Friday, July 18, 2014

En banc Court adopts “new rule” requiring a defendant to raise any procedural objection to a sentence after sentence is imposed

United States v. Flores-Mejia, No. 12-3149, 2014 WL 3450938 (July 16, 2014)

Overruling United States v. Sevilla, 541 F.3d 226 (3d Cir. 2008), the en banc Court held that procedural error at sentencing is preserved only if a party objects after sentence is imposed or at the time that the procedural error becomes evident.  The Court explained that it was adopting this new rule for several reasons:

(1)  Unlike a substantive objection to a sentence, a procedural defect in a sentence may not occur until the sentence is pronounced;

(2)  Objecting to a procedural error after sentence is pronounced will promote judicial efficiency because it allows a sentencing court to correct or avoid a mistake;

(3)  Requiring that a procedural objection be made at the time sentence is pronounced prevents “sandbagging” of the court by a defendant who raises an error on appeal while remaining silent at the sentencing hearing.

 In Flores-Mejia’s case, defense counsel raised several grounds for departures and variances in a sentencing memorandum and at the sentencing hearing.  One of the grounds raised was that Flores-Mejia’s cooperation with the government warranted a reduced sentence.  After hearing argument on this issue from both parties, the district court stated: “Okay, thanks.  Anything else?”  Neither party replied, and the parties proceeded to sum up their positions on sentencing.  The court then imposed sentence.

On appeal, Flores-Mejia contended that the district court committed procedural error in failing to sufficiently consider his argument that his cooperation warranted a lower sentence.  A panel of the Third Circuit agreed, relying upon Sevilla.  Upon the government’s request, the Third Circuit granted en banc review.   

Based upon the “new rule” adopted by the en banc Court, Flores-Mejia did not preserve the procedural error issue for appeal.  However, the Court decided not to apply the rule retroactively to Flores-Mejia.  Using an abuse of discretion standard, the Court concluded that the district court record did not reflect meaningful consideration of Flores-Mejia’s cooperation argument, and remanded the matter for resentencing.         

Judge Greenaway dissented, joined by Judges Smith, Shwartz, and Sloviter, and in part by Judge Fuentes.  The dissent takes the majority to task for creating a new rule of procedure, “without intervening Supreme Court precedent and without a majority of our sister courts,” “that flies in the face of Fed. R. Crim. P. 51.”  According to Judge Greenaway, the majority’s “fundamental change to our sentencing procedures . . . is both unwarranted and difficult to square with the Supreme Court’s post-Booker jurisprudence.”  The “new rule” will force busy district courts to sit through “an objection—probably formulaic—in every criminal case.”  Recognizing that sentencing hearings are “highly charged and fraught with emotion,” the dissent asserts that “[i]t  is unwise to burden counsel to engage in a reasoned analysis of the district court’s sentencing explanation and then interpose an objection that was already asserted, all while attending to an emotional client and raising residual issues, like surrender dates and places of incarceration.”  

Monday, July 14, 2014

Circuit holds for the first time that the government can have a sufficiently important interest in forcibly medicating a defendant to restore his mental capacity and render him fit to proceed with sentencing

United States v. Cruz, No. 13-4378, 2014 WL 3360689 (July 10, 2014)

A jury convicted Cruz of two counts of threatening a federal law enforcement officer.  Prior to sentencing, the government raised concern about Cruz’s competency and moved for a determination on the matter.  The motion was granted and a BOP forensic psychologist concluded that Cruz suffered from schizophrenic disorder, bipolar type.  A second competency evaluation determined that Cruz would remain mentally incompetent, but that his competency could be restored through "a period of forced medication." The government sought an order authorizing BOP to forcibly medicate Cruz.   The district granted a hearing, pursuant to Sell v. United States, and subsequently ordered that Cruz be forcibly medicated.  Cruz moved to stay the order, which was granted, and appealed. 

The Third Circuit conducted a plain error review because Cruz raised his arguments for the first time on appeal.  Cruz failed to file an opposition to the government’s request for an order of forcible medication.  On appeal, Cruz cited to his non-concurrence to the government’s request and he argued that there was no need to file an opposition because the district court quickly scheduled an evidentiary hearing.  The Third Circuit disagreed – "Cruz was on notice of the Government’s ultimate request for relief, and he thus was or should have been aware of his obligation to oppose (or be deemed to support) it."

