Friday, October 02, 2015

Court denies suppression challenge, finding shareholder and corporate executive did not have reasonable expectation of privacy in employees' offices, employees' computers, or electronic files located on network server, but reverses and remands for new loss calculation in government contracts fraud case

In a matter of first impression, the Court, in United States v. Nagle, Nos. 14-3184, 14-3422 (3d Cir. Sept. 30, 2015), held that defendant, a shareholder and corporate executive, did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his employees' offices, employees' computers, or the electronic files located on the company's network server, as required to challenge the search and seizure of the corporate offices.

Defendants Nagle and Fink were co-owners and executives of concrete manufacturing and construction corporations specializing in state highway construction and mass transit projects. The defendants devised and executed a scheme to defraud the United States Government by obtaining subcontracts set aside for disadvantaged business enterprises (DBE). During the execution of two search warrants at the corporations' compound, eleven employee computers plus the network server were seized and imaged. Defendant Nagle moved to suppress the electronic evidence recovered during these searches. The District Court denied the suppression motion, holding that, while Nagle may have had an expectation of privacy in his official capacity as an officer and executive of the companies, Nagle had no personal expectation of privacy in the seized information.

Following a string of cases from other circuits, the Third Circuit ruled, as a matter of first impression, that a shareholder or company executive may not challenge a search of corporate property based merely on his status as a shareholder or executive. He may only challenge the search if he shows some personal connection to the places searched and material seized and protected those places or materials from outside intrusion. Here, Nagle failed to show that he used the employees' offices or computers or that he ever accessed other employees' emails or files on the network server. Accordingly, because Nagle failed to show a personal connection to the computers or files, he had no reasonable expectation of privacy in those items and no basis to move for suppression.

Turning to the loss analysis, the defendants challenged the District Court's determination that they were responsible for the face value of the DBE contracts received without any credit for actual work performed on the contracts. The Third Circuit disagreed, finding that the amount of loss Nagle and Fink were responsible for was the face value of the DBE contracts minus the fair market value of the services they provided under those contracts. The Court found that such an offset would be due regardless of whether it applied U.S.S.G. §2B1.1 Application Note 3(A) (standard loss definition) or Note 3(F)(ii) (special application note for loss in "government benefit" cases). Accordingly, the Court vacated the defendants' sentences and remanded for a new loss calculation applying the appropriate credit for the fair market value of the services rendered under the contracts.

Monday, September 21, 2015

“Innocent Round Trip” Exception Not Applicable to Violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2423(b)

In United States v. Schneider, Nos. 12-1145 and 13-1491, 2015 WL 5235131 (3dCir., Sept. 9, 2015), Defendant was charged with one count of traveling in foreign commerce for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct with a minor, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2423(b) (2000), and one count of transporting an individual in foreign commerce with the intent that such individual engage in illegal sexual activity, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2421 (2000).

Defendant was an American attorney and philanthropist who initiated a sexual relationship with an underaged ballet dancer from Russia whom he sponsored. Defendant met the young dancer when he was 12 years old. By the time the dancer was 14 years old, he and Defendant were living together in Moscow. Defendant and the young ballet dancer traveled between the United States and Russia twice to allow the young dancer to study ballet. Eventually, the dancer’s family learned about the relationship and filed a civil suit against Defendant in 2009. However, when law enforcement officials learned about the relationship, the civil suit was stayed and federal criminal charges were filed against Defendant in 2010.

At trial, the jury convicted Defendant of the traveling charge under § 2423(b), but found Defendant not guilty of the transporting charge under § 2421. The jury based its acquittal on the “innocent round trip” exception to § 2421, as enunciated in Mortensen v. United States, 322 U.S. 369 (1944). Defendant appealed his conviction under § 2423(b) on several grounds.

Defendant challenged the trial court’s refusal to apply the “innocent round trip” exception to his transporting charge under § 2423(b). As a matter of first impression in the Third Circuit, the court ruled that the “innocent round trip” exception did not apply to a charge of transporting under § 2423(b) . In Mortensen, the defendants operated a brothel. On one occasion, the defendants took a vacation, accompanied by two women employed at the brothel. However, no illegal sexual conduct occurred during the vacation. The Supreme Court concluded that the trip at issue was a “complete break or interlude” in the illicit sexual  activity. As the trip was “not undertaken for immoral ends,” it did not violated § 2421.

