Friday, September 19, 2014

Convictions Under Pennsylvania’s Terroristic Threat Statute Are not Crimes of Violence.

Applying the holding in Descamps v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2276 (2013), the Third Circuit held in United States v. Brown (13-4442) that convictions for making terroristic threats (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §2706) were not categorically crimes of violence for purposes of the career offender sentence enhancement (U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1).

While incarcerated on a separate state offense, Appellant Gregory Garett Brown mailed a letter threatening both a federal magistrate judge and a federal district court judge.  He pled guilty to mailing threatening communications in violation of 18 U.S.C. §876(c).  The PSR recommended Brown be sentenced as a career offender under §4B1.1(a), which had the effect of doubling his guideline range from 30 to 37 months, up to 77 to 96 months. The PSR identified four prior Pennsylvania state convictions that allegedly triggered the enhancement including: one conviction for aggravated assault, one conviction for retaliating against a judicial officer, and two convictions for making terroristic threats.  Mr. Brown agreed the aggravated assault was a qualifying offense, and the Government conceded that the retaliation offense did not qualify, so the dispute in this matter was whether the convictions for making terrorist threats qualified as predicate offenses under the career offender enhancement guideline. 

The Third Circuit found that the relevant Pennsylvania statue, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §2706, is an “overbroad” statute that criminalizes both conduct that qualifies as a crime of violence and conduct that would not be considered a crime of violence under federal law.  Because the state statute applies to such a broad range of conduct, under the precedent set in Descamps, §2706 is not categorically a crime of violence.  Moreover, the modified categorical approach for reviewing predicate offenses is not applicable when a statute provides for multiple versions of an offense but none of those variations is categorically a crime of violence.  Accordingly, the two state convictions under this statute did not qualify as predicate offenses and the enhancement could not be applied to Brown’s sentencing calculation. Therefore the circuit court vacated the sentence and remanded the case.

The holding in this case has the effect of superseding and overturning part of holding in United States v. Mahone, 662 F.3d 651 (3d Cir. 2011).

Rare case where Court, on direct appeal, remands for evidentiary hearing on IAC claim

(Rendell, Fuentes, Greenaway, C.J.s)

In Gov’t of V.I. v Vanterpool, No. 13-4400, 2014 WL 4473960, Vanterpool raised First Amendment challenges (facially vague, as applied, and overbreadth) to his convictions for harassment by telephone and written communication.  His attorney did not raise any First Amendment challenge to a statute that criminalizes “writing in a manner likely to harass or alarm.” The Court determined if the statute was unconstitutional, the District Court would have committed error in applying it, but it would only be reversible under plain error.  The Court had never ruled on whether a constitutional challenge can survive plain error review but found other Circuit cases “persuasive” that when a constitutional question is far from being “clear under current law,” it cannot survive plain error. (However, the Court would not rule out that a constitutional challenge could ever win under plain error review).  Nonetheless, here, the Court took the rare step of remanding the case for an evidentiary hearing on an ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claim while on direct appeal.  The Court explained it would remand the case because 28 U.S.C. §2255 would not be available for a defendant who was not in custody and had fully discharged his term of probation.  Thus, inability to seek habeas relief constitutes grounds to review ineffectiveness claims on direct appeal.  The Court examined the statute and concluded it swept up a wide variety of expressive speech and that the letters at issue in the case fell within that category.  Thus, if the attorney had raised a constitutional challenge, the statute likely would have been found unconstitutional, satisfying the prejudice prong of IAC.  The Court remanded for a hearing on the performance prong, to determine if a failure to challenge the statute was ignorance of the law or failure to perform basic research, rather than strategy.

For a Conviction of Distribution of Child Pornography Under 18 U.S.C. §2252, the Government Must Prove Images Were Downloaded or Obtained by Another Person.

The Third Circuit held in United States v. Husmann, (No. 13-2688), that in a prosecution for distribution of child pornography, the Government must establish that the illegal images were actually downloaded or obtained by a third party.   The act of uploading images and making them available on a shared computer file or a peer-to-peer network is insufficient to justify a conviction under 18 U.S.C. §2252(a)(2).  In reaching this decision, the appellate court noted that these types of computer sharing programs allow individuals to place materials in shared folders, but the transfer of materials is not automatic.  Instead, another user must download the materials to view them.  It is the actual downloading of the images that the Government must establish as part of its case. 

A central part of the opinion was the discussion of what definition to apply to the word “distribute” within the statutory context.   Ultimately, the circuit court adopted the “ordinary meaning of the word “distribute” and determined that “distribute” under §2252(a)(2) means to transfer materials to another person.  This decision was consistent with several other circuits, as well as military courts, that have ruled that distribution in violation of §2252 occurs only when another individual downloads the images.  In making this determination, the appellate court rejected the more expansive definition of distribution found in the Sentencing Guideline.  The Third Circuit explained that the meaning of distribution for purposes of an enhancement under U.S.S.G. §2G2.2(b)(3) had “no bearing” on the statutory definition of the term. 

