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Monday, February 15, 2010

Court Upholds Constitutionality of "SORNA"

In United States v. Shenandoah, No. 09-1205 (Feb. 9, 2010), the Third Circuit confronted one of what it called “hundreds of similar challenges” filed in federal courts to the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”). In one fell swoop, it rejected a broad range of constitutional challenges in the case of a defendant convicted of statutory rape a decade before the law’s enactment in 2006.

Upon being paroled, Paul Shenandoah registered as a sex offender under the law of New York State, where he had been convicted. In August of 2007, he moved to Pennsylvania for employment as an iron worker. He did not register in that state as a sex offender or modify his New York registration to reflect his change of residence and employment. SORNA, as construed by the Court, requires persons in his position to keep their registration current on and after July 27, 2006. The defendant entered a conditional guilty plea reserving the right to appeal the district court’s rejection of his motion to dismiss on various grounds. He was sentenced to 12 months and one day of imprisonment, to be followed by ten years of supervised release.

As a threshold matter, the Third Circuit found it immaterial that neither Pennsylvania nor New York had complied with SORNA’s statutory mandates regarding, for instance, provision of registration information to certain entities. The Court found it sufficient simply that Pennsylvania and New York each operated sex offender registries after SORNA’s effective date. In a related conclusion, the Court held that the defendant could have complied with SORNA by following the two states’ laws, and thus rejected a due process challenge premised on the contention that compliance was impossible.

The Court next rejected an ex post facto challenge grounded on the fact that the defendant’s release from prison and original registration obligation predated SORNA’s enactment. There was no retroactive application of any law inflicting greater punishment for preexisting conduct, the Court concluded. Rather, the defendant committed a new crime by moving from Pennsylvania to New York roughly 13 months after SORNA’s enactment and then failing to keep his registration in the two states current. The Court did not pause to mention a challenge pending before the Supreme Court, Carr v. United States, No. 08-1301 (Carr’s merits brief here; brief of the United States here), concerning the Ex Post Facto Clause’s application to a registered offender whose travel in interstate commerce predated SORNA’s enactment. Oral argument is to be heard in that case next week.

Turning to a challenge under the Due Process Clause, the Court found that the conviction was not infirm for lack of notice. The Court found dispositive the undisputed facts “that Shenandoah knew that he was required to register under New York law” and that New York law “mandated that he update his registration if he traveled or moved out of state and that he register in the new state.” It was immaterial that the notice provided by New York’s registration form did not explain that a failure to register would be a violation of federal as well as state law. In a related holding, the Court concluded that SORNA is not a “specific intent law,” rejecting the argument that the indictment failed to allege a prima facie violation.

Nor was the Court impressed by the argument that Congress exceeded its Commerce Clause powers. Citing three categories of activity that United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995), identified as within Congress’s authority to regulate, the Court found that SORNA was a valid regulation of “persons in interstate commerce” and of the “use of the channels of interstate commerce.” It reasoned that Shenandoah’s relocation made him “undeniably a ‘person … in interstate commerce.'” As to the regulation of “use,” the Court quoted a 1925 decision of the Supreme Court upholding Congress’s power to “forbid or punish use of interstate commerce ‘as an agency to promote immorality, dishonesty or the spread of any evil or harm to the people of other states from the state of origin.’”

The Tenth Amendment did not require reversal, the Court next held, because the defendant, as a private party, had no standing to assert any challenge to federal encroachment on state sovereignty.

The Court concluded its merits analysis by rejecting the defendant’s claim that SORNA infringed upon his constitutional right to travel. The Court reasoned that the defendant “may travel interstate, but when he does, must register in the new state.… [M]oving from one jurisdiction to another entails many registration requirements required by law which may cause some inconvenience, but which do not unduly infringe upon anyone’s right to travel.” The Court also found it “worth noting” that the right to travel “is not an absolute right,” and that the burden imposed by SORNA “is necessary to achieve a compelling interest.… in preventing future sex crimes.”

The Court left open a possibility of a successful challenge on the part of a narrow class of persons “who, for various reasons, did not have a registration requirement prior to the passage of SORNA.” Such persons, it indicated, would have standing to challenge a series of implementing regulations adopted by the Attorney General in 2007 and 2008 to clarify SORNA’s application. As to this defendant, the Court held that the regulations were inapplicable.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Circuit Reverses Grant of Acquittal in Drug Conspiracy

United States v. Boria, No. 08-2550, 2009 WL 282088 (Jan. 26, 2010). Following a jury verdict of guilty on charges of aiding and abetting and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, the district court entered a judgment of acquittal, finding the evidence of his knowledge of the objective of the conspiracy, i.e. the transportation of cocaine, insufficient. The Circuit reversed, holding that the conconspirator’s "crucial" testimony, combined with suspicious circumstances under which defendant became involved with the tractor-trailer carrying the drugs, established that defendant knew drugs were involved.

