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United States v. Pimentel-Lopez, — F.3d —, 2016 WL 9076502 (9th Cir. June 1, 2017): Rehearing denied in case barring sentencing judge from overriding jury’s affirmative finding of drug quantity

A blog entry posted in this space on July 30, 2016 covered the original panel opinion in United States v. Pimentel-Lopez. In a nutshell, the panel held that when a jury makes an affirmative finding that the defendant possessed less than a specified amount of narcotics, the sentencing court cannot later find that he actually possessed more than that amount. The government filed for en banc rehearing. The court voted against rehearing, but the panel amended its opinion and six judges dissented from the denial of rehearing. In response (presumably) to the views of the dissenting judges, the panel added language to the opinion illustrating how the verdict form could have been structured to prevent the problem, and noted that the government “can easily avoid this pitfall in future cases.” The dissenters argued that the panel misread the verdict form, and that the jury did not find beyond a reasonable doubt that the amount of drugs involved was not more than the specified amount. The dissenters asserted that the panel opinion creates a circuit split “with this circuit alone on an island.” They also warned that the panel opinion had “serious practical consequences” because the jury form in question is “substantially similar” to the court’s model form, meaning that similar forms may have been used in many cases.

(Repeat congratulations to Timothy M. Bechtold, Bechtold Law Firm, PLLC, Missoula, Montana.)

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United States v. Orozco, — F.3d —, 2017 WL 2367983 (9th Cir. June 1, 2017): Where intent to search for evidence of crime was but-for cause of purported administrative search of truck, evidence derived from search should have been suppressed

A while ago, Nevada had the idea of giving its highway patrol troopers the simultaneous powers to enforce the state’s criminal laws and to exercise “unconstrained discretion” to select commercial vehicles for “administrative” searches geared toward such matters as checking the driving log to ensure that the driver had not exceeded the maximum allowable time on the road. After all, they’re out on the highways anyway – what could possibly go wrong?

If you guessed: “Well, not to be cynical, but perhaps Nevada highway patrol troopers could get in the habit of using their administrative search powers to conduct what in reality are unconstitutional criminal searches without probable cause,” an extra bowl of pudding for you.

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United States v. Sanchez-Gomez, — F.3d —, 2017 WL 2346995 (9th Cir. May 31, 2017): Shackling of defendant in pretrial proceedings must be justified by individualized finding of compelling need

Harry Hunks: ‘Tis vile to be a baited bear, my friend/I’ faith it seems our woes shall never end.

Sackerson: We suffer not alone, my ursine pal/Think of those poor folks in the S.D. Cal.

Harry Hunks: Wait – what?

What is stranger, do you suppose: the fact that the first people ever to see Shakespeare’s plays also got a kick out of seeing a bear on a chain being whipped – or the fact that in certain high-volume federal districts, the spectacle of presumed-innocent defendants being paraded in and out of courtrooms in five-point restraints once became so perfectly routine that judges failed to exercise any meaningful discretion as to its appropriateness, even when challenged?

The question is moot: The former is a matter for historians of Elizabethan England, and the latter has just been addressed by a remarkable en banc decision from the Ninth Circuit. Continue reading →

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United States v. Liew, — F.3d —, 2017 WL 1753269 (9th Cir. May 5, 2017): Trade-secret theft counts reversed and case remanded for in camera examination of potential Brady material

Being prosecuted in federal court is bad enough – but imagine being sandwiched between a civil lawsuit and a criminal prosecution, both addressing the same conduct. One might well fear that the two cases in combination would add up to more than the sum of their parts. One might well wish that they could be twisted apart, and kept separate.

Which brings us to Oreo cookies, and Walter Liew. E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company obtained information suggesting that Mr. Liew, who had hired two former DuPont employees, was using the company’s proprietary technique for making titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in (among other things) the filling in Oreo cookies. DuPont filed a civil complaint alleging trade secret misappropriation. Mr. Liew filed an answer in which he denied having wrongfully obtained or possessed DuPont’s trade secrets. Meanwhile, the FBI began investigating whether Mr. Liew had stolen DuPont’s trade secrets and sold them to China. Eventually the feds indicted Mr. Liew on numerous counts, and the jury convicted him on all of them. But when the Ninth Circuit broke open the trial record, it discovered that all was not lily-white inside.

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United States v. Velazquez, — F.3d — (9th Cir. May 1, 2017): District court constructively denied defendant’s right to counsel by failing to inquire into breakdown of attorney-client relationship

How bad was the relationship between drug-trafficking defendant Guadalupe Velazquez and her counsel? Not merely She-tried-to-fire-him bad. Beyond She-claimed-that-he-failed-to-convey-the-plea-deal-to-her bad. We’re talking She-surreptitiously-recorded-a-meeting-with-him-to-show-how-bad-the-relationship-was bad. That’s bad.

Ms. Velazquez expressed her concerns about this bad relationship in a pro se request for new counsel. The district court denied the request in a summary six-minute hearing. She tried to explain her concerns to the magistrate judge at her arraignment. The magistrate judge responded by explaining in detail why she should accept the plea agreement — which she was quite reluctant to do, because it required her to say that she was well pleased with her counsel’s performance. So finally she threw up her hands and signed the plea deal, which contained an appeal waiver. Along the way she also filed another motion for new counsel — but the district court, noting that in the plea deal she stated that she was well pleased with her counsel’s performance, denied it. The court accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Ms. Velazquez to 121 months in custody.