            In this case, Appellant David Husmann was on supervised release for a prior child pornography conviction, when the monitoring software in his computer notified Probation that he had accessed pornographic sites.  A search revealed a large number of saved images, as well as two file sharing programs installed on the computer.  Appellant was charged with distribution and possession; additional counts for receipt of child pornography were dismissed prior to trial.  At trial, the Government was able to show that Husmann uploaded images onto the sharing programs, but could not show when the files were loaded and could not establish that the images were successfully downloaded onto another computer.  Based on the lack of evidence that anyone accessed the files, Husmann filed a Rule 29 motion for a judgment of acquittal.  The district court denied the motion and Husmann was convicted by a jury. However, the Third Circuit vacated the conviction because the Government failed to offer any evidence that the materials were ever downloaded by anyone else, and therefore failed to prove distribution.  Thus the denial of the Rule 29 motion was plain error. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

District Court’s failure to rule on a motion constitutes an implicit denial of that motion. Significant pre-arrest delay does not always lead to a speedy trial violation. Delays attributable to co-defendants’ motions can be considered against defendant in speedy trial claims.

United States v. Craig Claxton, Appeal No. 12-3933 (3d Cir. August 18, 2014)
Claxton and others were charged with a conspiracy involving the transportation of cocaine between the Virgin Islands (USVI) and the US mainland.  The first trial in the case started without Claxton because he could not be found.  Two defendants were convicted and a mistrial was declared for the rest.  Two other defendants took an appeal prior to retrial.  While that appeal was pending, Claxton was arrested.  Upon retrial, which now included Claxton, he was convicted.  Post-verdict, the district court granted Claxton’s JOA motion, but failed to rule on Claxton’s R.33 motion for a new trial.  The Third Circuit reversed the grant of JOA and remanded.  Claxton moved for safety-valve relief at sentencing.  Judge denied and sentenced Claxton to 120 months.  This is the second appeal in the case (for Claxton, at least).  Court made several rulings (not all of which are included here) in affirming the conviction and sentence:
1.               No Waiver
The Circuit decided that Claxton had not waived the issues raised in his Rule 33 motion (asking for new trial based on admission of drug evidence in violation of FRE 403 and violation of Brady/Giglio).  Under Rule 29(d), when a judge grants a JOA, the judge is also required conditionally rule on the motion for new trial.  The district court failed to do so in this case, but Claxton did not raise that issue in the first appeal nor did Claxton renew his motion for new trial upon remand.  The Circuit decided that the district court’s failure to rule on the motion constituted an implicit denial.  The Circuit also declined to fault Claxton for the district court’s failure to rule because Claxton had timely filed his Rule 33 motion.  Ultimately, however, the Circuit decided that Claxton’s claims of violation of FRE 403 and Brady/Giglio were meritless.
2.               No Statutory or Constitutional Speedy Trial Violation
The indictment was returned on 12/19/06.  Claxton was arrested on 4/23/08 in Florida.  His initial appearance in the USVI was on 7/16/08.  Claxton’s trial began on 5/24/10. 
Circuit said there was no violation under the Speedy Trial Act (STA).  Under the STA, if no severance has been granted, then a period of time excludible as to one defendant is excludible as to all co-defendants.  Thus, even if Claxton was not responsible for any interlocutory appeals or pretrial motions, the appeals of co-defendants and their pretrial motions all served to stop Claxton’s speedy trial clock.
The Circuit also found no constitutional speedy trial violation, distinguishing this case from Velazquez, decided earlier this year.  In Velazquez, 6.5 years passed between the indictment and the arrest of defendant.  The Velazquez court concluded that all four Barker factors weighed in favor of finding a speedy trial violation:  (1) the length of delay was sufficient to trigger a Barker analysis; (2) the gov’t was not reasonably diligent; (3) Velazquez diligently asserted his speedy trial rights; and (4) there was prejudice (in that case, presumptive prejudice due to excessive delay).  On the contrary, for Claxton, the second and the fourth Barker factors weighed in favor of the gov’t.  On the second factor, Velazquez was easily distinguishable because the investigators in that case were lax in trying to find Velazquez – they checked NCIC eight times over five years.  Claxton had moved, left USVI, and the agents found him due to their own police work in tracking his passport application.  Plus, the delay was much shorter.  Therefore, the gov’t was diligent in trying to locate Claxton.  Furthermore, there was no prejudice under the fourth factor because Claxton was at large and unaware of the indictment for much of the pretrial time; he was only incarcerated for 14.5 months of that time; much of that delay was due to his co-defendants’ actions; and there was no specific occurrence of actual (vs. presumed) prejudice.

3.               No Violation of Right to Impartial Jury
Claxton claimed the jury was tainted by pretrial publicity.  Two weeks prior to his trial, there was another related conspiracy trial which was reported in the press.  That trial included the testimony of some of the same witnesses and included an organizational chart that named Claxton.  The Circuit reiterated that pretrial publicity does not necessarily taint the jury as long as the jurors agree to be fair and impartial and consider only the courtroom evidence.  Also, both jurors who had any knowledge about prior case were excused.
            Claxton also claimed jury tampering.  One potential juror was offered a bribe and she shared that information with another person on the panel.  The district court conducted a voir dire of the two, they stated that it wouldn’t affect their judgment, and, most importantly, they didn’t participate in the deliberations.  Therefore, no error.

4.               Defendant Not Eligible for Safety-valve
Prior to sentencing, Claxton had a proffer session with the gov’t.  During the session, Claxton never offered any information about the crime of conviction nor did the government ask for such information.  Because Claxton did not satisfy 5C1.2(a)(5), the district court did not err in imposing the mandatory minimum.