Defendant argued that the court should interpret § 2421 and § 2423(b) similarly. While both statutes involve traveling with the intent or purpose to engage in illegal sexual activity, the court concluded that the prohibited conduct under each statute was sufficiently dissimilar. Specifically, the Third Circuit ruled that, unlike the trip in Mortensen, Defendant’s trips did not constitute a “complete break or interlude” in the illicit sexual conduct. To the contrary, the court concluded that Defendant hosted the trips as part of his ongoing scheme to maintain his sexual relationship with the young ballet dancer.

The Third Circuit also upheld the trial court’s denial of Defendant’s motion to dismiss the indictment as untimely under the federal statute of limitations, concluding that Defendant’s conduct fell under the exception provided by 18 U.S.C. § 3283, which extends the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse offenses. The Third Circuit rejected Defendant’s challenge to the trial court’s refusal to admit evidence regarding his inability to seek proper medical treatment for a non-life threatening condition during his pre-trial incarceration. The Third Circuit also upheld to the trial court’s admission of excerpts from a film which Defendant had shown to the young dancer/victim, depicting a similar relationship between a young dancer and an older patron. The Third Circuit also concluded that Defendant had not met his burden to prove newly discovered evidence regarding the victim’s deposition testimony from the civil suite required a new trial. The Third Circuit also upheld the lower court’s application of the cross reference under U.S.S.G. §§ 2A3.2(c)(1) and 2A3.1, related to child sexual abuse offenses.  

Friday, September 04, 2015

Court examines White v. Woodall, reaffirms grant of habeas relief due to Bruton violation.

Washington v. Secretary, No. 12-2883, 2015 WL 5103330 (3d Cir. Sept. 1, 2015),

In an opinion by Judge Fisher, the panel reaffirms its earlier decision granting habeas relief because of a Bruton violation.  At Washington's trial, the prosecution introduced a statement by his codefendant that redacted Washington's name and replaced it with generic terms.  One codefendant, Taylor, testified that Washington was the driver, who stayed in the car while two other accomplices entered, shot and killed two store employees, and stole cash from a safe.  Taylor claimed Washington entered the store following the shootings and helped remove the cash.  Taylor testified at trial and was impeached on cross-examination.  Then a detective read a redacted version of the confession of a non-testifying codefendant, Waddy, in which Washington's and a fourth defendant's names were replaced with phrases like "they guy who went into the store" and "the driver."
The district court and the 3d Circuit granted habeas relief, relying on the combined holdings of Bruton, Richardson v. Marsh, and Gray v. Maryland for the proposition that no reasonable reading of those cases can tolerate a redaction that would be "transparent to the jurors."  Here, the redactions were transparent because Taylor had explicitly identified Washington as the driver.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated, and remanded for further consideration in light of White v. Woodall(which held that a state court decision merely declining to "extend" a SCTOUS precedent cannot be an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law under AEDPA).

 Judge Fisher acknowledges how difficult the AEDPA "unreasonable application" test is to meet, and stresses that "applying a general standard to a sepcific case can demand a substantial element of judgment," requiring deference by habeas courts.  In his reading, the distinction between Richardson v. Marsh, which upheld the use of a redacted confession, and Gray v. Maryland, which disapproved it, was that in Richardson the redactions removed all mention of the existence of the nonconfessing defendant.
“Taken together, the current state of the law is that there is a Confrontation Clause violation when a non-testifying codefendant’s confession is introduced that names another codefendant, Bruton, 391 U.S. at 126, or that refers directly to the existence of the codefendant in a manner that is directly accusatory, Gray, 523 U.S. at 193-94. That is because such statements present a ‘substantial risk that the jury, despite instructions to the contrary, [will] look[] to the incriminating extrajudicial statements in determining [the defendant’s] guilt.’ Bruton, 391 U.S. at 126. But there is no violation if the confession is properly redacted to omit any reference at all to the codefendant, making it more likely that the jury will be able to follow the court’s instruction to disregard this evidence in rendering its verdict. Richardson, 481 U.S. at 208, 211. It is against this background that we assess whether the Pennsylvania Superior Court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law.” 
In Fisher's view, this is not a “close call” case that is subject to “fairminded disagreement.”  The Superior Court applied a blanket rule providing that a redaction was permissible as long as the jury had to apply an additional piece of information outside the confession to link it to the nonconfessing defendant.  This rule is "not a reasonable view of the law."
Fisher goes on to explain why, in contrast to Woodall, the state court ruling was not a mere refusal to extend the Bruton rule to a new context.
Thanks to Claudia Van Wyk, for providing this summary.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Habeas relief affirmed: government concedes unreliable fire-science and chromatography evidence has been discredited and Court finds remaining evidence not sufficiently “ample” to prove arson and murder beyond a reasonable doubt

In Han Lee v. Superintendent Houtzdale SCI, the Third Circuit affirmed habeas relief (under 28 U.S.C. § 2254) granted to a father who spent 24 years in prison for allegedly setting a fire that killed his daughter. 