The evidence at trial showed that another conspirator, Diaz, brought to Philadelphia a tractor-trailer which contained one hundred kilograms of cocaine. A DEA informant, Alvarado, received a phone call from another conspirator, Morel, who was searching for a garage which could fit a tractor-trailer for unloading. Alvarado met with Morel and four other Mexican nationals, none of which were Boria. An overnight parking location was chosen. The next morning Alvarado returned to the parking lot to take Diaz to breakfast. When the two arrived at the diner, Alvarado received a phone call from Morel informing Alvarado that he had sent someone to take the tractor-trailer to a garage for unloading. Alvarado testified that he was told by Morel that Boria "was supposed to take the tractor-trailer from [Alvarado] and take it to a garage to unload the drugs that were in the back of the tractor-trailer." On cross, Alvarado maintained that Boria was responsible for "taking the truck from [his] hands to take it to another garage to unload it," and for "tak[ing] the driver of the tractor-trailer to finish off what needs to be done inside the truck." Morel informed Alvarado and Diaz that this man would identify himself as "Ruben," and Alvarado identified Boria as Ruben. When Alvarado and Diaz pulled into the parking lot. Boria identified himself as Ruben and confirmed that Morel had sent him. Alvarado acknowledged he had never before seen Boria. Diaz then climbed into the driver's side of the truck and Boria climbed into the passenger's side. The truck left its location with Alvarado following, at Morel's request, and eventually stopped in a K-Mart parking lot. Alvarado exited his car and approached the truck to ask Boria why they had stopped there because it was a "hot area." When Alvarado reached the tractor, Boria was on his cell phone. After Boria hung up, Alvarado asked where the truck was heading. Boria responded that he was going to a garage in North Philadelphia, but that he was waiting for someone to open it. When the truck pulled out of the parking lot, it was stopped by the police, who had been observing the truck since receiving Alvarado's tip. Police gained access to the locked trailer portion with a key on the ring they found in the ignition. After three hours of searching, the police located one hundred kilograms of cocaine hidden in boxes, which themselves were hidden in the middle of the trailer within pallets of mostly rotten fruit.

The District Court entered a judgment of acquittal for Boria finding the evidence of his knowledge of the objective of the conspiracy, i.e. the transportation of cocaine, insufficient. The court found: "there was no evidence that Mr. Boria was engaged in, or present during, any conversations about the cocaine that was hidden in the back of the trailer; no probative evidence of the substance of any communications in which Mr. Boria engaged; no evidence that Mr. Boria ever ‘possessed’ or saw the cocaine, or that he ever saw the back of the trailer unlocked; no evidence of any prior relationship between Mr. Boria and any co-conspirators; and no evidence that Mr. Boria previously had been involved in any drug-trafficking activities."

In reversing, the Circuit held that a rational trier of fact could infer that Boria knew drugs were involved based on Alvarado's testimony and the suspicious circumstances under which Boria became associated with the tractor-trailer. Boria was responsible for taking the truck for unloading, but first had to arrange a garage. He knew exactly which truck to approach, confirmed Morel had sent him, and began directing the truck to a garage. A reasonable juror could conclude, based on this arrangement, that Boria knew something criminal was afoot. Alvarado's testimony that Boria was responsible for unloading the drugs, attributable to Boria as a co-conspirator, then serves as the crucial additional fact imputing knowledge of drugs, as opposed to some other form of contraband. Accordingly, a rational trier of fact could have found Boria guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and aiding and abetting the possession of cocaine.

Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for State Defendants in Delaware Lethal Injection Case

Jackson v. Danberg, No. 09-1925 and 09-2052 (Feb. 1, 2010). In a § 1983 class action challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection in Delaware, neither (1) Delaware’s record of errors in implementing its execution protocol, nor (2) the absence of a planned alternative to peripheral venous access, show a substantial risk of serious harm under the standard announced in Baze v. Rees. The District Court’s order of summary judgment for the state defendants is affirmed, and the stay of executions pending appeal is dissolved.

In this long (47-page) opinion, the Third Circuit holds that the practice of lethal injection in Delaware is constitutional under Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008). The Supreme Court held in Baze that the standard governing method-of-execution claims brought under § 1983 is whether the challenged practice poses a "substantial risk of serious harm" to the condemned prisoner. Finding no such risk in Delaware, the Third Circuit affirms the District Court’s grant of summary judgment for the state defendants, and dissolves the stay of executions that had been in place since the beginning of this litigation, in May 2006. Although the opinion notes that "the worrisome course [Delaware] appears to have taken at times under its formal protocol . . . gives us great pause," Slip op., 46, it nonetheless gives the green light for executions to resume in Delaware.

