Articles Posted in Federal Criminal Appeals

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The First Circuit’s decision in United States v. Lopez-Pastrana, 15-1894 (1st. Cir. May 4, 2018) is long, but can be summed up simply: federal courts can’t impose a term of supervised release on a charge that resulted in no prison time, even if the sentencing court is trying to help the defendant obtain federally-subsidized medical care for a serious condition.  Here’s what happened in Lopez-Pastrana:

The Government charged Mr. Lopez-Pastrana with two drug crimes and two weapons crimes.  He entered into a plea agreement.  Mr. Lopez-Pastrana would plead guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute (Count III) and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking (Count IV).  In exchange, the Government would dismiss Counts I and II.  The agreed-upon (but non-binding) sentencing range was zero to six months imprisonment for Count III, and a 60 month mandatory-minimum on Count IV.  Of course, there was an appeal waiver in the plea agreement.

At sentencing, Mr. Lopez-Pastrana explained he has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (“COPD”), which, if you believe the commercial, makes you feel like an elephant or some other large animal is sitting on your chest.  His sentencing attorney told the district court that Mr. Lopez-Pastrana had a 20% chance of surviving the next four years.  The Government thought he was overstating the matter.  According to the Government, the Bureau of Prisons represented that “his medical condition is not an end-stage disease” and that his condition had improved during the four months he was incarcerated and awaiting sentencing.  (Aside: BOP has a very high opinion of its ability to care for sick people.  Check out the 11th Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Seecharan, where a defendant’s doctor opined the defendant would die of infection if he went to prison, and the district court ordered incarceration based on BOP’s response was that it “could handle anything.”  Happily, the 11th Circuit reversed for resentencing).

Back to Mr. Lopez-Pastrana. The district court sentenced him to 60 months in a prison medical facility on Count IV, with 5 years of supervised release.  But the sentence on Count III engendered some debate.  The district court basically gave Mr. Lopez-Pastrana an ultimatum.  Option 1: 12 months of home confinement with federally funded medical care as a condition of supervised release, and no time in prison.  Option 2: 6 months in prison.  Mr. Lopez-Pastrana took the 12 months of home confinement and appealed.

Michael Brownlee is board-certified as an appellate expert by the Florida Bar.  He practices in federal appellate courts around the country and is the founding member of The Brownlee Law Firm.  To learn more visit appealattorney.com or email Mike at mbrownlee@brownleelawfirmpa.com.

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The First Circuit rarely reverses, particularly in criminal cases.  You can read First Circuit opinions for months without coming across a defense-friendly opinion.  And a federal grant of a 2254 habeas petition by any court is a unicorn, in and of itself. See, e.g., Nancy J. King, Non-capital Habeas Cases after Appellate Review: An Empirical Analysis, 24 Fed. Sent. Rptr. 308, 310 (2012) (observing that, after both district and circuit court review, habeas relief was granted in only .8 percent of noncapital habeas cases).  That’s what makes the First Circuit’s decision in Rivera v. Thompson, 879 F.3d 7 (1st Cir. 2018) such a welcome surprise.

The facts: Rivera was in a fight with Williams and it was not going well.  Williams was much bigger than Rivera and the fight quickly became lopsided.  When fellow partygoers realized Williams was in full control and showing no signs of relenting, a group went outside to break up the fight.  Soon after, Williams keeled over on top of Rivera, and one witness said Williams remarked as he fell, “I think he [Rivera] stabbed me.”  But it happened fast and no one was willing or able to identify who stabbed Williams.  Rivera ran and a police officer saw him and ordered him to stop, but Rivera kept going.  When the officer drew his gun and told Rivera to get down, Rivera complied.  With Rivera still on the ground and the officer’s gun drawn, the officer asked Rivera a few questions, but did not issue Miranda warnings.  Rivera responded with some indirect, but inculpatory answers.  Backup arrived soon after, Rivera refused to talk further, and he was brought to the police station.

After a trial, Rivera was found guilty and sentenced to 9-10 years and 5 years of supervised release.  While his appeal was pending, he filed a motion for new trial, arguing his trial attorney was ineffective for failing to move for suppression of his inculpatory statements to the police officer.  The Massachusetts trial court denied the motion for new trial without comment or a hearing.  Rivera pressed his ineffective assistance argument on appeal.  The appellate court rejected it, stating that “it was not ineffective assistance for counsel not to move to suppress the defendant’s initial statements to the police where the questions did not constitute interrogation for purposes of Miranda warnings.” Id. at 11.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court denied review, and Rivera was off to federal habeas land.

Michael Brownlee is board-certified as an appellate expert by the Florida Bar.  He practices in federal appellate courts around the country and is the founding member of The Brownlee Law Firm.  To learn more visit appealattorney.com or email Mike at mbrownlee@brownleelawfirmpa.com.

