Tuesday, April 26, 2011

General right to counsel with no temporal reference informs suspect he has a right to an attorney during questioning

In United States v. Warren, No. 10-1598 (April 21, 2011), the Third Circuit affirmed denial of a motion to suppress statements and dismissed Warren’s claim that the government breached the plea agreement.

The Court analyzed whether the Miranda warnings given to Warren informed him of his right to have counsel present during questioning. The Third Circuit looked to the recent United States Supreme Court case Florida v. Powell, 130 S.Ct. 1195 (2010), for guidance. In Powell, the officer advised the suspect he had the right “to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions” and“to use any of these rights at any time you want to during this interview.” The Supreme Court reasoned that the combination of these statements reasonably conveyed the requirements of Miranda: the first statement advised when the right to an attorney became effective and the catch-all clarified that the right could be used at all times.

Here, the officer told Warren:

he had the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you without charge before any questioning if you wish. Should you decide to talk to me, you can stop the questioning at any time.

The Third Circuit found the Miranda warning was valid even though there was no express reference to the right to have counsel present throughout interrogation and no catch-all statement. An unqualified declaration of the general right to counsel – with no temporal reference to when the right to counsel becomes effective or ceased – although not the “clearest possible” warning, is sufficient.

Judge Greenaway filed a dissenting opinion, finding that “the conveyance of a general right to an attorney, without a contextual notification that this right exists during questioning,” does not reasonably convey a continuing right to counsel.

The entire panel agreed that the government did not breach its plea agreement that it would not file an information to enhance Warren’s sentence, pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851, by arguing for a different Guidelines range. The Court explained that no § 851 was filed so it was irrelevant that the government calculated and argued for a Guidelines range based on crack-cocaine while Warren argued for a range based on powder cocaine.

Sentencing enhancement for sadistic, masochistic, or violent materials and two special conditions of supervised release upheld

In United States v. Maurer, No. 10-3049 (April 22, 2011) the Third Circuit affirmed the procedural reasonableness of a 60-month sentence for possession of child pornography and two special conditions of supervised release.

The Court rejected Maurer’s challenge to application of a four-level sentencing enhancement for material “that portrays sadistic or masochistic conduct or other depictions of violence,” U.S.S.G. § 2G2.2(b)(4), and held that a sentencing court “need only find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the image depicts sexual activity involving a prepubescent minor that would have caused pain to the minor.”

The Court found that the application of U.S.S.G. § 2G2.2(b)(4) did not constitute an abuse of discretion, nor was the enhancement unconstitutionally vague or overly broad. The ordinary meaning of the terms sadism and masochism provides courts with sufficient guidance. Although violence can be interpreted broadly, courts must construe its meaning narrowly because it follows “sadistic and masochistic conduct.” Despite the narrow definitions, the Court explained that the application of § 2G2.2(b)(4) is not limited to circumstances where pain is the result of sexual penetration by an adult or bondage of the child. Citing cases from other circuits, the Court gave the examples of other acts which would justify the enhancement: sexual gratification which is purposefully degrading or humiliating or conduct which causes mental suffering or psychological or emotional injury. Expert testimony is not required for the court to make the finding. Finally, it is a strict liability enhancement: the sentencing court need not determine the defendant intended to possess the images or actually derived pleasure from viewing them. Applying this standard, the Court found the sentencing court made the appropriate findings.

Maurer also challenged two special conditions to be imposed over his five years of supervised release: (1) a prohibition on internet use, unless specifically approved by Probation; and (2) a prohibition on “any contact with children of either sex, under the age of 18, without the expressed approval” of Probation. The Court found that the nature of Maurer’s computer use, the character and size of his collection, and his stated sexual interest in minors justified both conditions.

As for internet use, the Court considered the length and coverage of the restriction, and underlying conduct. Although Maurer only pled guilty to possession, his internet use went beyond simply obtaining child pornography. He did not sexually exploit a minor, but was willing to use the internet to facilitate a sexual encounter and told a supposed 18-year old boy that he was interested in meeting younger boys. Thus, his use triggered concerns of predation. Also, the restriction was sufficiently narrow because it did not restrict all computer – just internet – access and a five-year restriction fell comfortably within the range of restrictions previously upheld.

