May 21, 2014

Short Wins - the Expert Testimony Edition

In this edition, I think the most interesting case (of a number of interesting cases) is United States v. Garcia.

There, the government had an agent testify as an expert. The Fourth Circuit reversed, because the agent's "expert testimony" exceeded the bounds of what counts as expert testimony.

The way agents get qualified as experts is, often, nuts. It's good to see the Fourth Circuit rolling it back.

To the victories!

1155650_berlin_siegessule.jpg1. United States v. Jones, First Circuit: Appellant was sentenced to two life sentences, as well as various other 10-to-40 year sentences, related to child pornography and child sex act charges. The First Circuit found that Appellant's prior conviction did not require proof that he acted with the intent to degrade, humiliate, or arouse the victim and therefore did not qualify as a predicate offense requiring a life sentence. Because the sentences for the other charges were impacted by the two life sentences, the case was remanded for resentencing.

Defense Attorney: Jonathan G. Mermin

2. United States v. Lucena-Rivera, First Circuit: Appellant pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and was sentenced to 220 months in prison. Because the trial court did not make sufficient findings of facts regarding the sentencing enhancement for being "in the business of laundering funds" the case was remanded for factual findings.

Defense Attorneys: Martin G. Weinberg and Kimberly Homan

3. United States v. Santiago-Burgos, First Circuit: After pleading guilty to a drug conspiracy charge, Appellant was sentenced to 97 months' imprisonment. Appellant argued, and the government conceded, that two criminal history points were improperly assessed. The First Circuit therefore remanded for resentencing.

Defense Attorney: Heather Golias

4. United States v. Sepulveda-Hernandez, First Circuit: The First Circuit held that a statute which doubles the maximum available penalty for drug distribution in close proximity to a youth center is an independent offense and not just a sentence-enhancing factor. The evidence at trial was not sufficient to support a conviction for that offense, so the conviction was vacated.

Defense Attorney: Irma R. Valldejuli

5. United States v. Gill, Second Circuit: Appellant's collateral challenge to his order of deportation was denied by the district court, which relied on the fact that §212(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act had been repealed. The repeal of §212 effectively eliminated statutorily-provided discretionary relief from deportation to a class of non-citizens, including Appellant. Allowing deportation of Appellant would have an impermissible retroactive effect on those who relied on §212 when they were tried and convicted. The case was therefore remanded.

6. United States v. Pena, Second Circuit: During sentencing, Appellant received a sentencing enhancement for obstruction of justice based on written statements he made in support of a motion to suppress. In denying the motion to suppress, the trial judge found Appellant's statements not credible. The sentencing judge then applied a sentencing enhancement based on the trial judge's finding of falsity in Appellant's statements. The Second Circuit found that the district court committed clear error in determining that Appellant willfully made false statements and remanded for resentencing.

7. United States v. Smith, Third Circuit: As part of Appellant Smith's sentence for bank fraud and aggravated identity theft, he was ordered to pay restitution of $68,452. The case was remanded once prior, and Appellant's restitution amount was increased to $77,452. Because the district court exceeded the scope of remand by revisiting the restitution amount, the additional $9,000 in restitution was vacated.

Defense Attorney: Peter A. Levin

8. Barnes v. Joyner, Fourth Circuit: Petitioner, who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, appeals the denial of his writ of habeas corpus. Because the post-conviction court failed to apply a presumption of prejudice and also failed to investigate the alleged juror misconduct which led to the petition, the case was remanded for an evidentiary hearing.

Defense Attorneys: Milton Gordon Widenhouse, Jr. and George B. Currin

9. United States v. Blackledge, Fourth Circuit: Appellant was civilly committed as a sexually dangerous person under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. During the commitment hearings, Appellant's lawyers had twice moved to withdraw as counsel, but both motions were denied. The Fourth Circuit found that it was abuse of discretion to deny the motions to withdraw because the trial judge did not engage in an adequate inquiry as to the substance of the motion to withdraw. The district court erred in failing to examine the length of time Appellant and his attorney had ceased communication and trial preparation. The judgments on the motions to withdraw were vacated and the case remanded for further consideration.

Defense Attorney: Richard Croutharmel

10. United States v. Garcia, Fourth Circuit: After a jury trial, Appellant was convicted of narcotics trafficking. Those convictions were vacated because the trial court abused its discretion by allowing an FBI agent to testify as both an expert and lay witness. The court's cautionary instruction to the jury and sustaining some objections was not sufficient to mitigate the risk of prejudice.

Defense Attorney: Todd Michael Brooks and Erek L. Barron

11. United States v. Ocasio, Fourth Circuit: Appellant was convicted by a jury for extortion under the Hobbs Act and was ordered to pay restitution to Erie Insurance as part of his sentence. The Fourth Circuit vacated the restitution order because Erie Insurance was never proven, or even alleged, to be a victim of the conspiracy, and restitution awards must be tied to the loss caused by the convicted offense.

Defense Attorneys: Matthew Scott Owen and Daniel S. Epps

12. United States v. Ramirez-Castillo, Fourth Circuit: Appellant was sentenced to 33 months' imprisonment after a jury determined that two objects he made while in prison were weapons and violated a federal statute prohibiting the possession of those weapons. The convictions were vacated because the jury was never asked whether Appellant was guilty, but only whether the first object was a weapon and whether the second object was possessed by Appellant.

Defense Attorney: Cameron Jane Blazer

13. United States v. Sadler, Sixth Circuit: Appellants, a husband and wife, were convicted of various crimes associated with operating pain-management clinics. One of Mrs. Sadler's convictions - for wire fraud - was not supported by the evidence so the conviction was reversed. The wire fraud statute does not punish those who simply use a scheme to defraud, but instead only those who use a scheme to defraud with the intention of depriving others of money or property. The government did not prove Mrs. Sadler's intent to defraud others of money or property.