Determining the “most appropriate” Sentencing Guideline for convictions

In United States v. Boney, Nos. 13-3087, 3199 (3d Cir. 9/15/14), the Third Circuit heard cross-appeals from following a sentence imposed as a result of a jury’s verdict of guilt for distributing more than 500 g of cocaine, witness intimidation, and solicitation to intimidate a witness. The Defendant was first arrested after he arranged to buy large quantities of cocaine from someone who turned out to be an informant. Following his arrest, the Defendant agreed to cooperate with the Government, but disenchantment with the DEA led him to seek out a hit man to kill the informant who caused his arrest. The Defendant had a few meetings with the hit man, and told him that if he could not kill the informant, to kill his son.  Alas, the Defendant had not improved his ability to assess potential co-conspirators— the hit man too was a Government informant— and the Defendant was arrested again, this time on the witness intimidation charges. The Defendant was sentenced to 220 months, and appealed his conviction. The Government cross-appealed the District Court’s application of the Sentencing Guidelines.

The Court made short work of the Defendant’s appeal of his conviction, dismissing his five issues in a single footnote. Its opinion concerns the Sentencing Guidelines issues raised by the Government. The Court found that the District Court incorrectly selected §2J1.2—obstruction of justice— for sentencing the Defendant for the conviction for 18 U.S.C. § 1513(a)(1)(B) (attempting to kill another person with intent to retaliate against that person for providing to a law enforcement officer information relating to the commission or possible commission of a Federal offense). The Government contended, and the Court agreed, that the “most appropriate” guideline (§1B1.2 Application Note 1) for determining the Defendant’s score was § 2A2.1 (Attempted Murder).  The District Court erred in looking to the testimony presented at trial, rather than the conduct charged in the indictment, for determining the correct guideline. This crime charged attempted murder, and not obstruction of justice, so the correct guideline was the one that related to attempted murder.

The Court had more bad news for the Defendant. The witness intimidation was charged, and the Defendant convicted, under 18 U.S.C. §373 (solicitation of a person to attempt to kill another with intent to retaliate for providing information to a law enforcement officer relating to the commission or possible commission of a Federal offense, as prohibited by 18 U.S.C. §1513(a)(1)(B)). Although the Sentencing Guidelines Statutory Index lists two crimes applicable to §373 (§2A1.5 (Conspiracy or Solicitation to Commit Murder) and § 2X1.1 (Attempt, Solicitation, or Conspiracy (Not Covered by a Specific Offense and Guideline)), the District Court chose neither, again choosing  §2J1.2—obstruction of justice. The Court concluded that §2A1.5 was the “most appropriate” guideline, again, as the Defendant was charged and convicted of soliciting a murder.

The Defendant’s pre-sentence report had calculated the Defendant’s Guidelines sentencing range as 360 months to life, but the District Court had calculated the Defendant’s Guidelines sentencing range as 151-188 months. When sentencing the Defendant though, it varied upward and imposed a sentence of 220 months. The Court remanded the matter for resentencing.

Proper and improper application of cross-referenced Sentencing Guidelines and consequential enhancements

United States v. Solomon, No 13-3108 (3d Cir., 9/15/14), concerns the application of two Sentencing Guidelines sections, §§ 2C1.1(c)(1) (“Offering, Giving, Soliciting, or Receiving a Bribe; Extortion Under Color of Official Right; Fraud Involving the Deprivation of the Intangible Right to Honest Services of Public Officials; Conspiracy to Defraud by Interference with Governmental Functions”) and 3B1.3 (“Abuse of Position of Trust or Use of Special Skill”).  The Court affirmed the District Court’s application of the first, but overturned its application of the second.

The defendant was a police chief who accepted money from a confidential informant to provide protection for a drug sale. After that transaction, the defendant agreed to provide protection for future drug transactions, and also to sell some law-enforcement restricted Tasers to the CI. After a few more transactions, and the transfer of the weapons, the defendant was arrested. He pled guilty to extortion under color of official right in violation of 18 U.S.C. §1951.

After applying his acceptance of responsibility and his lack of a prior record, the defendant’s initial guidelines range was 30 to 37 months. §2C1.1(c)(1) includes a cross-reference that requires, when the offense was committed for facilitating another crime, application of the offense guideline to a conspiracy to commit that offense if it is greater than the guideline initially determined.  In this case, the cross-referenced crime was conspiracy to traffic in cocaine, and due to the amount involved, the guideline level was 31. The government also asked the District Court to apply an additional 2 levels under §3B1.3 for abuse of a position of trust.  Over the Defendant’s objection, the District Court applied both.

The Court ruled that the §2C1.1(c)(1) was properly applied.  His extortion was committed to protect the commission of another crime. The defendant argued that since the crime was actually staged by the government, there was no other crime, and there were no drugs. Nevertheless, the defendant agreed to facilitate a transaction involving an agreed amount of drugs— real or not real—  and a comment in the drug crime guideline allowed the use of the agreed upon amount of drugs to determine quantity. The defendant’s argument that the actual crime was obstruction of justice, because he agreed to keep other law enforcement away from the transactions, was also to no avail, as the Court found his crime more akin to “facilitation”—  i.e., helping the transaction to occur— than “obstruction” or “concealment”, which it described as retrospective and occurring after the crime occurred.  Because §2C1.1(c)(1) was not ambiguous, the Court also refused to apply the rule of lenity to find that it did not apply to another criminal offense.

