Justia U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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In 2005, off-duty police officer Flomo was shot to death while sitting in his car in North Philadelphia. The shooting occurred after Flomo had stopped his car and solicited Bowens, a prostitute and Slaughter’s and Johnson’s long-time drug customer. Johnson and Slaughter were charged with murder based on witness identifications and forensic testimony. A jury acquitted both defendants of first-degree murder, but convicted Slaughter on third-degree murder and criminal conspiracy. It failed to reach a verdict on remaining charges as to Johnson. At Johnson’s retrial, the prosecution introduced a statement that Slaughter had given police that implicated Johnson, in violation of Johnson’s Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses. A jury found Johnson guilty of third-degree murder and criminal conspiracy; he was sentenced to consecutive prison terms of 20-40 years and 10-20 years. After unsuccessful state post-conviction proceedings, Johnson unsuccessfully sought federal habeas relief, based on the introduction of that statement and the prosecutor’s calling Slaughter to testify knowing that Slaughter would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege. The Third Circuit affirmed. denial of Johnson’s habeas petition, reasoning that Slaughter’s statement was cumulative so that Johnson could not show prejudice and that the prosecutor did not necessarily know that Slaughter would invoke the Fifth Amendment. View "Johnson v. Lamas" on Justia Law

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In 1998, McKernan was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his former roommate, Gibson. McKernan admitted to hitting Gibson with a bat but claimed that it was self-defense and that Gibson’s injuries arose from Gibson hitting his head on the curb. During McKernan’s bench trial, after the Commonwealth had rested but before the defense had started its case-in-chief, the judge called the victim’s mother, his brother, the prosecutor, and defense counsel, into her robing room. McKernan was not present. The meeting was transcribed. The judge discussed online criticism of her decisions, including statements on the Gibsons’ website, and stated that she “want[ed] to make sure that you folks are happy with me.” Defense counsel did not object. The judge and Gibson’s brother agreed that the judge could “redline” the website. After conferring with McKernan, defense counsel told the judge and prosecutor that his client had “concerns” because “he thinks that you may be constrained to lean over backwards,” but advised McKernan to continue before the judge. After exhausting state remedies, McKernan filed an unsuccessful federal habeas petition. The Third Circuit reversed the denial of relief, finding that the state courts unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent as to whether McKernan’s trial counsel was ineffective for failing to seek and for advising McKernan not to seek the judge’s recusal. View "McKernan v. Superintendent Smithfield SCI" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, inmates in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, were each sentenced to death and housed on the death row of his respective institution. Eventually, their death sentences were vacated, but several years elapsed before they were resentenced to life without parole. In the interim, Plaintiffs spent several years in the solitary confinement of death row. They sought damages, alleging violation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process by continuing to subject them to the deprivations of solitary confinement on death row without meaningful review of their placements after their death sentences had been vacated. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. There is a constitutionally protected liberty interest that prohibits the state from continuing to house inmates in solitary confinement on death row after they have been granted resentencing hearings, without meaningful review of the continuing placement, however that principle was not previously clearly established, so prison officials are entitled to qualified immunity. The court noted scientific consensus concerning the harms of solitary confinement and recent precedent involving non-death row solitary confinement. View "Williams v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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In 1996, Gardner and others were convicted of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, conspiracy to commit murder, murder in aid of racketeering, carjacking resulting in death, and using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence causing death. Gardner was sentenced to concurrent terms of life imprisonment on each count and 120 months on Count 4. The Fourth Circuit affirmed on direct appeal and, later, denial of his petition under 28 U.S.C. 2255, asserting ineffective assistance of counsel. In 2014, Gardner sought habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2241, citing the Supreme Court’s intervening “Alleyne” holding that “[a]ny fact that, by law, increases the [mandatory minimum] penalty for a crime is an ‘element’ that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt.” The district court dismissed, finding that Gardner’s claims should have been raised in a section 2255 motion in the court that sentenced him. The Third Circuit affirmed, noting section 2241’s limited scope. Alleyne simply extended the logic of Apprendi to mandatory minimums for criminal sentences; neither makes previously criminal conduct noncriminal. Because section 2255 is not inadequate or ineffective to raise an Apprendi argument, it is not inadequate or ineffective to raise an Alleyne argument. View "Gardner v. Warden Lewisburg USP" on Justia Law

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In 2008, Camden implemented a “directed patrols” policy, requiring police officers to engage with city residents even though the residents are not suspected of any wrongdoing. The program consisted of “a structured 15-20 minute deployment into a targeted area to accomplish a specific patrol or crime reduction function.” Officers are to obtain personal information from the individuals they interact with, if the individuals agree to provide it. During these encounters, officers should “approach community members" and "inquire about criminal activity or quality of life issues.” According to the city, directed patrols in Camden were not new. “[T]he difference ... was that directed patrols would be tracked and recorded. The Fraternal Order of Police sued, claiming Camden had imposed an unlawful quota on arrests or citations because officers on supplemental patrol were expected to conduct a minimum of 27 directed patrols per shift and officers on regular patrol were expected to perform a minimum of 18; failure to comply is cause for disciplinary action, in violation of N.J.S.A. 40A:14-181.2. Individual officers alleged retaliation. The court granted defendants summary judgment, finding the anti-quota statute inapplicable to the policy. The Third Circuit affirmed with respect to the anti-quota law and First Amendment retaliation, but reversed as to whistleblower-retaliation. View "Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1 v. City of Camden" on Justia Law