As to burdens of proof, the Third Circuit last addressed the Sell-specific standard of review in United States v. Grape, 549 F.3d 591 (3d Cir. 2008), in which it concluded that under Sell, the government had the burden of proof on factual questions and had little reason to address burden-shifting.  Now, the Third Circuit builds up on the Grape standard by "adopt[ing] both the Milkulich [the 6th Circuit] burden-shifting standard and the mixed standard of review set forth in Dillon [the D.C. Circuit]."

As to the Sell factors, the Third Circuit found that the government can have an important interest in restoring a defendant’s mental competency in order to proceeding with sentencing, noting that the government "cannot achieve the sort of uniformity contemplated in Booker without formal sentencing proceedings."  The Court also agreed with the district court that Cruz’s crimes were "serious."  The Court also decided that the district court did not commit reversible error in relying on the PSR because Cruz raised that issue for the first time in his Reply Brief.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Circuit holds for the first time that § 3553(a) factors must be considered in determining length of imprisonment for mandatory revocation of supervised release under § 3583(g)

United States v. Thornhill, Nos. 13-2876, 13-2877, 13-2878, 2014 WL 3056536 (July 8, 2014)

After six petitions to revoke her term of supervised release based on positive drug tests and two additional convictions, the district court revoked Thornhill’s supervised release under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(g) and sentenced her to 36 months of imprisonment. On appeal, Thornhill argued that the district court failed to articulate whether it considered the sentencing factors under § 3553(a) and failed to acknowledge her mitigation arguments. The government argued that the district court was not required to, but did consider some of the 3553(a) factors.

In this matter of first impression, the Third Circuit held that 3553(a) factors must be considered in mandatory revocation under 3583(g). The Court explained that statutory interpretation is not limited to the statutory language alone – the "structure of the section in which the key language is found and the design of the statute as a whole and its object" also illuminate the plain meaning of the statute. Here, the "text and structure of the Sentencing Reform Act, §§ 3551-3586" also informed the Court’s analysis.

While consideration of 3553(a) factors is required for discretionary revocation under 3583(e), mandatory revocation makes no reference to 3553(a). However, since revocation under 3583(g) "is automatic," "[t]here was no need, therefore, for Congress to instruct that the § 3553(a) factors be considered prior to making a decision about mandatory revocation under § 3583(g)." In addition, the usage of the phrase "term of imprisonment" in § 3583(g) "incorporates both § 3582 and its directives to consider the § 3553(a) sentencing factors." Furthermore, § 3553(a)’s applicability "fits neatly within the sentencing regime established by the Sentencing Reform Act."

After holding that § 3553(a) were required, the Circuit concluded that the district court had in fact considered these factors, and affirmed the sentence.

Notably, the Judge Rendell, concurring in part and dissenting in part, contends that district court could not foresee that the majority’s holding and did not "meaningfully consider the § 3553(a) factors." "Speculation on our part as to what the Court might have been considering, and whether those reasons coincide with § 3553(a), cannot be enough to uphold Ms. Thornhill’s above-guideline sentence." Hence, the case should have been remanded for resentencing.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Circuit finds no prejudice in 2255 claim of failure to cross-examine and failure to object to indictment on Double Jeopardy grounds, and broadens the Double Jeopardy analysis of the overt act factor for conspiracy charges.

United States v. Travillion, No. 12-4184 (July 7, 2014)
The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Travillion’s 2255 motion for ineffective assistance, finding no prejudice. Travillion was convicted on three counts -- conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, conspiracy to distribute powder cocaine, and possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, all in violation of 21 USC §§ 846, 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A)(iii). His defense at trial was that he was not a member of the conspiracy and that the drug involved was heroin, not crack. Michael Good, Travillion’s main supplier and government witness, testified that on the wiretapped calls with Travillion, they negotiated the price of crack. Travillion’s attorney cross-examined Good on several issues, including his addiction history and his cooperation with the government for a reduced sentence.

In his 2255 claim, Travillion argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for (1) failing to properly cross-exam Good with his prior testimony in another case, covering the same time and facts; and (2) failing to object to the indictment on Double Jeopardy grounds for conspiracy charges in Counts Nine and Thirteen.