The defendant fared better though with his argument against the application of §3B1.3.  The Court accepted his argument that it could not apply to sentences originating under §2C1.1.  §3B1.3 applies a two level enhancement if the defendant abused a position of public trust in a manner that concealed or facilitated the offense.  §1B1.5(c) states that Chapter Three adjustments are determined in respect to the cross-referenced guideline, “unless otherwise provided.” Application note 6 of §2C1.1 prohibits the use of the abuse of trust enhancement. The Court rejected the argument that the abuse of trust enhancement should be applied to the guideline for the cocaine transaction, which contains no such limitation.  Even though the defendant was sentenced under the drug transaction guideline, that was due only to §2C1.1, and therefore its limitation on the enhancement survived the cross-reference. The matter was therefore remanded for resentencing without the two level enhancement.

Image from Yale Law Journal.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Alleyne error (924(c) count where defendant sentenced for brandishing but only charged with use) is not structural and was harmless

(Rendell, Fisher, and Chagares, Circuit Judges) (Fisher, majority; Rendell, dissent)

       United States v. Lewis, Appeal No. 10-2931, 2014 WL 4413535, was remanded from the Supreme Court for further consideration in light of Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013), which held that facts increasing a mandatory minimum must be charged in an indictment, presented to a jury, and proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  

        Here, Lewis was charged with using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence (indictment and jury instructions) but sentenced for brandishing a firearm, resulting in a consecutive seven-year, instead of five-year, term of incarceration.  The Third Circuit held that this Alleyne error is not structural and is reviewed for harmlessness when properly preserved.  The Court explained there is a strong presumption that constitutional errors are harmless, see Neder v. United States, 527 U.S. 1 (1999), and that the most analogous error, Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000) (relating to facts not proved to a jury that increase the statutory maximum), was not structural.  The Court also rejected Lewis’s (1) due process argument, reasoning reversal is not necessary where an indictment fails to charge an element of the offense, (2) automatic reversal argument, distinguishing cases where no criminal conduct was alleged, and (3) constructive amendment argument, because the difference between use and brandishing changed proof with respect to a particular statutory subsection, not the entire theory of the case. 

As for harmlessness, the Court framed the substantial rights inquiry as whether “the sentence would have been the same absent the failure to submit [the brandishing element] for a jury determination.”  The Court found the grand and petit jury would have found brandishing: (1) the allegations in the indictment, that the “defendants pointed firearms at the customers and employees” satisfied the brandishing element; and (2) a victim testified to the petit jury that a gun was pointed at him and put to his stomach. 

       In dissent, Judge Rendell emphasized that Alleyne did not discuss structural or harmless error and would vacate the sentence as either structural error or not harmless.  Because this was a sentencing error, indeed Alleyne remanded for resentencing consistent with the jury verdict, the majority should not have looked at whether the charging and trial errors were harmless and should not have substituted judicial fact-finding for what the constitution required the grand and petit jury to find.  Instead, the question is simply whether Lewis was prejudiced by his unconstitutional sentence; he clearly was.  Judge Rendell also found this specific type of constitutional error, a defective indictment, which defies analysis by harmless error standards and presents special difficulty in assessing prejudice, was structural.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Govt's 2 questions regarding post-arrest silence violated Fifth Amendment and were not harmless

  (Rendell, Chagares, and Jordan, Circuit Judges)   

    In United States v. Shannon, Appeal No. 13-2389, 2014 WL 4401054, the Third Circuit reversed a jury verdict (WDPa) for conspiracy to distribute and distribution of five or more kilograms of cocaine, because the government’s questioning of Shannon about his post-arrest silence violated his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. On cross-examination, a defendant opens himself up to such questioning in the limited scenario where he claims to have told police the same version of events upon arrest. However, this contrast with post-arrest silence must be “blatantly inconsistent,” not simply ambiguous. If there is a constitutional violation, the court applies harmless error analysis, asking whether the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to the verdict.

     At trial, over a Fifth Amendment objection which was summarily overruled, the government asked Shannon why he had not come forward earlier with his exculpatory version of the facts. Shannon then said he told his lawyer his version of events. The Court found that the government’s argument that the issue was not preserved “actually borders on frivolous” and a defendant does not specifically need to cite Doyle or Miranda when making this objection. Similarly, the Court found that the government’s arguments were “badly strained” and that the transcripts could not “comfortably bear” the government’s interpretation that Shannon opened the door. The Court found the government’s two questions regarding post-arrest silence violated the Fifth Amendment and the error was not harmless. The case was largely circumstantial, not overwhelming, and without the thousands of wiretaps or other sources corroborating Shannon’s link to the conspiracy, Shannon’s credibility “was likely important to the outcome of the case.”

     Although the Court focused on the Fifth Amendment, it also discussed other rulings in an extensive footnote. As for the District Court’s 404(b) and 609(b) ruling that two prior convictions over twenty years old should be admitted, judges are reminded they should “hesitate to admit twenty-year-old convictions when that evidence looks like propensity evidence.” With regard to an Allen instruction, judges are reminded that the model jury instructions are not binding and use of a different instruction is not necessarily erroneous. Judges should be careful when highlighting the need to dispose of cases and the burden involved in calling a new jury.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

WARNING: Cooperating defendant whose plea agreement includes appellate waiver and who files an appeal is in breach of plea agreement and subject to de novo resentencing where Government can withdraw U.S.S.G. §5K1.1 motion

United States v. Erwin, Appeal No. 13-3407 (3d Cir. Aug. 26, 2014)

Defendant Erwin plead guilty, pursuant to a cooperating plea agreement, to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute oxycodone, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C), and 846. His plea agreement included a waiver of right to appeal his sentence if it was within or below the advisory Guidelines range resulting from a total offense level 39. In exchange for Erwin's plea, the government agreed not to bring further criminal charges against Erwin in connection with the criminal conspiracy, and it also agreed to seek a downward departure under U.S.S.G. §5K1.1.