Similarly, the facts showed that Maurer was a risk to children such that restriction on “any contact” with minors was appropriate, regardless of his offense of conviction. The “any contact” restriction was permissibly cabined to Probation’s ministerial role, unlike previously invalidated restrictions (1) to “follow the directions [of Probation] regarding any contact with children,” or (2) on “any contact” with children, imposed for a lifetime, on a defendant who had young children.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sentence with Large Downward Variance Reversed on Procedural Unreasonableness

United States v. Negroni, 2011 WL 1125854 (Mar. 29, 2011). This case involved a massive fraud scheme in which the perpetrators submitted false claims in securities class action settlements. The defendants here – Hall & Negroni – submitted false claims totaling at least $1 million of the more than $40 million involved in the scheme. Both entered guilty pleas to mail fraud and wire fraud (Hall also pled guilty to tax evasion). The district court sentenced Hall to 15 months’ imprisonment and Negroni to 5 years’ probation. The government had sought much higher sentences.

For Hall, the government had sought a Guidelines enhancement of six levels because the scheme allegedly involved more than 250 victims. According to the Court, the district court rejected the enhancement with little explanation, commenting only that it was reluctant to accept the cooperating witness’s testimony without corroboration. Without the enhancement, the range was 46-57 months. The government sought a high-end sentence, but the district court varied downward.

For Negroni, the range, including the enhancement, was 70-87 months. Negroni asked for a variance or departure based on diminished capacity, and an unhealthy dependence developed on the leader of the scheme during his unguided, unhappy youth. He presented letters describing his unfortunate history and reports by a psychologist and his treating therapist, In sentencing Negroni to probation (with some home confinement), the district court cited the abuse and neglect Negroni suffered, his attachment to the leader of the scheme, the psychologist’s report, his stable family life, his treatment, his acceptance of responsibility, and his ability to pay restitution.

The government objected to both sentences as unreasonable. Although the government labeled its challenges on appeal as “substantive” challenges, the Court held that it had not waived challenges to the procedural reasonableness of the sentence because many of the arguments the government presented in its brief fell squarely within the definition of procedural error.

The Court then held that the district court failed to provide adequate explanation for its rejection of the enhancement for 250 or more victims. The Court felt that the government had presented evidence in support of the enhancement, although the defense had identified weaknesses with that evidence. Because the district court did not give its reasons for rejecting the enhancement, the Court was unable to review that decision.

With regard to Negroni’s sentence, the Court held that the district court failed to provide sufficient explanation for variance from a range of 70 to 87 months to probation and home confinement. Although the district court individually identified each statutory sentencing factor, it did not discuss all of the factors, and did not explain how the factors it did discuss justified the extraordinary downward variance. In reversing, the Circuit expressed its “doubt” that the sentence could be justified, in view of the Sentencing Commission’s express concern with the under-punishment of white-collar crime.

A petition for rehearing has been filed and is available at: http://www.fd.org/pdf_lib/3Rehear-Negroni_e041211.pdf.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

SORNA - Failure to Register Conviction Upheld

In United States v. Pendleton, 2011 WL 1366382 (Apr. 12, 2011), the Circuit rejected defendant’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his conviction for failure to register as a sex offender. The Court’s decision is based on the fact that defendant had stated numerous times to government officials and others—including during the time period alleged in the indictment—that he actually lived at the charged address, not only that it was his mailing address, regardless of fact that witness who lived in the house testified defendant had never stayed there. The court declined to reach issue of whether a “mail drop” address would have been sufficient to charge under the statute. The court likewise rejected a Commerce Clause challenge, and a Due Process and fair notice challenge based on the fact that Delaware law did not require Pendleton to register.

