Justia U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Defendant filed various false liens against John Koskinen, the former Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, and Jacob Lew, the former Secretary of the Treasury. There is no dispute that Pate filed the false liens to retaliate against Lew and Koskinen for acts they performed as part of their official duties. Defendant filed the false liens after Lew and Koskinen had left their positions with the federal government.The Eleventh Circuit was therefore presented d with the following question: Does Section 1521 apply to false liens filed against former federal officers and employees for official actions they performed while in service with the federal government? The court concluded that the answer to this question is yes—the plain language of Section 1521 covers both current and former federal officers and employees. The court explained that a reading of the statute’s plain language—“any person assisting such an officer or employee in the performance of such duties or on account of that assistance”—does not suggest that its protection ends at some ascertainable point in time. Like the language regarding a federal officer or employee, the language regarding a person who lends assistance to a federal officer or employee has both a temporal qualification on liability. Thus, the court affirmed Defendant’s convictions predicated on violations of Section 1521. View "USA v. Timothy Jermaine Pate" on Justia Law

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Defendant was indicted tried, convicted, and sentenced to 28 months imprisonment for her part in a broader scheme to defraud the federal government out of relief funds intended for farmers affected by drought and fire. She challenged both her conviction and her sentence. As to her conviction, she contends that the evidence preponderated against a guilty verdict such that the district court abused its discretion when it denied her motion for a new trial. As to her sentence, she asserts that her bottom-of-the-Guidelines term of imprisonment is substantively unreasonable.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Defendant’s motion for a new trial. Neither did it abuse its discretion when it imposed a bottom-of-the-Guidelines sentence of 28 months’ imprisonment. The court explained that allowing the verdict to stand in the face of an arguable inconsistency—of which the jury was made aware, and which doesn’t bear on an element of the conviction—is not a miscarriage of justice. Further, the court reasoned that the weight of the evidence does not preponderate against a guilty verdict in this case. Finally, the court explained that Defendant never mentioned the Section 3553(a) factors or explains how the court committed reversible error when it considered them. Accordingly, she has failed to carry her burden of establishing that the sentence is unreasonable in the light of both the record and the factors in Section 3553(a). View "USA v. Danyel Michelle Witt" on Justia Law

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In this action brought by a group of pre-trial detainees challenging the constitutionality of the Cullman County bail system, the court reversed the district court's finding that the system discriminated against indigent defendants and deprived pretrial detainees of procedural due process. View "Bradley Hester v. Matthew Gentry, et al." on Justia Law

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Defendant’s plea agreement included a “waiver of appeal” giving up “the right to appeal his conviction and sentence and the right to collaterally attack his conviction and sentence in any post-conviction proceeding (including, but not limited to, motions filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section 2255).” After the Eleventh Circuit joined several other circuits in holding that “conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery does not qualify as a ‘crime of violence”, the district court denied Defendant’s second motion. At issue on appeal is “whether a valid waiver of collateral attack forecloses habeas relief based on a new retroactive constitutional rule?”   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s order holding that a valid waiver of collateral attack forecloses habeas relief based on a new retroactive constitutional rule. The court explained that forcing constitutional claims into the statutory maximum exception would render the promise of waiver virtually meaningless, robbing defendants of a powerful bargaining tool. Defendants who agree to waive their appeals receive the immediate benefit of reduced penalties in return—as Defendant’s case shows. But if that waiver becomes contingent, whether the defendant wishes it to be or not, a bargain will be much harder to strike. View "Deandre Markee King v. USA" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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An assistant district attorney (the “DA”) in Fulton County, Georgia obtained a material witness warrant requiring Plaintiff to appear as a witness at trial. Plaintiff voluntarily appeared at trial, making execution of the warrant unnecessary. After the trial ended, the DA failed to inform the trial judge that the warrant needed to be recalled. A few months later, a police officer arrested Plaintiff and placed him in jail because of the outstanding warrant. A judge eventually ordered Plaintiff’s release.   Plaintiff brought a 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 action alleging, among other things, that the DA’s failure to initiate the warrant’s cancelation violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The DA moved to dismiss the suit arguing that as a prosecutor she was entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. The district court agreed and dismissed Plaintiff’s claims against her.   The Eleventh Circuit reversed and held that absolute prosecutorial immunity does not extend to DA’s failure to take action to cancel the warrant. The district court thus erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s complaint.   The court wrote that determining whether prosecutorial immunity applies requires the court to take a fact-specific functional approach. Here, the court found that applying Third Circuit precedent from Odd v. Malone, 538 F.3d 202 (3d Cir. 2008), results in the conclusion that the DA is not entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. Thus the DA has failed to show that absolute immunity protects her post-trial conduct here. View "Kidanemariam Kassa v. Antionette Stephenson" on Justia Law