At sentencing, the district court agreed with the parties and the PSR that Erwin's total offense level was 39. With an offense level 39 and Criminal History Category I, Erwin's initial Guidelines range was 262 to 327 months. This range was, however, capped at 240 months due to the statutory maximum for the offense of conviction. The government moved for a five-level downward departure under §5K1.1, requesting that the court depart from offense level 39 to offense level 34, as opposed to departing from the statutory maximum of 240 months, and sentence Erwin within the resulting range (151 to 188 months). Erwin did not object. The court granted the government's motion and sentenced Erwin to 188 months imprisonment.

Erwin appealed, arguing that the district court's use of offense level 39 as its starting point for the downward departure was error because, when combined with criminal history category I, offense level 39 yielded an advisory Guidelines range above the statutory maximum. The government did not cross-appeal, but argued in response to Erwin's appeal that Erwin's sentence should be vacated and remanded for de novo resentencing where, in light of Erwin's breach of the appellate waiver, the government would seek a "modest" increase in Erwin's sentence.

The Third Circuit began by considering the nature and scope of Erwin's appellate waiver. It concluded that Erwin's appeal was within the scope of the waiver, the waiver was knowingly and voluntarily executed, and Erwin failed to raise any meritorious grounds for circumventing the waiver. The Court noted that its ordinary procedure in such a situation would be to enforce the waiver by dismissing the defendant's appeal, thereby affirming the defendant's sentence. Here, however, the government asked the Court to vacate Erwin's sentence so that it could pursue the remedies specified in the breach provision of the plea agreement, i.e., bring additional criminal charges or withdraw its §5K1.1. motion. The Court found that Erwin's decision to appeal despite waiving that right in his plea agreement resulted in a clear breach of the terms of the agreement. The Court further concluded that the appropriate remedy for Erwin's post-sentencing breach of the plea agreement was specific performance, i.e., de novo resentencing with the government relieved of its obligation to seek a downward departure.

In rendering its opinion, the Third Circuit also decided two procedural questions of first impression. First, the Court concluded that cross-appeal rule did not apply and consequently did not bar the government from seeking de novo resentencing. Second, the Court named its source of authority to grant a de novo resentencing in this case as 28 U.S.C. § 2106, which permits the Court to modify, vacate, set aside, or reverse any judgment lawfully brought before it for review and remand the cause for further proceedings.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Circuit says that automobile exception is so expansive that it “essentially has obviated” the need for a search warrant as long as there is probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of a crime.

United States v. Donahue, 13-4767, 2014 WL 4115949 (August 22, 2014)

After sentencing, defendant missed his turn in date in New Jersey.  He was found in New Mexico in his son’s Ford Mustang.  Over the course of five days, agents from two different agencies searched the car multiple times and eventually found a firearm magazine clip under the driver’s seat and a gun in a bag that was in the car – all without getting a warrant.  District court suppressed the evidence saying that there was no probable cause to search the car.  The Circuit reversed.
            Although there were numerous arguments the government could have raised, it only argued on appeal that probable cause existed and therefore no warrant was necessary.  Circuit agreed, stating that a search is justified whenever there is PC that evidence of a crime, not just contraband, is in the car – even if that evidence may otherwise seem innocuous.  Also, the continuing or completed nature of a crime is irrelevant to the PC analysis in this case.  It didn’t matter that defendant had already failed to report to prison and that he had already been arrested – there was still PC that evidence of his deliberate failure to report (such as false IDs) would be in the car.  Finally, it didn’t matter that the first agent who searched the car wouldn’t have done so of his own accord and only performed the search upon the request of another agent.  Probable cause is an objective inquiry and does not rise and fall on the subjective belief of the searching officer.
            More important than its probable cause conclusion were two statements by the Circuit:
First, if the search of the car is justified by probable cause, then law enforcement can search every part of the car including any contents that may conceal the object of the search (?!?!).  Because there was probable cause to search this car, the agents were allowed to go into any bag or suitcase inside the car. 
Second, probable cause does not dissipate after the car is immobilized because there is no exigency component to the automobile exception (again--?!?!).  Therefore, it did not matter that the government had the car for several days and could have easily gotten a warrant.  On top of that, the government was allowed to search the car as many times as it wanted. 
            Bottom line, as long as law enforcement had PC to search the car when they seized it, they could search everything inside it, for as long as they wanted to, as many times as they wanted to.
            There are some limitations (barely).  (1)  The Circuit deliberately stated that this case did not concern a situation in which the car is NOT in continuous control of law enforcement.  (2) There must be probable cause that contraband and/or affirmative evidence of a crime will be found.  The Circuit rejected the government’s argument that a search is permissible if there is PC that a search would reveal evidence refuting a potential affirmative defense.  (3)  Even though prison inmates and escaped prisoners generally have no legitimate expectations of privacy, the Circuit deliberately did not address whether a fugitive – one who failed to report to prison -- has a legitimate expectation of privacy.    

Conspiracy to distribute cocaine is a lesser included offense of conspiracy to distribute 5 kilos or more of cocaine. Therefore, trial court did not err in refusing to submit the question of weight to the jury until after it had returned a guilty verdict on the conspiracy to distribute.