At the outset, the Third Circuit explained that a 2255 motion "is reviewed much less favorably than a direct appeal of a sentence" and that relief is only available when "the claimed error of law ‘was a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice....’ " The Circuit also noted that issues which were resolved in a direct appeal may "be used to support a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel."

For each of Travillion’s two claims, the Third Circuit applied the two-prong Strickland test for deficiency and prejudice, examining prejudice first. As to the first claim of failure to properly cross-examine, the Third Circuit agreed with the district court that there was no prejudice because the trial evidence was overwhelming and the outcome of the trial would have been the same. Defense counsel attacked Good’s credibility in his closing arguments and advance the defense that (1) Travillion was not a co-conspirator and (2) he possessed heroin, not crack. The Circuit also noted that the district court’s charge to the jury "protected Travillion by instructing the jury to heavily scrutinize Good’s testimony as key witness for the Government." Finding no prejudice, the Circuit court "need not address deficiency prong."

For Travillion’s second claim, the Third Circuit found that Travillion could not meet the totality of the circumstances test. The Court "employs a ‘totality of the circumstances’ test when determining whether a pretrial evidentiary hearing is necessary to determine if an indictment is invalid under the Double Jeopardy clause." The totality of circumstances test requires the examination of four factors: (a) "locus criminis" of the two conspiracies (b) temporal overlap between the two conspiracies, (c) overlap of personnel, and (d) over acts. "These factors need not be applied in a rigid manner." The Circuit court addressed the latter two factors at length. Regarding (c), the Court explained that while there was overlap of personnel, "their knowledge of, and objectives for," were not common enough to form one conspiracy.

In the analysis of (d), the Court echoed the requirement of a less rigid application of these factors. The Third Circuit held that since §846 does not require an overt act, "the strict approach to [overt acts] prong is too narrow and rigid under the modern ‘totality of the circumstances’ test... Thus, we now broaden our analysis and decide whether to infer only one conspiracy from the relevant activities of those involved." In concluding the separate conspiracies existed, the Court noted the Supreme Court’s holding that one "may be subject to multiple prosecutions of the same conduct if Congress intended to impose multiple punishments for that conduct." Congress formulated different statutes and punishments for crack and cocaine. The Court explained that the "use of separate conspiracies provides a convenient way of determining [whether the jury convicted the defendant of conspiracy to distribute crack or conspiracy to distribute cocaine, or both.]"

The Court concluded that t no fundamental defect inherently resulting in a complete miscarriage of justice was show and affirmed the denial of the 2255 motion.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Supreme Court grants certiorari to resolve intent question in threat cases under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c)

On June 16, 2014, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Elonis v. United States, No. 13-983 (Third Circuit opinion here). Anthony Elonis was convicted after trial of posting threatening communications on Facebook, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 875(c). Applying an objective intent standard, the Third Circuit upheld Elonis's conviction, finding the evidence sufficient to support the jury's conclusion that the Facebook statements constituted true threats.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a circuit split on the intent issue. The question presented by Elonis's cert petition is:

Whether, consistent with the First Amendment and Virginia v. Black, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) requires proof of the defendant's subjective intent to threaten, as required by the Ninth Circuit and the supreme courts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont; or whether it is enough to show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening, as held by other federal courts of appeals and state courts of last resort.

The Court ordered the parties to also address the following question:  Whether, as a matter of statutory interpretation, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U.S.C. 875(c) requires proof of the defendant's subjective intent to threaten.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Alleyne v. United States Not Retroactive to Cases on Collateral Review