First, the Court accepted the case on the merits, rejecting procedural challenges to the appeal. A notice of appeal is delivered when received by the clerk, regardless of when it was officially filed. (discussing Fed.R.Civ.P. 5(d)(2)). A notice of appeal is valid so long as it specifies the appealing party, designates the judgment being appealed, and names the court to which the appeal is taken, even if it violates a local electronic filing requirement. (citing Fed.R.App.P. 3(c)(1)). 

 The Court then reviewed magistrate’s report and recommendation for plain error, without AEDPA deference, consistent with the law of the case.  See Lee v. Glunt, 667 F.3d 397, 400–03 (3d Cir. 2012).  The magistrate found that Lee had shown “that the admission of the fire expert testimony undermined the fundamental fairness of the entire trial because the probative value of [that] evidence, though relevant, [was] greatly outweighed by the prejudice to the accused from its admission.” Lee, 667 F.3d at 403.  The Commonwealth conceded that the basis for fire-science and gas-chromatography evidence has now been discredited.  The Court found that the remaining evidence was not sufficiently “ample” to prove arson and murder beyond a reasonable doubt.  That evidence was: (1) alleged inconsistencies in the Korean-to-English interpretation of statements made by Lee in the hours following his daughter’s death, (2) a cultural stoicism construed as nonchalance, and (3) autopsy results which posited two alternate theories of cause of death, one wholly consistent with death in an accidental fire, and the other (strangulation) which had very little forensic support.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Martinez v. Ryan does not apply to excuse procedural default caused by attorney error at the state collateral appeal stage.

In Norris v. Brooks,No. 13-4448, the Court addressed a Rule 60(b) motion filed by a 2254 habeas petitioner who claimed that the case of Martinez v. Ryan, 132 S.Ct. 1309 (2012), called for the reopening of his federal habeas petition, previously denied in 2007.

Procedural background in Norris:
            In his state PCRA proceedings, Norris raised a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel (“IAC trial counsel”) for failing to move to dismiss on rule based and constitutional speedy trial grounds.  PCRA counsel raised the IAC trial counsel claim (poorly, citing the wrong dates) in the initial PCRA petition and then abandoned the claim, over Norris’s strenuous objections, on PCRA appeal.  Norris sought review of his IAC trial counsel/speedy trial claim in a 2254 federal habeas petition.  The federal habeas court denied his petition finding that the claim was procedurally defaulted because it was not raised at the PCRA appeal level. 

A recap of Martinez:
In Martinez v. Ryan, SCOTUS held that, under certain circumstances, attorney error at the initial collateral review stage could constitute cause for the procedural default of an IAC trial counsel claim in a federal 2254 proceeding.  For example, in Pennsylvania, the first time a defendant can claim IAC trial counsel is in a PCRA petition.  If the defendant fails to raise an IAC trial counsel claim in the PCRA petition, then the claim is normally considered procedurally defaulted and federal habeas court cannot review the claim.  Under Martinez, if the reason that the trial counsel-IAC claim was not presented in the initial PCRA petition was due to ineffective assistance of PCRA counsel, then it is possible that the PCRA counsel’s error constitutes cause and excuse for the procedural default and the federal habeas court may be able to review the trial counsel-IAC claim even though it was never presented in state court.  In this way, Martinez overruled Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991).

Raising Martinez via Rule 60(b)(6) motions:
            Fed.R.Civ.Pro. 60(b)(6) allows for relief from civil judgments in “extraordinary circumstances.”  The question of whether SCOTUS’s decision in Martinez could constitute extraordinary circumstances allowing for the reopening of a federal habeas petition which had previously been denied due to procedural default under Coleman was addressed by the Third Circuit in Cox v. Horn, 757 F.3d 113 (3d Cir. 2014).  In Cox, the Court held that while Martinez, by itself, did not constitute extraordinary circumstances allowing for the re-opening of a federal habeas petition under Rule 60(b)(6), Martinez, in conjunction with other equitable factors, could potentially merit Rule 60(b)(6) relief.