Dismissal of RICO Indictment Reversed - Enterprise and Pattern of Activity Sufficiently Alleged

In United States v. Bergrin, 2011 WL 1366388 (Apr. 12, 2011), the Government appealed dismissal of RICO indictment which district court held did not adequately allege a racketeering “enterprise” or a “pattern of racketeering activity.” Following a thorough review of RICO definitions, the Circuit disagreed and held the indictment sufficient, finding that the district court principally erred in assessing the government’s ability to prove the allegations rather than assuming all alleged facts as true as required at the motion to dismiss stage.

Bergrin, defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, was charged with heading a criminal enterprise from 2003 through 2009 involving numerous offenses and co-defendants connected through an “association-in-fact” enterprise called the Bergrin Law Enterprise (BLE) which included four corporations —the law firm Pope, Bergrin & Verdesco, PA (PB & V); the Law Office of Paul W. Bergrin, PC; Premium Realty Investment Corp., Inc.; and Isabella's International Restaurant, Inc.

The indictment alleged that Bergrin was the leader of the BLE and played an instrumental role in six criminal schemes, with co-defendants' each having significant involvement in at least one scheme and little or no involvement in others. The six schemes, listed as “racketeering acts,” included: arranging for the murders of government witness on behalf of clients, bribing a government witness, trafficking in kilogram quantities of cocaine, running a prostitution scheme, and fraudulent real estate transfers.

The indictment also alleged purposes of the Enterprise, including: providing the BLE with an expanding base of clients for legal and illegal services; generating, preserving and protecting the BLE’s profits and client base through those alleged acts; protecting Bergrin’s status as a licensed attorney; enhancing his reputation as a criminal defense attorney; promoting the BLE’s activities; enriching members; and concealing the criminal activities of the BLE and its members and associates from detection and prosecution.

Bergrin and his co-defendants moved to dismiss the RICO and racketeering-based counts. The district court granted the motions, finding that the indictment did not adequately allege a racketeering “enterprise” or a “pattern of racketeering activity.”

The Circuit reversed, first reviewing the definitions of “enterprise,” “employed or associated with,” “pattern of racketeering activity,” and “racketeering activity,” and the broad reach of the statute. Pointing out the narrow analysis permitted by a motion to dismiss – whether the allegations, assumed to be true, suffice to charge an offense – the court found sufficient allegations to establish both a pattern of racketeering activity and an enterprise, including purpose, relationships and longevity. In granting the motion to dismiss, the district court erred in finding that the indictment failed to allege a common purpose among the predicate acts by weighing whether the government could prove the allegations. Also, there is no requirement that the predicate acts be similar in order to establish a “pattern,”or that an enterprise have structure, defined leadership or organization.

Third Circuit invalidates robbery conviction based on Brady violations and ineffective assistance of counsel

In Breakiron v. Horn, (April 18, 2011), after the District Court had invalidated Breakiron's murder conviction and death sentence, the Third Circuit found three reasons to invalidate the robbery conviction: (1) the Brady violations that had caused the District Court to invalidate the murder conviction were also material to the robbery conviction; (2) trial counsel had been constitutionally ineffective in failing to request the lesser-included offense of theft; and (3) trial counsel had been constitutionally ineffective in failing to take corrective action when a venire panel member was exposed to evidence about Breakiron’s propensity to commit robberies and then served on the jury.

Mark Breakiron killed the bartender of a bar in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and stole money from the bar. He was charged with first-degree murder and robbery. At trial, Breakiron argued, based on a voluntary intoxication/diminished capacity defense, that he did not have the specific intent to kill and so was only guilty of third-degree murder. In addition, he argued he decided to steal the money after the attack was complete, so he was guilty of theft not robbery. Ellis Price was incarcerated with Breakiron before his trial and testified to statements Breakiron made to him that suggested the attack was premeditated. The jury convicted Breakiron of first-degree murder and robbery and found as an aggravating factor that Breakiron committed the murder while committing a felony (robbery). Breakiron was sentenced to death.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. Breakiron filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which was denied after the court held an evidentiary hearing. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. Breakiron filed a federal habeas petition. Breakiron also filed a second state petition, raising Brady issues, which the state court dismissed as untimely. The District Court (W.D.Pa.) found a Brady violation regarding impeachment evidence about a key witness, Price. The Brady violations were failure to disclose that Price (1) had been convicted of an impeachable offense, (2) had sought a deal in exchange for his testimony against Breakiron, and (3) was a suspect in an unrelated criminal investigation pending at that time for which he was never charged. The District Court invalidated Breakiron’s murder conviction and death sentence, but not the robbery conviction after concluding that Price’s testimony was not material to the robbery conviction. The government did not appeal, so only the robbery conviction was before the Third Circuit.