United States v. Freeman, 09-2166, 10-4224, 2014 WL 4056553 (August 18, 2014)

Defendants Freeman and Mark were charged with a count of conspiracy to distribute 5 kilos or more of cocaine.  Conspiracy to distribute over 5 kilos of coke carries a higher statutory maximum sentence than conspiracy to distribute an unspecified amount of coke.  Therefore, under Apprendi, it is clear that the drug quantity was an element of the conspiracy count that was charged in the indictment. 
However, the trial court refused a defense requested jury instruction that to convict on the conspiracy count, the govt had to prove over five kilos of cocaine were involved in the conspiracy.  Instead, the trial court instructed that the government need only prove that a measurable amount of cocaine was involved in the conspiracy.  After the jury returned a guilty verdict on the conspiracy count, the trial court gave them a post-verdict question on whether the conspiracy involved 5 kilos or more of cocaine.  The jury was unable to reach a unanimous answer on the post-verdict question.
Third Circuit held that conspiracy to distribute under 28 USC § 841(a)(1) was a lesser included offense of conspiracy to district 5 kilos or more of coke under § 841(b)(1)(A)(ii)(III).  Therefore, under Fed.R.Crim.Pro. 31(c) – which allows defendants to be convicted of lesser included offenses of the offenses actually charged – the judge was allowed to charge on the lesser included offense.

Other holdings of interest in this case:
(1)  Judicial fact finding for purposes of calculating guidelines and imposing a sentence within the statutorily prescribed range does not violate Alleyne.  Trial court was allowed to make findings regarding the amount of drugs involved even though the jury was unable to reach a conclusion.  No indication on the record that the trial court believed any mandatory minimum applied and the ultimate sentence was below the statutory max. 
(2)  While the rules of evidence do not apply at sentencing, information used as a basis for sentencing under the guidelines must meet the “sufficient indicia of reliability standard.”  Such indicia of reliability may consist of the level of facts and details, corroboration or consistency with other evidence or testimony, or the opportunity for cross examination.  In the sentencing of one defendant, the trial court sufficiently explained the basis of its finding regarding the amount of drugs involved in the conspiracy.  However, in another defendant's sentencing, the court failed to sufficiently explain its finding regarding the amount of drugs.  Defense had objected to the drug amounts used to calculate the guidelines and remand was necessary for the court to give an adequate explanation of its acceptance or rejection of the defense argument.
(3)  Defendant's sixth Amendment right of confrontation was not violated and trial court did not abuse its discretion in preventing defense counsel from asking a cooperating witness whether he was selling drugs for anyone else “in the entire universe.”  The witness had already admitted that he had disclosed his other illegal affairs to law enforcement and the court would have allowed defense counsel to question about specific acts that he believed the witness failed to disclose.  Thus, defense counsel had adequate opportunity to cross-examine the witness.
(4)  Evidence was sufficient to show one overarching conspiracy (as charged in the indictment) rather than several individual conspiracies.  Therefore, no variance between the indictment and the evidence at trial and the trial court did not err in denying the R. 29.

Defendant who inherited over $400K did not violate his supervised release when he went on a spending spree instead of paying his restitution. Regardless of any bad faith on defendant’s part, district court failed to identify a specific condition that had been violated.

Bagdy was convicted of wire fraud (of course), sentenced to 36 months’ imprisonment plus three years’ supervised release, and ordered to pay over $500K in restitution.  One condition of supervised release was that Bagdy pay at least 10% of his monthly income toward restitution.  A wealthy aunt (don’t we wish we all had one) died and left him an inheritance of over $400K.  Bagdy told his probation officer about the inheritance and paid 10% of the inheritance for purposes of restitution.  The government filed a motion to modify the restitution order.  A hearing on that motion was then continued several times while Bagdy and the government tried to negotiate an amount that he would pay towards restitution.  Although Bagdy did pay an additional $60K towards restitution, he ultimately spent all but $52K of the inheritance (including $5,800 on flowers).

The government asked the district court to find Bagdy in violation of his supervised release because he had acted in bad faith by spending his inheritance rather than paying off his restitution or preserving the inheritance pending negotiations with the govt.  District court found him in violation and sentenced him to 6 months’ imprisonment.

Although the Circuit agreed that Bagdy’s conduct was “reprehensible,” the Circuit reversed because neither the govt nor district court identified a specific condition of supervised release that Bagdy violated.  He complied with the restitution condition when he paid 10% of the inheritance towards restitution.  Reversed and remanded so that the district court can find another condition of supervised release that Bagdy actually did violate … like honestly making monthly financial reports, including reports about his expenditures, to his probation officer.     

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Circuit holds that the force required to support an abduction enhancement under § 2B3.1(b)(4)(A) is determined by an objective standard, and that a temporary taking of property may justify application of the loss enhancement under § 2B3.1(b)(7)(B).

(Rendell, Chagares, Jordan, J.)

Thomas Smith pulled his car off of the road, pretending to be disabled, and flagged down the manager of the local Citizens & Northern Bank, Kimberlea Whiting, who was driving home from the bank for lunch.  Smith’s motive was revenge:  He blamed the bank for initiating foreclosure proceedings on his house.  Smith drew a gun, which was stolen, and ordered Whiting to drive to the bank, saying she and another bank employee were going to pay for taking his house.  Once at the bank, Smith directed Whiting to drive to the rear parking lot.  Whiting, fearing he would shoot her there, continued past the lot. She ultimately slowed her Ford Explorer and rolled out of it and onto the street. When the Explorer came to a stop, Smith abandoned it and fled on foot.  Smith was convicted of carjacking, brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence, and possessing a stolen firearm after trial.