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A rational actor should not be overeager to join “Brothers of the  Struggle”  or  “Gangster  Disciples” (“BOS”), primarily comprised of a group of servicemen with too much idle time on their hands who were stationed at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. BOS is said to be related to  the  Gangster  Disciples, an  American  gang  with  roots  in  Chicago  and  corresponding individual “sets,” or local groups, around the world. (The BOS group was said to engage in fistfights but supposedly didn’t engage in other criminal activities.) “Initiation” in BOS meant that a new  member would be beaten up in a “jump-in,” during which  approximately six  BOS members would  hit the initiate for about six  minutes, striking blows between  the  neck  and  the  waist. The initiate could not defend himself in any way. During jump-ins initiates were asked repeatedly if they wanted to proceed. If the initiate declined, the initiation ended; otherwise if the initiate acceded, it continued. After a jump-in, the new member would be  hugged,  kissed  on  the  cheek, shown the BOS handshake,  and  taken out  to  celebrate. In the past, about fifteen to eighteen jump-ins had occurred and no one had been hospitalized or injured.

Rico Williams changed the rules of the “game” during Army Sergeant Juwan Johnson’s hazing. Williams was an ex-serviceman who was living at Ramstein as a dependent of his wife, who was also an Airman. Williams struck Johnson several times in the face during a jump-in that nine, not the usual six, BOS members joined in. As events transpired, the hazing continued, even though Johnson kept saying he was all right, and went on after Johnson had fallen to the ground and was kicked by members. Although Johnson never lost consciousness, he died within hours of the beating. (The sad details are at pages 3-4 of Circuit Judge Griffith’s majority opinion.)

Williams was charged under the  Military  Extraterritorial Jurisdiction  Act of  2000 (“MEJA”),  which  provides  federal jurisdiction  over  crimes committed  by a civilian  accompanying  the  Armed Forces  outside  the United  States (18 U.S.C. § 3261 et seq.), with second degree murder on an American installation. In addition he was accused of witness tampering (18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)(3)).  (Slip Op. at 5-6). An autopsy revealed “blunt force injuries”  to  Johnson’s  brain  and heart, which the Government’s medical expert opined had caused Johnson’ death. The defense medical expert, in turn, asserted that the cause of death was sickle-cell  trait,  a typically  asymptomatic  genetic condition,  and  that  “superficial  blunt  impact  injuries” were merely a “contributing” cause of death. (Slip Op. at 5). Williams was convicted of the murder count and received a 22-year sentence and a concurrent ten-year sentence on one of the tampering counts. (Id. at 6-7).

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In April, May and June the Third Circuit vacated convictions in three cases. The first, United States v. Lopez, addresses prosecutorial misconduct (Doyle error); the second, United States v. Vasquez-Algarin, addresses law enforcement misconduct (Fourth Amendment/forced entry); the third, United States v. Dennis, addresses trial court error (failure to give an entrapment instruction) in the larger context of reverse-sting stash house operations. Each opinion touches on policy concerns raised by the legal issues; the majority and Judge Ambro’s concurrence in Dennis are particularly worth reading for anyone litigating stash house cases. The three cases were decided by three non-overlapping panels of judges.

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Here is a recap of some recent victories from the Sixth Circuit. Good to see vigilant defense counsel using foresight to prevent undue restrictions resulting from sentencing conditions.

United States v. Arnold. Sixth Circuit: A jury convicted Appellant of being a felon in possession of a firearm. At sentencing, the district court departed upward, at least in part, because of its concern that a longer term of imprisonment was needed to ensure that Appellant received appropriate mental health treatment. Specifically, the district court found that Appellant’s “anger” warranted an upward departure to promote public safety, but also that Appellant so needed a “psychiatric intervention” that the Court felt compelled “to grant the government’s motion to go outside and above the sentencing guidelines” to ensure the Appellant would receive that treatment. The Sixth Circuit found that the district court abused its discretion.

United States v. Kelly. Sixth Circuit: Appellant violated his terms of supervised release by failing to register as a sex offender. As part of its Judgment, the district court imposed that district’s rote conditions of supervised release for sex offenders. But the Appellant’s last sex offense predated the revocation by 26 years. Moreover, the record demonstrated that Appellant had a low likelihood of recidivism (for sex offenses), had no mental disorder, had benefitted from previous therapy, and the age had lessened the risk of re-offending. Under such circumstances, the district court abused its discretion and the sentence was substantively unreasonable. The case further highlights the need for Counsel to be vigilant when Courts seek to impose “standard” conditions of supervised release.