Within the deferential strictures of a review under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the Third Circuit invalidated Breakiron’s robbery conviction. The Third Circuit found that Price’s testimony was material to the robbery conviction because (1) it suggested that the entire incident was a premeditated and intentional plan, and (2) it undercut Breakiron’s credibility, which was crucial for his theory of defense.

The Third Circuit found that trial counsel had been constitutionally ineffective in failing to request a charge for the lesser-included offense of theft where the trial strategy had been to concede that Breakiron had committed a theft but not a robbery. Thus, where Breakiron was guilty of some offense, and the jury instructions only presented the jury with an all-or-nothing choice between robbery and outright acquittal, there was a substantial risk that the jury would convict him of an unproven offense (robbery).

The Third Circuit found that counsel was constitutionally ineffective for failing to take corrective action at voir dire. A member of the jury that convicted Breakiron had heard another venire member state he knew Breakiron and that Breakiron “used to do a lot of robberies.” The Third Circuit expressed concern at the juror’s exposure to propensity evidence which is so patently prejudicial that it is not necessarily cured by a limiting instruction. Even worse, the propensity evidence here was about the very crime at issue, robbery. The Third Circuit determined there was no reasonable basis for any belief in the impartiality or fairness of this juror. The Third Circuit found prejudice using an objective standard: “Whether there is a reasonable probability that a juror who had not been exposed to that statement would have voted to acquit Breakiron of robbery.” The Court found there was a reasonable probability that corrective action by counsel would have produced a different result.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Court Emphasizes the Strict Standard of Relief under Writ of Error Coram Nobis.

Following his conviction for possession with intent to distribute 50 grams of cocaine base, Petitioner Gary Rhines continued to challenge his conviction and life sentence. After his conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Third Circuit, his writ of certiorari was denied by the Supreme Court, his motion under 28 U.S.C. §2255 was denied, and his application to file a second and successive §2255 motion were rejected, Rhine filed a writ of error coram nobis. In the writ he claimed that the arresting officers fabricated evidence and gave false testimony at trial. The basis for his claim was the 2007 indictment of the officers on charges that included tampering with records and perjury. Rhines additionally argued ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to discover the indictments against the officers. The district court dismissed the petition. In United States v. Rhines, 10-4077, the Third Circuit summarily affirmed the district court’s decision because the appeal did not present a substantial question.

In affirming the district court’s dismissal, the Third Circuit noted that relief under coram nobis is an “extraordinary remedy,” traditionally reserved for petitioners that are no longer in federal custody. When another avenue of relief is available, a court will not issue a writ of error coram nobis. Moreover, in order to obtain relief there must exist a fundamental error that essentially renders the trial invalid.

Specific to Rhines’ case, he did not qualify for coram nobis relief because he was still incarcerated when he filed the writ. Additionally, his petition did not present a fundamental error that would make his trial invalid. Rhines’ position that he was unable to impeach the officers at trial was unavailing. The officers in question were indicted five years after his conviction and there was no evidence suggesting that the tampered records related to Rhines’ case. In short, pure speculation is insufficient to carry the burden for relief. Finally, the Third Circuit noted that Rhines raised the same issues in his second §2255 motion, and that the Court had rejected his application for certificate of appealability. Failure to meet the standard for a second §2255 motion does not entitle a defendant to bring a writ of error coram nobis.

Third Circuit Finds Defendant Was Not Seized Where He Briefly Paused and Raised Hands Before Fleeing

In United States v. Amos , ---F. 4th---, 2023 WL 8636910 (3d Cir. Dec. 14, 2023), the Third Circuit affirmed a district court's denial o...