May 6, 2013

Short Wins - And More on Jury Nullification

Six new cases from the federal circuits this week. My favorite - a subjective measure, I know - is United States v. Ramirez. Any time a court, even the Ninth Circuit, vacates a drug conspiracy conviction for insufficient evidence it's worth a read.

Last week I posted about a First Circuit case that raised, I thought, a specter of support for jury nullification. Lots of folks responded to that - it turns out that nullification is a popular topic.

On Twitter, I was directed to this recent opinion out of New Mexico on nullification. If you have time, I highly recommend it. It canvasses the history of nullification as an important part of what our criminal justice system is built on then says, basically, no.

I also exchanged a few emails about nullification with a prosecutor friend of mine (yes, I have prosecutor friends, don't tell). He pointed out, rightly, that nullification is not your friend if you're thinking of, say, the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division of DOJ going into, say, Alabama, to prosecute hate crimes. Or almost any public corruption trial of a very popular politician. It's a fair point. The interplay between popular sentiment and the rule of law is complicated. And, as soon as cases that raise those kinds of concerns are the majority of the criminal trials in the country, perhaps prohibiting nullification would clearly be good.

To the victories!

1155650_berlin_siegessule.jpg1. United States v. Davis, Fourth Circuit: Appellant pled guilty to possession of a stolen firearm and was ordered to pay restitution to reimburse the homeowner from whose home he broke into for the value of the unrecovered firearm and damage caused by the break-in. Because the homeowner is not a victim under the Victim and Witness Protection Act, and because appellant's plea agreement did not include an explicit agreement to pay restitution to a person other than a victim of the offense of conviction, there was no basis to order restitution. This plain error required reversal of the restitution order.

2. United States v. Luna-Acosta, Tenth Circuit: Appellant pled guilty to illegal re-entry into the United States. At sentencing, the district court orally announced a sentence of one year in prison. Five months later, a written judgment was filed imposing a 33-month sentence. Because the court lacked jurisdiction to alter the sentence, the sentence was vacated and the case remanded for the court to enter a new judgment with a one-year sentence.

3. United States v. Mackay, Tenth Circuit: Appellant was convicted of unlawfully prescribing controlled substances and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Although the total sentence was below the advisory guidelines range, it exceeded the statutory maximum sentence on nine counts. Because the judgment was unclear whether the court intended to impose a 20-year sentence on each count, which would have been illegal, the case was remanded to allow the court to clarify the sentence for the record.

4. United States v. Mancuso, Ninth Circuit: Appellant was convicted of possession and distribution of cocaine, as well as two counts of maintaining a drug-involved premises. The distribution conviction was vacated because it joined two or more distinct and separate offenses into a single count. The convictions for maintaining a drug involved premises were vacated because the district court committed plain error by utilizing a "significant purposes" instruction rather than a "primary or principal use" instruction.

5.United States v. Patrick, Sixth Circuit: Appellant pled guilty to drug and firearm charges. At the plea hearing, the judge did not state the mandatory minimum penalty for the firearm charge. Because the court's failure to ensure that appellant understood that he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the firearm charge affected his substantial rights, the plea was vacated to allow appellant to withdraw his plea.

6. United States v. Ramirez, Ninth Circuit: Appellant was convicted of distribution, possession with intent to distribute, and conspiracy to distribute meth. When viewing the evidence on the conspiracy charge in the light most favorable to the government, the government failed to present sufficient evidence showing that appellant had an agreement with another to distribute meth. As a result, the conspiracy conviction was vacated and the case remanded for the district court to grant a judgment of acquittal on that count and to conform the sentence accordingly.

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