            The appeal challenged the district court’s application of two sentencing enhancements - - a four-level enhancement under § 2B3.1(b)(4)(A) for the victim’s abduction, and a one-level enhancement under § 2B3.1(b)(7)(B) for the victim’s loss. 

Section 2B3.1(b)(4)(A) of the Sentencing Guidelines applies “[i]f any person was abducted to facilitate commission of the offense or to facilitate escape.” U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1(b)(4)(A) (2012). The Court describes three predicates for the abduction enhancement.  First, the robbery victims must be forced to move from their original position; such force being sufficient to permit a reasonable person an inference that he or she is not at liberty to refuse. Second, the victims must accompany the offender to that new location. Third, the relocation of the robbery victims must have been to further either the commission of the crime or the offender's escape.

Here, Smith used force to control both Whiting and her vehicle by pointing a gun at her and directing her to drive to the bank.  He forced Whiting to accompany him to a new location. And Smith forced Whiting to return to the bank to facilitate his threatened revenge for the foreclosure on his home.

Smith’s challenge to the enhancement was based on the fact that Whiting disregarded some of his commands and ultimately escaped.  The Court declines what it calls Smith’s invitation to fashion an exception to the abduction enhancement for when a victim struggles with the offender to the point that he or she thwarts the intended criminal objective, explaining that the invitation “is based on the perverse logic that a victim's boldness lessens a criminal's culpability.”  Use of force is determined by an objective, not subjective, standard. “Thus, whether or not a victim struggles or disobeys orders, as long as a reasonable person would not have felt free to refuse the offender's commands, the predicate is satisfied.” The court makes explicit the holding that “the intended crime need not be accomplished for the abduction enhancement to apply.”  

            Smith next argues that the court wrongly applied the loss enhancement because Whiting's car was not “taken, damaged, or destroyed,” as those terms are used in § 2B3.1 of the Guidelines.  Application Note 3 in the Commentary to Section 2B3.1 defines “loss” for purposes of robbery as “the value of the property taken, damaged, or destroyed.” U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1 cmt. n. 3.  Smith did not damage or destroy the vehicle and was only a temporary passenger.  The Court declines to limit “taken” to situations involving a permanent deprivation of property.  Following opinions from several other circuits, the Court holds that here, Smith exercised dominion and control, albeit temporarily, over the vehicle when he coerced Whiting, against her will and at gunpoint, to drive to the bank. Whiting's later escape did not erase that taking.  

The Court affirms the judgment of sentence.

Summary by Renee D. Pietropaolo

The Circuit explains that Fed.R.Evid. Rule 404(b) is “a rule of general exclusion” and reiterates the importance of a methodical approach by the proponent of prior act evidence and a carefully reasoned ruling by the trial judge.

The Circuit holds that in a trial for being a felon-in-possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), based on a theory of actual possession, the district court erred by admitting under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), evidence of the defendant’s prior convictions for unlawful weapons possession; it vacates the judgment and remands.  In a scholarly 53-page opinion, which is a must read for the defense bar, Judge Smith discusses the evolution of the prior bad acts rule from its English common law roots to the adoption of Rule of Rule 404(b). 

            The Circuit initially explained that when the Court calls Rule 404(b) a rule of inclusion, not exclusion, it “merely reiterates the drafters’ decision to not restrict the non-propensity uses of evidence.  The Rule provides prior act evidence “may be admissible for another purpose, such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake or lack of accident.  Fed.R.Evid.404(b)(2).  By introducing the list of permissible purposes with the words “such as” the drafters made clear the list was not exclusive, or otherwise limited to a strictly defined class. It does not suggest that prior offense evidence is presumptively admissible.  “On this point, let us be clear:  Rule 404(b) is a rule of general exclusion, and carries with it ‘no presumption of admissibility.’”  The Rule reflects the revered policy that an accused is tried for what he did, not who he is. 

The court then sets forth the 4-steps that must be taken before evidence is admissible for a non-propensity purpose. 

            First, the party seeking to admit evidence under Rule 404(b)  bears the burden of identifying a proper 404(b) purpose that is “at issue” in, or relevant to, the case.  In evaluating whether an identified purpose is “at issue,” courts should consider the “material issues and facts the government must prove to obtain a conviction.”  The Court stressed that the proponent’s “incantation of the proper uses of [prior act] evidence… does not magically transform inadmissible evidence into admissible evidence.  Rather, the proponent must identify a specific purpose that ‘is of consequence in determining the action.’ Fed.R.Evid. 401(b).” 

The “crucial” second step is for the proponent to explain “how the evidence is relevant to that purpose.  The Court reiterates that the government must explain how the evidence fits into a chain of inferences connecting the evidence to a proper purpose, no link of which is a forbidden propensity inference.  “We require this chain be articulated with careful precision because, even when a non-propensity purpose is ‘at issue’ in a case, the evidence offered may be completely irrelevant to that purpose, or relevant only in an impermissible way.” The court admonishes, “[d]espite our repeated instructions in this area, some proponents of Rule 404(b) evidence still fail to follow this course.”  The proffered evidence must be excluded if the proponent neglects or is unable to articulate this chain of inferences, and failure to exclude such evidence constitutes reversible error. 