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United States v. Davis, — F.3d — (9th Cir. Apr. 14, 2017): Jury instruction constructively amended sex trafficking charge by broadening mens rea element

A grand jury indicted Ricky Davis on two counts, one of which was attempted sex trafficking of a minor “knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that the person had not attained the age of 18 years.” Later, after the grand jurors had been sent home and the case was about to go to Mr. Davis’ jury, the district court described the charge in the jury instructions as attempted sex trafficking of a minor knowing or recklessly disregarding the victim’s age or having had “a reasonable opportunity to observe” the victim. The last piece was lifted out of the statute — but that did not make it okay, because it constructively amended the charge in the indictment. When a constructive amendment like this happens, it is impossible to know whether the grand jury would have indicted for the crime actually proved, causing the grand jury process to look like a bit of a charade. Noting that a constructive amendment constitutes per se reversible error, the Ninth Circuit reversed Mr. Davis’ attempted sex trafficking conviction. Because his conviction on another count survived and the reversal of the attempted sex trafficking charge “unbundled” the sentencing package, the court remanded the case for resentencing on an open record, or for retrial on the attempted sex trafficking charge.

Defense appellate lawyers: Did you notice the remarkable phrase “per se reversible error” up there? The constructive amendment issue belongs on your top shelf, next to Apprendi, Johnson, and “they forgot to prove an element.”

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United States v. Arriaga-Pinon, — F.3d —, 2017 WL 1291306 (9th Cir. Apr. 7, 2017): Illegal reentry defendant’s prior conviction under California vehicle-theft statute not shown by modified categorical approach to qualify as aggravated felony

Guillermo Arriaga-Pinon was convicted of unlawful reentry following removal in violation of 8 U.S.C. 1326(a) and (b). He received a sentencing enhancement under United States Sentencing Guidelines 2L1.2(b)(1)(C) on the premise that, before being removed, he had been convicted of an “aggravated felony.” Mr. Arriaga had been convicted before removal of a violation of a vehicle-theft statute, California Vehicle Code section 10851(a). Mr. Arriaga argued that a violation of this statute does not categorically constitute an aggravated felony, and that, in light of Mathis v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2243 (2016), the statute is “indivisible” and thus the “modified categorical” approach could not be applied to determine whether his particular offense qualified as an aggravated felony. The Ninth Circuit had held in Duenas-Alvarez v. Holder, 733 F.3d 812 (9th Cir. 2013), that this statute is divisible, but Mr. Arriaga argued that Mathis abrogated Duenas-Alvarez. Mr. Arriaga’s Ninth Circuit panel noted that there are “serious questions” as to whether Duenas-Alvarez survived Mathis, but declined to reach that question. Instead the panel held that, assuming that Duenas-Alvarez remained good law, Mr. Arriaga would still be entitled to relief because the modified categorical approach failed to clarify whether he was convicted as a principal or as an accessory after the fact, and only conviction as a principal qualifies as an aggravated felony. The court accordingly reversed and remanded the case for resentencing. Chief Judge Thomas took the “somewhat unusual” step of writing a separate concurrence to his own opinion, in which he painstakingly demonstrated why Mathis requires that, in an appropriate case, Duenas-Alvarez be overruled.

Duenas-Alvarez v. Holder — if you are reading this, a word of advice: Don’t buy; rent.

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United States v. Perkins, — F.3d —, 2017 WL 957205 (9th Cir. Mar. 13, 2017): Agent’s omission of relevant information from warrant invalidated computer search

There’s an old story about a two-car race, orchestrated during the height of the Cold War, between a driver from the United States and a driver from the Soviet Union. The race is close, but the American driver narrowly wins. The next day’s headline in the state-run Soviet newspaper reads: “In historic race, Soviet driver finishes second, while American driver barely manages to finish second to last.” It’s all true, of course, but the omission of material information renders it rather misleading. Amusing enough, as a parable of state propaganda; less so as a template for drafting a search warrant affidavit.

Which brings us to Mr. Charles Perkins. Mr. Perkins was en route to the United States through a Canadian airport when Canadian law enforcement agents learned that he was a registered sex offender and decided to have a look at his laptop. They found two questionable images, and called in an officer with expertise in child exploitation crimes. The expert examined the images and wrote up a report explaining his conclusion that they did not meet the Canadian definition of child pornography. Mr. Perkins went on to the United States, while the Canadian expert’s report went to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. An American DHS agent drafted an affidavit, based on the Canadian expert’s report, in support of an application for a warrant to search Mr. Perkins’ home computers. The agent relayed the basic facts from the Canadian expert’s report, but omitted mitigating portions of the Canadian officer’s descriptions of the images, failed to include the actual images, and failed to mention that the Canadian expert had determined that the images were not pornographic. Finding that these omissions were knowing and misleading, and that a properly-drafted affidavit would not support probable cause, the Ninth Circuit held that the evidence derived from the search warrant should have been suppressed, and vacated Mr. Perkins’ conviction. Judge Murguia dissented, arguing that the majority should have exhibited greater deference to the district court’s assessment of the agent’s omissions.

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United States v. Martinez, — F.3d —, 2017 WL 942673 (9th Cir. Mar. 10, 2017): District court breached Rule 43 and the Sixth Amendment by answering jury note without consulting with defense counsel

You know that elaborate routine when the jury, in the midst of its deliberations, sends the judge a note, and the judge summons both parties’ counsel, and they all gather in open court and closely examine the note, and then jointly hammer out a painstakingly-worded response? Did you ever wonder whether all of that was really necessary?

Yup. Just ask Bladimir Martinez.

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United States v. Vazquez-Hernandez, — F.3d —, 2017 WL 836074 (9th Cir. Mar. 3, 2017): District court plainly erred by failing to instruct jury that reentry defendant must have had intent to enter the U.S. “free from official restraint,” and evidence was insufficient to prove that element

You can’t be sorta deceased. You can’t be kinda pregnant. But can you be unlawfully in the United States-ish?

Well, kinda.