unlawful to repeatedly make any form of communication with another person in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to suffer serious emotional distress, that does cause that person to suffer serious emotional distress. Colorado courts rejected Counterman’s First Amendment argument.The Supreme Court vacated. In true-threat cases, the prosecution must prove that the defendant had some subjective understanding of his statements’ threatening nature.The First Amendment permits restrictions upon the content of speech in a few areas, including true threats--serious expressions conveying that a speaker means to commit an act of unlawful violence. The existence of a threat depends on what the statement conveys to the person receiving it but the First Amendment may demand a subjective mental-state requirement shielding some true threats because bans on speech have the potential to deter speech outside their boundaries. In this context, a recklessness standard, a showing that a person consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his conduct will cause harm to another, is the appropriate mental state. Requiring purpose or knowledge would make it harder for states to counter true threats, with diminished returns for protected expression. View "Counterman v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Samia, Hunter, and Stillwell were tried jointly for the murder-for-hire of Lee, a real estate broker. The prosecution argued that Hunter had hired Samia and Stillwell to pose as buyers and visit properties with Lee. The court admitted Stillwell’s confession that he was in the van in which Lee was killed, but he claimed that Samia had shot Lee. Since Stillwell would not be testifying and the full confession implicated Samia, the prosecution introduced the testimony of a DEA agent, who described Stillwell’s confession in a way that eliminated Samia’s name while avoiding obvious indications of redaction. Before that testimony and again before deliberations, the court instructed the jury that the testimony about Stillwell’s confession was admissible only as to Stillwell and should not be considered as to Samia or Hunter. All three were convicted. The Second Circuit held that the admission of Stillwell’s confession did not violate Samia’s Confrontation Clause rights.The Supreme Court affirmed. The Confrontation Clause was not violated by the admission of a non-testifying codefendant’s confession that did not directly inculpate the defendant and was subject to a proper limiting instruction. The Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause forbids the introduction of out-of-court “testimonial” statements unless the witness is unavailable and the defendant has had the chance to cross-examine the witness previously but applies only to witnesses “against the accused.” Ordinarily, a witness at a joint trial is not considered a witness ‘against’ a defendant if the jury is instructed to consider that testimony only against a codefendant. This rule is consistent with the Clause’s text, historical practice, and the law’s reliance on limiting instructions in other contexts. To mandate severance whenever the prosecution wishes to introduce the confession of a non-testifying codefendant in a joint trial would be “too high” a price to pay. View "Samia v. United States" on Justia Law

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Hansen promised hundreds of noncitizens a path to U.S. citizenship through “adult adoption,” earning nearly $2 million from his fraudulent scheme. The government charged Hansen under 8 U.S.C. 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv), which forbids “encourag[ing] or induc[ing] an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such [activity] is or will be in violation of law.” The Ninth Circuit found Clause (iv) unconstitutionally overbroad, in violation of the First Amendment.The Supreme Court reversed. Because 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) forbids only the purposeful solicitation and facilitation of specific acts known to violate federal law, the clause is not unconstitutionally overbroad. A statute is facially invalid under the overbreadth doctrine if it “prohibits a substantial amount of protected speech” relative to its “plainly legitimate sweep.” Here, Congress used “encourage” and “induce” as terms of art referring to criminal solicitation and facilitation (capturing only a narrow band of speech) not as those terms are used in ordinary conversation. Criminal solicitation is the intentional encouragement of an unlawful act, and facilitation—i.e., aiding and abetting—is the provision of assistance to a wrongdoer with the intent to further an offense’s commission. Neither requires lending physical aid; both require an intent to bring about a particular unlawful act. The context of these words and statutory history indicate that Congress intended to refer to their well-established legal meanings. Section 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) reaches no further than the purposeful solicitation and facilitation of specific acts known to violate federal law and does not “prohibi[t] a substantial amount of protected speech” relative to its “plainly legitimate sweep.” View "United States v. Hansen" on Justia Law