The court emphasizes that these are distinct steps.  “The first step requires the proponent to identify a proper purpose that is pertinent to the case, whereas the second step requires the evidence tend to establish the identified purpose.” 

            Once the proponent has shown that the evidence is relevant for a proper, non-propensity purpose, the court must balance under Rule 403 whether the evidence is sufficiently probative, such that its probative value is not outweighed by the inherently prejudicial nature of the prior bad act evidence.  This balancing requires great care because few categories of evidence bring greater risk of prejudice to the accused under Rule 403. 

            Finally, if requested, the court must provide a limiting instruction.   

In Mr. Caldwell’s case, the prosecution failed to offer an acceptable, non-propensity purpose, i.e., one that is “at issue” in, or relevant to, the prosecution.  Again, in determining whether an identified purpose is at issue in a case, the Court begins by considering the material issues and facts the government must prove to obtain the conviction.  The government must proffer a logical chain of inferences consistent with its theory of the case.  Evidence is relevant if it has a tendency to make more or less probable a fact that “is of consequence in determining the act.”  Fed.R.Evid. 401(b).

The government’s theory was that Caldwell was in actual, not constructive, possession of the firearm:  Officers testified to seeing the firearm in Caldwell’s hands.  In the typical felon in possession case when the government proceeds on a theory of actual possession, knowledge is not at issue.  Absent unusual circumstances (such as when the defendant claims he did not realize the thing in his hand was a gun), the knowledge element in a felon in possession case is necessarily satisfied if the jury finds the defendant physically possessed the gun.  Nor is intent at issue in a felon in possession case because section 922(g)(1) does not require the government to prove the defendant intentionally possessed a gun.

The Circuit also rejects as improper the district court’s reasoning that a defendant puts knowledge at issue by claiming innocence.  Situations can arise during trial where a defendant could put knowledge at issue, for example, where a defendant testifies the thing in his hand was something other than a gun.  However, a defendant does not merely by denying guilt of an offense with a knowledge-based mens rea, open the door to admissibility of prior convictions of the same crime.  “Such a holding would eviscerate Rule 404(b)’s protection and completely swallow the general rule.

The Government also failed to articulate how Caldwell’s prior gun convictions are relevant to show knowledge that he possessed the gun.  It is not enough to merely recite a Rule 404(b) purpose.  The prosecution must “explain ‘exactly how the proffered evidence should work in the mind of a juror to establish the fact the government claims to be trying to prove.” The court asked, “how exactly, do Caldwell’s two prior convictions for unlawful firearm possession suggest he knowingly possessed this gun on this occasion?” It found only one answer:  If Caldwell knowingly possessed a firearm in the past, he was more likely to have knowingly possessed the firearm this time.  This is precisely the propensity-based inferential logic that Rule 404(b) forbids. 

The district court failed to conduct a meaningful balancing.  The Circuit provides some guidance on this point.  Even if the prior convictions were probative of knowledge (and they were not), the probative value would, at best, be minimal.  In a 922(g) case, knowledge is generally subsumed within a finding of physical possession.  Thus, any value added by the prior conviction would be negligible.  Further, the probative value is diminished where the defendant does not contest the fact for which supporting evidence has been offered.  “Rule 403 balancing may tilt in favor of excluding highly prejudicial evidence when it is offered to establish a fact that is completely uncontested by the defendant.”  On the other side of the scale, “it is beyond cavil” that evidence of prior firearm convictions is highly prejudicial. 

Next, the Circuit rejects the prosecution’s alternative argument that the prior convictions were admissible for impeachment purposes under Fed.R.Evid. Rule 609.  When a testifying witness is also the defendant in a criminal trial, the prior conviction is admitted only “if the probative value of the evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect to that defendant.  This “heightened” balancing test creates a predisposition toward exclusion.  The Court considers (1) the kind of crime involved, (2) when the conviction occurred, (3) the importance of the defendant’s testimony to the case, and (4) the importance of the credibility of the defendant. 

In looking at the first factor, courts consider the impeachment value of the prior conviction, with crimes of violence having less impeachment value.  They also consider the similarity of the crime to the offense charged.  The balance tilts further toward exclusion as the offered impeachment evidence becomes more similar to the crime for which the defendant is being charged. 

            The third factor looks at the importance of the defendant’s testimony to his defense at trial.  “The tactical need for the accused to testify on his or her own behalf may militate against use of impeaching convictions.” 

            In Mr. Caldwell’s trial, the government failed to carry its burden.  The trial was a classic case of he said / they said.  But this single factor is not enough to allow admission.  The prior gun convictions were similar to and identical to the charged offense, making the priors highly prejudicial.  The impeachment value of the prior convictions is low because unlawful firearm convictions do not by their nature imply a dishonest act.  Also, the government failed to show that the probative value of the evidence was not diminished by the passage of more than 6-1/2 years. Finally, Caldwell’s testimony was important to his defense; he would have taken a great risk by failing to testify in his defense. 
            Finally, the Circuit rejects defense argument that the out of court confession made by a second person at the scene should have been admitted as a statement against interest under Rule 804(b)(3).  Where a statement is offered to exculpate the accused in a criminal trial, it must be “supported by corroborating circumstances that clearly indicate trustworthiness.  Examples of corroborating circumstances include the lack of a close relationship between declarant and the accused, the fact that the statement was voluntarily made after the declarant was advised of his Miranda rights, and the fact that the statement was not made to curry favor with the government.

Summary by Renee D. Pietropaolo