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A federal grand jury returned a sealed indictment against Defendant (“Senior”) and co-Defendant, his son, (“Junior”). The jury convicted Senior on all counts and Junior on counts one (conspiracy) and two (wire fraud). Both Senior and Junior again filed motions seeking a judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict or, alternatively, a new trial. The district court denied the motions.   Both Senior and Junior appealed on various grounds. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court denying Defendants’ motions. The court held that the district court committed no reversible error nor did it abuse its discretion.   The court first considered whether the evidence was sufficient to support Senior and Junior’s convictions for wire fraud. The court explained that to be convicted of wire fraud, a person must “(1) intentionally participate in a scheme or artifice to defraud another of money or property and (2) use or ‘cause’ the use of the mails or wires for the purpose of executing the scheme or artifice.” The court held that here the Government presented substantial evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Junior knowingly and intentionally participated in Senior’s fraudulent scheme.   Further, the court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Senior’s proposed jury instructions on the “intent to harm” element of the wire and bank fraud charges. The District Court’s instruction addressed the substance of the instruction in its charge and Senior’s ability to present an effective defense was in no way impaired by the district court’s refusal to use his proposed instruction. View "USA v. Donald Watkins, Jr., et al." on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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On appeal, Defendant challenged his convictions for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute, and possessing with intent to distribute. Defendant’s four claims on appeal focused on three discrete portions of his criminal proceeding: the initial arrest, the jury selection, and the trial itself. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed Defendant’s conviction and sentence.   Defendant contended that the collateral estoppel doctrine precluded the federal government from relitigating the legality of the traffic stop and the subsequent search of the Suburban as that identical issue was already decided in state court. The court held that because the federal and state governments were not in privity in this case, the federal government was not estopped from relitigating the legality of the traffic stop, the search, and Defendant’s arrest.   Next, Defendant argued that the district court (1) abused its discretion by striking Juror 13 for cause; and (2) erred in sustaining the government’s Batson challenge and seating Juror 11 over Defendant’s peremptory strike. The court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in striking Juror 13 for cause during the voir dire stage of Defendant’s case. Juror 13 never confirmed that she felt capable of following the law and the court’s instructions, thus the district court acted within its wide discretion in striking Juror 13 for cause. Moreover, the court concluded that the district court’s finding of discriminatory intent in the peremptory strike of Juror 11 was not clearly erroneous. Further, any error in excluding evidence relating to why the state court prosecution ended did not affect Defendant’s substantial rights. View "USA v. Alfonzo Lewis" on Justia Law

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Petitioner, who is serving two death sentences and a term of life imprisonment, filed a federal habeas petition alleging that his counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance during the penalty phase and that the jurors engaged in premature deliberations before the penalty phase in violation of his constitutional right to a fair trial. The district court denied relief on Petitioner’s juror misconduct claim but concluded that the state court’s determination that counsel was not ineffective was an unreasonable application of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The district court conditionally granted Petitioner habeas relief on his ineffective-assistance claim.   The Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections (“Alabama”) appealed the grant of habeas relief. Petitioner cross-appealed, arguing that the district court correctly granted habeas relief on his ineffective-assistance claim. In the alternative, he argued that habeas relief is warranted on his juror misconduct claim.   The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s decision on Petitioner’s ineffective-assistance claim because the state court’s determination that counsel was not ineffective during the penalty phase was not contrary to, or based on an unreasonable application of, Strickland. The court affirmed the denial of habeas relief for the juror misconduct claim.   The court explained that the record developed by Petitioner does not show that the state court’s determination that his counsel’s performance was not unreasonable “was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Petitioner also failed to demonstrate that the state court’s determination that he did not satisfy the prejudice prong was an unreasonable application of Strickland. View "Keith Edmund Gavin v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed his total life sentence following his conviction for enticement of a minor to engage in sexual activity and production of child pornography. Defendant argued that his life sentence, imposed after an upward variance, is substantively unreasonable because the district court failed to consider his mitigation arguments, considered improper factors, and unreasonably weighed the 18 U.S.C. Section 3553 sentencing factors.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, finding that the district court properly calculated the applicable Guidelines range but found that the resulting range did not adequately reflect Defendant’s criminal history or the need to protect the public. This is a finding that the district court was within its discretion to make, as the Supreme Court has held that a variance from the Guidelines range can “be based on the sentencing judge’s disagreement with whether [the advisory sentence] properly reflects the Section 3553(a) factors.” Rosales-Bruno, 789 F.3d at 1254. And Defendant has not shown that the district court’s emphasis on certain sentencing factors was “unjustified.” View "USA v. Travis M. Butler" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Petitioner went to trial for three counts of tax fraud under 18 U.S.C. Sections 2 and 287 and one count of attempted tax evasion under 26 U.S.C. Section 7201. A jury convicted on all four counts, and he was sentenced to a period of incarceration, supervised release, and restitution. The district court vacated the convictions for the first three counts of tax fraud but left in place the fourth for tax evasion. Petitioner timely appealed, renewing his arguments that his counsel was ineffective 1) in failing to properly move for judgment of acquittal as to Count Four, 2) in calling him to the witness stand, and 3) in failing to advise him of the dangers of testifying in his own defense.   The Eleventh Circuit granted Petitioner’s habeas petition and vacated his conviction under Count Four for tax evasion. The court explained that as to Count Four for attempted tax evasion, the basic inquiry on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim is, whether Petitioner’s trial counsel was deficient in failing to move for judgment of acquittal under Fed. R. Crim. P. 29 after the Government’s presentation of its case-in-chief, and, if so, whether that deficiency prejudiced the outcome of the trial.   The court wrote that here Petitioner’s counsel’s performance was deficient because he failed to properly move for judgment of acquittal when the Government had not carried its evidentiary burden in its case-in-chief. Further, had Petitioner’s counsel properly moved for judgment of acquittal, the district court would have been legally required to grant it for the same reasons the Eleventh Circuit did under a de novo standard. View "Peter Hesser v. USA" on Justia Law