The opinion is notable for its lengthy discussion of the plurality opinion and the multiple concurring and dissenting opinions in Baze, although both parties in this case had agreed that the applicable standard was the plurality’s "substantial risk of serious harm" standard. The opinion then discusses the plaintiffs’ substantive claims: first, that the record of failures to comply with the execution protocol shows an unconstitutional risk of similar failures in the future; and second, that Defendants’ failure to adopt alternatives to peripheral venous access, for the foreseeable possibility that the executioners will be unable to establish peripheral access in a condemned prisoner, also show unconstitutional risk.

With regard to the plaintiffs’ evidence of Delaware’s failures to conduct a single of the 13 executions by lethal injection without deviating from the written protocol, the opinion finds that none of the mistakes shows a substantial risk. The court opens by saying, "the record is bereft of evidence that any of the thirteen inmates Delaware has executed using the three-drug protocol was still conscious when injected with potassium chloride." Slip op., 35, but then acknowledges that the evidentiary proffer regarding the Brian Steckel execution was disputed before the District Court, and some "evidence indicat[ed] that he had not received the appropriate dosage" of the anesthetic. Slip op., 36. The opinion then states, "Even assuming that Steckel suffered great pain during his botched execution, however, does no preclude summary judgment for Delaware, as Baze left no room for doubt that a single instance of mistake does not suffice to demonstrate a substantial risk of serious harm." Id. The court finds Plaintiffs’ other evidence of noncompliance with the written protocol, such as failure to follow the requirements for the training of execution personnel, similarly does not show unconstitutional risk.
Plaintiffs’ second claim was that Delaware’s failure to provide for an alternative to venous access poses a risk of a failed execution, similar to what happened when Ohio tried, and failed, to execute Romell Broom in September 2009. The panel relies on Baze, which did not require a backup plan, to hold that this does not render Delaware’s protocol unconstitutional.

Finally, the opinion comments on the Defendants’ cross-appeal issue: the District Court’s
grant of a stay pending appeal. While acknowledging that the District Court’s potential reasons continuing the stay are obvious, the panel "encourage[s] district courts int his circuit to state their reasons for granting stays pending appeal." Slip op., 46.

Submitted by Maria Pulzetti

Monday, February 01, 2010

Court Upholds Denial of IA Claim: No Evidentiary Hearing was Necessary and Petitioner Failed to Show Prejudice

In Palmer v. Hendricks, No. 06-2991 (3rd Cir. Jan. 26, 2010), the Third Circuit affirms the district court’s denial of habeas relief on Palmer’s claim that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to advise him of his right to testify. Petitioner failed to show prejudice resulting from counsel’s failure to advise him of his right to testify, where petitioner’s factual proffer regarding this ineffectiveness claim did not include a proffer of his testimony, had he received proper advice and chosen to testify.

The Circuit also affirmed the District Court’s denial of an evidentiary hearing on this claim. Palmer raised this claim in state post-conviction proceedings, and the state court held that, based on the record, Palmer had been informed sufficiently during trial of his right to testify. The state court based this on the transcript, which showed one time trial counsel requested and received time to consult with his client, and also showed that the judge read to Palmer, and later to the jury, the instruction on a criminal defendant’s election not to testify. The state court reasoned that if Palmer understood the choice not to testify, he understood that he had the choice to testify.

This opinion is most notable for Section III.A.1, a lengthy discussion of evidentiary hearings in federal habeas. The Third Circuit restates the standard for an evidentiary hearing in federal court, although it finds that Palmer was not improperly denied such a hearing:

because Palmer’s petition does not contain sufficient "factual allegations, which, if true, would entitle the applicant to federal habeas relief," the District Court did not abuse its discretion in declining Palmer’s request for an evidentiary hearing. Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 474 (2007).

The longer discussion of Landrigan, however, includes what the opinion describes as a "consideration" for a District Court to make when deciding whether to hold an evidentiary hearing: "‘if the record refutes the applicant’s factual allegations or otherwise precludes habeas relief, a district court is not required to hold an evidentiary hearing.’ Schriro, 550 U.S. at 474." This is only the second time the Third Circuit has relied upon that language; the first time was in Taylor v. Horn, 504 F.3d 416 (3d Cir. 2007), another Fuentes opinion.
Two additional things stand out in this section: first, the opinion ignores the previous week’s decision in Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. ___ , No. 08-9156 (Jan. 20, 2010), which of course was not decided under § 2254(e)(2). Second, in footnote four, the court states that Palmer was diligent in developing his claim in state court, and affirms that the "failure to develop" language in 2254(e)(2) is defeated where a petitioner makes a factual proffer (in this case, via affidavit) and requests an evidentiary hearing.

In III.A.2, the opinion addresses the prejudice prong – somewhat ignoring the state court’s analysis of the deficient performance prong. "Notably, Palmer did not set forth the facts to which he would have testified had he taken the stand at his trial." Slip op., 8. Without such a proffer, the court holds, he cannot show prejudice. In III.A.3, the opinion notes that structural error does not arise from counsel’s failure to advise a defendant of the right to testify.
Submitted by Maria Pulzetti