No relief for Norris:
            The problem for Norris was that the procedural default of the IAC trial counsel-speedy trial claim occurred at the PCRA appeal level (according to the original federal habeas court) and not at the initial PCRA proceeding.  Because Martinez explicitly applied only to claims that were procedurally defaulted at the initial PCRA stage and not at the appellate stage, Norris’s appeal was denied. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Doyle Error Not Harmless in Credibility Contest Between Cooperator and Accused

In United States v.Jace Edwards, No. 14-4088, the Court remands for a new trial following the government's concession that the trial prosecutor had violated the constitutional rule of Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610 (1976).  As restated in contemporary Third Circuit precedent, that rule prohibits the prosecutor from causing the jury to draw an impermissible inference of guilt from a defendant’s post-arrest silence after the defendant has been Mirandized.  On appeal, the government’s sole contention was that the trial prosecutor’s misconduct was harmless.

The Court easily dispatches of the government's contention.  Though the prosecution was founded on a controlled delivery, the Court explains, the trial boiled down to a credibility contest between the defendant and a cooperating witness.  Despite “some evidence suggesting that [the defendant’s] exculpatory story was not plausible,” there was no way to say the verdict “was surely unattributable to the error.”  Accordingly, the government had failed to "prove[] beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict obtained," as required to establish that constitutional error was harmless.  Along the way, the Court lays stress on “the District Court’s belated and ineffective curative instruction,” noting that the court initially overruled defense counsel’s objection to the prosecutor’s improper closing argument, and that language elsewhere in the charge approved consideration of “any statements made and acts done or omitted by the defendant.”  Quoting its earlier criticism of this language in United States v. Waller, 654 F.3d 430 (3d Cir. 2011), the Court notes that “jurors were invited by the District Court to consider the statements that [the defendant] failed to make.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Court Clarifies Mental State Requirement for 'Color of Official Right' Extortion, Rejects Challenges to 'Sophisticated Means' Enhancement

In United States v.Fountain, Nos. 13-3023 &c., the Court finds occasion to clarify the elements of extortion under “color of official right” within the meaning of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951.  The three appellants were found guilty after a two-week trial of participating in a tax refund scam.  A Hobbs Act count named only one defendant, an IRS employee who drew upon her knowledge of internal auditing procedures to avoid the red-flagging of fraudulent applications for certain tax credits.  The applications were submitted using personal information supplied by third-party claimants in exchange for a portion of the refunds.  The Hobbs Act count rested on one claimant’s agreement to pay $400 to the IRS employee in the belief — on the government’s theory — that it would help the claimant obtain the refund and avoid an audit.

Distinguishing certain broad language in two prior opinions, the Court (per Krause, J., joined by Fuentes and Fisher, JJ.) holds that to prove extortion under color of official right, the evidence must show: “(1) that the payor made a payment to the defendant because the payor held a reasonable belief that the defendant would perform official acts in return, and (2) that the defendant knew the payor made the payment because of that belief.”  (Emphasis supplied.)  That some earlier decisions had not explicitly referenced the italicized mental state requirement, the Court explains, reflects only that the reasonableness of the payor’s belief was uncontested and obvious in those cases.  Applying the clarified standard, the Court upholds conviction based on the $400 payment despite what the IRS employee submitted was insufficient evidence as to the claimant’s state of mind in making it.

The Court also upholds a bevy of sentence enhancements.  It first rejects challenges to the two-level enhancement for “sophisticated means” under the fraud guideline at U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1.  The enhancement can apply, the Court concludes, based on conduct “less sophisticated” than the examples set forth in a guideline application note referencing “the use of fictitious entities, corporate shells, or offshore financial accounts.”  While the opinion proceeds to reiterate that the sophisticated-means enhancement requires conduct showing “a greater level of planning or concealment than a typical fraud of its kind,” the ensuing analysis states that “factors like the duration of a scheme,” the “number of participants,” and “efforts to avoid detection” may be relevant.  Nonetheless, the Court also points to reliance on specialized expertise, as in the IRS employee’s use of “inside knowledge of the IRS’s enforcement thresholds” and another defendant’s electronic filing of claims in a manner traceable only to a third party’s wireless network.

The Court also rejects more fact-specific challenges to enhancements for use of a minor, see U.S.S.G. § 3B1.4, aggravating role, see id. § 3B1.1(a),  loss amount calculation, see id. § 2B1.1(b)(1), and substantive reasonableness, see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).  As to role, the Court firms up the rule that the defendant must have exercised “some degree of control over at least one other person involved in the offense.”  Regarding reasonableness review, the Court repeats what it has occasionally described as a rule that “[s]entences that fall within the applicable Guidelines range are more likely to be reasonable than those that do not.”  Of course, district courts may not indulge any such presumption when sentencing in the first instance.  Nelson v. United States, 555 U.S. 350 (2009).