In United States v. Reyes, No. 13-3537, 2014 WL 2747216 (3d Cir., June 18, 2014), Defendant was convicted of armed Hobbs Act robbery and sentenced to 180 months in prison. His conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal. Defendant subsequently filed a habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Prior to the court’s ruling on the habeas petition, Defendant requested permission to amend it in light of Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013), in which the Supreme Court ruled that any facts that raise the range of penalties to which a defendant is exposed are elements of the offense and must be found beyond reasonable doubt. The court denied Defendant’s request, ruling that Alleyne did not apply retroactively to cases that were on collateral review. Nonetheless, the court issued Defendant a certificate of appealability on that issue. During the briefing on Defendant’s appeal, the Third Circuit issued an opinion in United States v. Winkleman, et al., 746 F.3d 134 (3d Cir. 2014), ruling that Alleyne does not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review. The Third Circuit answered a question left unanswered in Winkleman, namely that Alleyne announced a new rule of criminal procedure. However, citing Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348 (2004), and Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), the Third Circuit concluded that Alleyne was not retroactive to cases on collateral review because the new rule did not place the conduct or individuals covered by the statute beyond the government’s power to punish, nor was it a watershed rule that implicated the "fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding." To the contrary, the Third Circuit recognized that Alleyne announced a procedural, not a substantive rule. Further, the Third Circuit determined that Alleyne was not a watershed rule because it provided "only a limited modification to the Sixth Amendment rule announced in Apprendhi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000)." The court noted that, as the Supreme Court has not decided to make Apprendhi retroactive, Alleyne should not be deemed retroactive.

Enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2J1.2(b)(2) for Substantial Interference with Administration of Justice Applies for Destruction of Hard Drive during Child Porn Investigation

In United States v. Waterman, No. 13-3825, 2014 WL 2724131 (3d Cir., June 17, 2014), Defendant challenged the sentence imposed for his conviction for destruction of records, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519. Defendant, a police officer, destroyed a computer hard drive during a FBI investigation into his alleged possession of child pornography. Defendant initiated the investigation by informing his supervisor that he had in fact viewed child pornography on his personal home computer. Nonetheless, two years after his disclosure, Defendant attempted to destroy one of his personal computers. The court noted that Defendant actually destroyed the circuit board of the computer, but not the data platters which contained the data on the hard drive. Experts testified that the damage to the circuit board was extensive, and consequently, the data was irretrievable. During sentencing, the court adopted the probation office’s recommendation to apply the three-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2J1.2(b)(2) for substantial interference with the administration of justice. The court concluded that Defendant’s actions resulted in the early termination of the FBI’s investigation. The sentencing court reviewed the § 3553(a) factors and ultimately granted Defendant a six-month downward variance. Nonetheless, Defendant appealed the sentence, challenging the application of the enhancement under § 2J1.2(b)(2). Defendant claimed that the evidence presented was insufficient to prove that he had destroyed the hard drive as charged because no one witnessed him committing the act. The Third Circuit rejected Defendant’s argument, ruling that the circumstantial evidence was sufficient to support the lower court’s determination, based upon a preponderance of the evidence, that Defendant had in fact destroyed the hard drive. Note that the Third Circuit interpreted the enhancement, which mandates that the "offense resulted in substantial interference with the administration of justice," to impose a causation requirement. The timing of the offense in relation to the events which give rise to an assertion of substantial interference is a relevant factor for the sentencing court to consider when determining whether the offense caused substantial interference.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Use of a "Moocher Hunter" to Determine a Computer's Whereabouts is not a Search Under the Fourth Amendment

In United States v. Stanley, No. 13-1910, the defendant was "mooching" off a neighbor's wireless internet router, which was not password-protected.  The officer realized this when he traced the IP address and obtained the subscriber information from Comcast, executed a search warrant at the neighbor's home, and did not find the child pornography he suspected had been downloaded from a file sharing network.  The officer then used a "moocher hunter," which is a mobile tracking software tool, to determine the whereabouts of the computer that was "mooching" off the neighbor's wireless router.

The Third Circuit held that this was not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  The Court distinguished Kyllo v. United States, 537 U.S. 27 (2001) (the thermal imaging case), because in that case, the defendant confined his marijuana growing activities to the home.  Here, the defendant made no effort to confine his activities to his own home.  The Court reasoned that in effect, the defendant reached a "virtual arm" across the street to exploit the neighbor's internet connection.  Thus, any subjective expectation of privacy he may have had is not one society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.  The Court appeared to leave open a distinction between unauthorized wireless connections and authorized ones.

Importantly, the Third Circuit rejected the district court's finding that the defendant had no legitimate expectation of privacy because he voluntarily disclosed his signal to third parties, a rationale the Court feared "might open a veritable Pandora's Box of Internet-related privacy concerns."