Defense Attorney: William G. Brown

14. Avila v. Richardson, Seventh Circuit: The Court reversed the denial of habeas relief and remanded for further proceedings because the state court applied a rule of law contrary to controlling precedent of the Supreme Court. Appellant's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was wholly denied because the court said such an appeal was waived by his plea. However, the Supreme Court has held that a guilty plea can be challenged if the plea itself was the result of ineffective assistance of counsel.

15. United States v. Ford, Eighth Circuit: On remand from the Supreme Court following United States v. Burrage, the Eighth Circuit held that the government had not proven at trial that the drugs Appellant sold were a but-for cause of death of a buyer. The conviction and sentence were vacated.

16. United States v. Shaw, Eighth Circuit: Appellant was sentenced to 378 months' imprisonment after the court determined a mandatory-minimum 7-year sentence was required for brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense. Because the jury had not made a specific finding about the firearm, the sentence was vacated and remanded for resentencing.

17. United States v. Stokes, Eighth Circuit: Appellant pled guilty to possession with intent to distribute. The sentencing judge based the sentence in part on the idea that Appellant's long-term unemployment was indicative of being a drug dealer. The Eighth Circuit found that this determination was clearly erroneous because the facts in the records only supported the fact that Appellant had previous used drugs. The case was remanded for reconsideration of Appellant's request for a downward variance.

18. Butler v. Long, Ninth Circuit: The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of an untimely habeas petition. Petitioner was not provided an opportunity to amend the previously-field habeas petition and so was entitled to equitable tolling from the date of the first dismissal until the filing of the current petition.

Defense Attorney: John Ward

19. Dixon v. Williams, Ninth Circuit: Petitioner filed a habeas corpus petition challenging the jury instruction on self-defense. Because the trial court's instruction was inaccurate--asking for an honest but "reasonbale" (instead of "unreasonable) belief in the necessity for self-defense--and it lowered the State's burden of proof, the writ of habeas corpus must be granted.

Defense Attorneys: Randolph Fiedler and Debra A. Bookout

20. Frost v. Boening, Ninth Circuit: The writ for habeas corpus should be granted because the trial court infringed on Petitioner's Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when it precluded counsel from making a reasonable doubt argument to the jury. The Ninth Circuit held that Petitioner was deprived of his right to demand that the jury find him guilty of all elements of the crime and that the burden of proof had shifted.

Defense Attorney: Erik B. Levin

21. United States v. Brooks, Ninth Circuit: The district court failed to set time limitations on an involuntary medication order. Because over a year had passed from the order, the Ninth Circuit ordered a new inquiry pursuant to Sell v. United States.

Defense Attorney: C. Renee Manes

22. United States v. Preston, Ninth Circuit: Appellant's conviction was reversed and the case remanded for a new trial because the trial court improperly admitted a confession by the Appellant. Taking into consideration the particular circumstances of the Appellant, the Ninth Circuit held that the confession was involuntary because the tactics used by law enforcement, along with Appellant's intellectual disability, created a coercive interrogation and an involuntary confession.

Defense Attorneys: Keith Swisher

23. United States v. Ramirez-Estrada, Ninth Circuit: Appellant's convictions for attempted entry after deportation and making a false claim to United States citizenship were reversed. The Ninth Circuit held that Appellant's post-invocation silence was improperly used to impeach him at trial.

Defense Attorney: Caitlin E. Howard

24.United States v. Thum, Ninth Circuit: Appellant's supervised release was revoked by the trial court after it found him guilty of encouraging or inducing an illegal alien to reside in the United States. The judgment was reversed and the case remanded with instruction to dismiss the petition because merely escorting an alien from a fast food restaurant near the border to a nearby vehicle does not violate the statute.

Defense Attorney: Devin Burstein

25. United States v. Castro-Perez, Tenth Circuit: Appellant pled guilty to distributing cocaine and was sentenced to 63 months' imprisonment and three years of supervised release. Under the sentencing guidelines, Appellant received a two-level enhancement for committing a drug crime while possessing a dangerous weapon. The Tenth Circuit held that there was no physical relation between the weapon and the drug trafficking activity as required for the sentencing enhancement and therefore remanded for resentencing.

Defense Attorney: Deborah Roden

26. United States v. Hill, Tenth Circuit: Appellant was convicted of charged related to a bank robbery. During trial, an FBI agent was allowed to testify as an expert about his interrogation of Appellant and about Appellant's credibility. The Tenth Circuit found that it was plain error to allow expert testimony opining on the credibility of a witness, including the Appellant, and that this error affected Appellant's substantial rights. The convictions were reversed.

Defense Attorneys: Howard A. Pincus and Warren R. Williamson

27. United States v. Thomas, Tenth Circuit: After a jury trial, Appellant was found guilty of two drug charges and sentenced to 130 months in prison. Appellant's sentence was vacated because the district court erred during sentencing by applying harsher guidelines based on six prior convictions. The government's evidence had only addressed one of the six convictions, so it was improper for the sentencing court to rely on the other five.

Defense Attorney: Thomas D. Haney

28. United States v. Harrell, Eleventh Circuit: Appellant pled guilty to robbery charges and received an agreed-upon sentence of 25 years. This conviction was vacated because the trial court was improperly involved in plea negotiations. The trial court instigated and orchestrated the plea negotiations, commenting on the potential sentences both after trial and after a plea. This seriously affected the integrity and fairness of the judicial proceeding, so Appellant must be allowed to withdraw the guilty plea.

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