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Bonifacio Toribio-Almonte was indicted on two counts: (1) conspiracy to import five kilos or more of cocaine and one or more kilos of heroin into the U.S., and (2) conspiracy to possess and distribute five kilos or more of cocaine and one or more kilos of heroin on board a vessel within U.S. customs waters.  On the morning his trial was set to begin, he pled guilty without a plea agreement.

Mr. Toribio-Almonte’s guideline range was 188-235 months in prison.  He requested a sentence below the guidelines, or at the very least, his minimum mandatory sentence, which was 120 months.  The Government requested a 235 month sentence.  To support its request for a sentence at the high end of the guideline range, the Government claimed Mr. Toribio-Almonte was a leader or organizer of the conspiracy.  The problem for the Government was that it had no evidence whatsoever to back up its claim.

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On December 15th the D.C. Circuit overturned for plain procedural error a severe sentence in another of those child pornography sting operation cases that appear with some frequency in this jurisdiction.

In a split opinion that is somewhat remarkable for its composition (Senior Circuit Judge Edwards and Circuit Judge Henderson comprising the majority with Senior Circuit Judge Sentelle dissenting) the Circuit reversed the conviction of James Brown, a defendant with a seeming penchant for sexual relations with underage females, including his daughter and at least one granddaughter. The Court found that the district court had plainly erred in sentencing Mr. Brown to a 144-month prison term, which was 47 months in excess of a jointly-requested low end of the Guidelines range and 23 months above the high end. In finding procedural error, the court sidestepped the appellant’s alternative claim of substantive unreasonableness. In particular, the panel found that the lower court’s explanation for an above-Guidelines sentence was inadequate under United States v. Akhigbe, 642 F.3d 1078, 1085-86 (D.C. Cir. 2011)).

Writing for the majority, Judge Edwards found that the district court had plainly failed to provide adequate in-court and written explanations for imposing a sentence that neither the prosecution nor the defendant had sought. Describing the Trial Judge’s in-court characterization of Brown’s conduct “spare and unparticularized,” the panel pointed out that the lower court’s explanation for the above-Guidelines sentence to have been a “‘mere recitation of . . . § 3553(a) factor[s] without application to the defendant being sentenced [which] does not demonstrate reasoned decisionmaking or provide an adequate basis for appellate review.’” (slip op. at 12) (quoting Akhigbe, 642 F.3d at 1086). Nor did the trial judge’s “unparticularized references to “actual abuse of children’ and ‘predatory conduct’ provide [any] basis for suggesting why the conduct described was more harmful or egregious than that accounted for in the Guidelines calculation, let alone why that conduct merited a sentence 23 months in excess of the applicable Guidelines range.” (slip op. at 12-13). In a similar vein, the Court found “unenlightening” the trial judge’s comment that “the combination of behaviors to which Brown pled is ‘not conduct we normally get around here,’” for that comment failed to explain why Brow’s behavior “was more egregious or harmful than that accounted for by the applicable Guidelines calculation.” (Id. at 3-14).

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Gregory McLeod pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Government sought an enhanced penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), arguing that Mr. McLeod had at least three prior violent felony convictions, all of which were South Carolina second-degree burglaries. If the Government was right, and the District Court believed it was, Mr. McLeod faced a prison term of fifteen years to life. If Mr. McLeod was right, he faced no more than ten years in prison. The Fourth Circuit doesn’t tell us more about the facts of his offense because what we really care about is what happened in South Carolina state court in 1998.

Mr. McLeod had a total of five convictions for second degree burglary. The District Court found that all five convictions were violent felonies. The indictments in “those cases charged McLeod with breaking and entering a commercial building with the intent to commit a crime.” Seems simple enough, right? But sometimes a state burglary isn’t a federal burglary.

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There have not been many decisions from the D.C. Circuit in recent months – criminal or otherwise. But a rare reversal in an unusual coram nobis proceeding is worth mentioning as we swing into those grey winter months.

In an opinion remarkable for its turnaround – announced only 45 days after oral argument – the Circuit concluded that Kerry Newman, a permanent resident alien since 1980, had established one viable ground on which to claim that his defense counsel might have rendered ineffective assistance by providing erroneous advice at sentencing about the potential consequences of a guilty plea to a felony offense. United States v. Newman, _ F.3d _, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 1988 (D.C. Cir., Oct. 2, 2015).

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The United States government thought that Lonnell Glover was a drug dealer. They tapped his phone, but he spoke in code so they couldn’t get any evidence on him that way.

The government knew that Mr. Glover liked to talk in his truck, as so many Americans do. So they decided to get authorization from a judge to put a bug – a little microphone – in his truck.

The bug was authorized by a federal judge in Washington, D.C. The truck, at the time, was at Baltimore Washington International Airport (or, more accurately, Thurgood Marshall Baltimore Washington International Airport).