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In 2000, Jones was convicted on two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). The Eighth Circuit affirmed Jones’ convictions and sentence. Jones’ subsequent 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion resulted in the vacatur of one of his concurrent sentences. Years later, the Supreme Court held (Rehaif) that a defendant’s knowledge of the status that disqualifies him from owning a firearm is an element of a 922(g) conviction, abrogating contrary Eighth Circuit precedent. Jones filed a 28 U.S.C. 2241 motion in the district of his imprisonment.The Eighth Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the petition. Section 2255(e) does not allow a prisoner asserting an intervening change in interpretation of a criminal statute to circumvent the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) restrictions on second or successive 2255 motions by filing a 2241 habeas petition.Under section 2255, federal prisoners can collaterally attack their sentences in the sentencing court, rather than by a 2241 habeas corpus petition in the district of confinement. The purpose of 2255 was to address problems created by district courts collaterally reviewing one another’s proceedings and by the concentration of federal prisoners in certain districts. Congress generally barred federal prisoners “authorized” to file a 2255 motion from filing a 2241 petition but preserved access to 2241 in cases where “the remedy by motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality" of the detention (Saving Clause). AEDPA subsequently barred second or successive 2255 motions unless based on either newly discovered evidence or “a new rule of constitutional law.” The inability of a prisoner with a statutory claim to satisfy section 2255(h) does not mean that the prisoner may bring a 2241 petition. Section 2255 is not necessarily “inadequate or ineffective” if the 2255 court fails to apply the correct substantive law. The Saving Clause is concerned with the adequacy or effectiveness of the remedial vehicle, not asserted errors of law. Due process does not guarantee the opportunity to have legal issues redetermined in successive collateral attacks. AEDPA embodies a balance between finality and error correction; there is nothing incongruous about a system in which the application of a since-rejected statutory interpretation cannot be remedied after final judgment. View "Jones v. Hendrix" on Justia Law

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Smagin won a multimillion-dollar arbitration award against Yegiazaryan stemming from the misappropriation of funds in Moscow. Because Yegiazaryan lives in California, Smagin, who lives in Russia, filed suit to enforce the award in California under the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. The district court froze Yegiazaryan’s California assets before entering judgment. While the action was ongoing, Yegiazaryan himself obtained an unrelated multimillion-dollar arbitration award and sought to avoid the asset freeze by concealing the funds.Smagin filed a civil suit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. 1964(c), alleging Yegiazaryan and others worked together to frustrate Smagin’s collection on the judgment through a pattern of RICO predicate racketeering acts, including wire fraud, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice. The district court dismissed the complaint, finding that Smagin failed to plead a “domestic injury.”The Ninth Circuit and the Supreme Court disagreed. The “domestic-injury” requirement for private civil RICO suits is context-specific and turns largely on the facts alleged; it does not mean that foreign plaintiffs may not sue under RICO. The circumstances surrounding Smagin’s injury indicate that the injury arose in the United States. Smagin’s alleged injury is his inability to collect his judgment. Much of the alleged racketeering activity that caused that injury occurred in the United States. While some of Yegiazaryan’s actions to avoid collection occurred abroad, the scheme was directed toward frustrating the California judgment. The injurious effects of the racketeering activity largely manifested in California and undercut the orders of the California court. The Court rejected arguments that fraud is typically deemed felt at the plaintiff’s residence and that intangible property is generally located at the owner’s domicile as not necessarily supporting the presumption against extraterritoriality, with its distinctive concerns for comity and discerning congressional meaning. View "Yegiazaryan v. Smagin" on Justia Law

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Two noncitizens were determined removable because they had convictions for aggravated felonies, offenses “relating to obstruction of justice,” 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(43)(S), 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii). The Ninth Circuit concluded that Cordero-Garcia’s state conviction for dissuading a witness from reporting a crime did not constitute an offense “relating to obstruction of justice” because the state offense did not require that an investigation or proceeding be pending. The Fourth Circuit concluded that Pugin’s state conviction for accessory after the fact constituted an offense “relating to obstruction of justice” even if the state offense did not require that an investigation or proceeding be pending.The Supreme Court held that an offense may “relat[e] to obstruction of justice” under section 1101(a)(43)(S) even if the offense does not require that an investigation or proceeding be pending. The definition of “aggravated felony,” for purposes of removal, was expanded in 1996 to include offenses “relating to obstruction of justice.” Obstruction of justice is often “most effective” when it prevents an investigation or proceeding from commencing. The phrase “relating to” indicates that the statute covers offenses having a connection with obstruction of justice—which surely covers common obstruction offenses that can occur when an investigation or proceeding is not pending. Even if a specific prohibition in 18 U.S.C. 1503(a) requires that an investigation or proceeding be pending, Congress defined offenses under 1101(a)(43)(S) more broadly. View "Pugin v. Garland" on Justia Law

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A federal court imposing multiple prison sentences typically has discretion to run the sentences concurrently or consecutively, 18 U.S.C. 3584. Section 924(c)'s exception provides: no term of imprisonment imposed “under this subsection shall run concurrently with any other term of imprisonment.” Lora was convicted of aiding and abetting a violation of section 924(j)(1), which penalizes “a person who, in the course of a violation of subsection (c), causes the death of a person through the use of a firearm,” where “the killing is a murder.” A violation of subsection (c) occurs when a person “uses or carries a firearm” “during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime,” or “possesses a firearm” “in furtherance of any such crime.” Lora was also convicted of conspiring to distribute drugs. The district court concluded that it lacked discretion to run the sentences for Lora’s two convictions concurrently. The Second Circuit affirmed.A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. Section 924(c)(1)(D)(ii)’s bar on concurrent sentences does not govern a 924(j) sentence, which can run either concurrently with or consecutively to another sentence. Subsection (c)’s consecutive-sentence mandate applies only to the terms of imprisonment prescribed within subsection (c). A sentence imposed under subsection (j) does not qualify. Subsection (j) is located outside subsection (c) and does not call for imposing any sentence from subsection (c); while subsection (j) references subsection (c), that reference is limited to offense elements, not penalties. It is not “implausible” for Congress to have imposed the harsh consecutive-sentence mandate under subsection (c) but not subsection (j). That result is consistent with the statute’s design. Unlike subsection (c), subsection (j) generally eschews mandatory penalties in favor of sentencing flexibility. View "Lora v. United States" on Justia Law

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Smith was indicted in the Northern District of Florida for theft of trade secrets from StrikeLines’ website. Smith moved to dismiss the indictment, citing the Constitution’s Venue Clause and the Vicinage Clause. Smith argued that he had accessed the website from his Alabama home and that the servers storing StrikeLines’ data were in Orlando, Florida. The Eleventh Circuit determined that venue was improper and vacated Smith’s conviction, but held that a trial in an improper venue did not bar reprosecution.The Supreme Court affirmed. The Constitution permits the retrial of a defendant following a trial in an improper venue conducted before a jury drawn from the wrong district. Except as prohibited by the Double Jeopardy Clause, when a defendant obtains a reversal of a prior, unsatisfied conviction, he may be retried. Nothing in the Venue Clause suggests that a new trial in the proper venue is not an adequate remedy for its violation. The Vicinage Clause—which guarantees the right to “an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed,” concerns jury composition, not the place where a trial may be held, and concerns the district where the crime was committed, rather than the state. The vicinage right is one aspect of the Sixth Amendment’s jury-trial rights and retrials are the appropriate remedy for violations of other jury-trial rights.The Double Jeopardy Clause is not implicated by retrial in a proper venue. A judicial decision on venue is fundamentally different from a jury’s verdict of acquittal. Culpability is the touchstone; when a trial terminates with a finding that the defendant’s criminal culpability had not been established, retrial is prohibited. Retrial is permissible when a trial terminates on a basis unrelated to factual guilt. The reversal of a conviction based on a violation of the Venue or Vicinage Clauses, even when called a “judgment of acquittal,” does not resolve the question of criminal culpability. View "Smith v. United States" on Justia Law

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Dubin was convicted of healthcare fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1347 after he overbilled Medicaid for psychological testing performed by his company. The prosecution argued that, in defrauding Medicaid, he also committed “[a]ggravated identity theft” under section 1028A(a)(1), which applies when a defendant, “during and in relation to any [predicate offense, such as healthcare fraud], knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person.” Dubin’s fraudulent Medicaid billing included the patient’s Medicaid reimbursement number. The Fifth Circuit affirmed Dubin’s aggravated identity theft conviction.The Supreme Court vacated. Under section 1028A(a)(1), a defendant “uses” another person’s means of identification “in relation to” a predicate offense when the use is at the crux of what makes the conduct criminal. Under the government’s view, section 1028A(a)(1) would apply automatically any time a name or other means of identification happens to be part of the payment or billing used in the commission of a long list of predicate offenses. The Court concluded that the use of a means of identification must entail using a means of identification specifically in a fraudulent or deceitful manner, not as a mere ancillary feature of a payment or billing method. The inclusion of “aggravated” in 1028A’s title suggests that Congress contemplated a particularly serious form of identity theft, not ordinary overbilling offenses. View "Dubin v. United States" on Justia Law