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Marshall was sentenced to death in Pennsylvania in 1984 and has been pursuing a federal habeas petition since 2003. Marshall initially filed his petition through the Federal Community Defender; years later, on Marshall’s motion, the district court appointed new attorneys to represent Marshall. Marshall soon became dissatisfied with them because they would not withdraw the habeas petition filed by the Community Defender and assert different claims. Marshall eventually filed pro se a document, requesting an order: removing his new counsel; striking the habeas petition and other documents filed by the Community Defender; allowing the filing of a new habeas petition “nunc pro tunc”; and remanding for a new hearing “nunc pro tunc” in state court. In 2015, the court dismissed Marshall’s last three requests without prejudice. Counsel sought a determination of Marshall’s mental competence. The court held three hearings before Marshall consented to a psychiatric evaluation, which concluded that Marshall is not competent to assist his counsel or to proceed pro se. Eight days after a fourth hearing, before the court had announced any decision, Marshall filed a pro se notice of appeal. The district court subsequently found Marshall mentally incompetent and denied his request for removal of counsel. Marshall’s 30-day deadline to appeal that ruling expired without any filings. The Seventh Circuit dismissed. Marshall’s premature notice of appeal did not ripen when the district court issued its decision. View "Marshall v. Commissioner, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Zaloga owns Correctional Care, a medical company, which contracted with theCounty Prison Board to provide medical services to the Lackawanna County Prison. Zaloga was frustrated with how the Borough (Moosic) handled disputes between Zaloga and a tire company that occupied a facility immediately adjacent to the Zalogas’ home. Among other actions, Zaloga opposed Mercatili’s reelection as the President of the Borough Council. About a month later, the Lackawanna County Solicitor notified Zaloga that the County intended not to continue the contract with Correctional Care upon its expiration, but that Correctional Care could compete in bidding for a new contract. Prison Board members and others indicated Mercatili and another were attempting to block Correctional Care’s contract renewal. Despite the purported political pressure, the County unanimously voted to award Correctional Care a three-year contract renewal. Zagora filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging retaliation in response to Zaloga’s exercise of his First Amendment rights. The district court decided that Mercatili’s claim to qualified immunity depended on disputed facts and would have to be resolved by a jury. The Third Circuit reversed. Mercatili’s conduct, even if Zaloga’s allegations are true, did not violate clearly established law. View "Zaloga v. Borough of Moosic" on Justia Law

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Mack, a Muslim inmate at the federal correctional institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania, claims that he was terminated from his paid work assignment for complaining to a prison official about two correctional officers’ anti-Muslim harassment at work. He also claims that the same officers’ harassment had caused him to refrain from praying while at work. Mack brought suit, pro se, against prison employees seeking monetary relief for alleged violations of his rights under the First Amendment, Fifth Amendment, and the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA). The district court dismissed all of Mack’s claims. The Third Circuit vacated as to the First Amendment retaliation and RFRA claims. The court held that an inmate’s oral grievance to prison officials can constitute protected activity under the Constitution; that RFRA prohibits individual conduct that substantially burdens religious exercise; and that RFRA provides for monetary relief from an official sued in his individual capacity. The court upheld dismissal of the First Amendment Free Exercise and Fifth Amendment equal protection claims. View "Mack v. Warden, Loretto Fed. Corr. Inst." on Justia Law

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As a result of criminal convictions Immigration and Customs Enforcement sought removal of lawful U.S. permanent residents. Pending removal proceedings, each was detained under 8 U.S.C. 1226(c), which provides that if ICE has “reason to believe” that an alien is “deportable” or “inadmissible” by virtue of having committed a specified crime, that alien “shall” be taken into custody when released from detention for that crime, "without regard to whether the alien is released on parole, supervised release, or probation, and without regard to whether the alien may be arrested or imprisoned again for the same offense.” In a purported class action, the district court dismissed in part, holding that section 1226(c) did not violate substantive due process with respect to aliens who assert a substantial challenge to their removability. The court later held that the form giving aliens notice of their right to seek a hearing does not provide constitutionally adequate notice, that the government was required to revise the form, and that procedures for that hearing violate due process by not placing the initial burden on the government. The court then denied a motion to certify the class, stating that certification was “unnecessary” because “all aliens who are subjected to mandatory detention would benefit from the injunctive relief and remedies.” Stating that the district court “put the cart before the horse a,” the Third Circuit vacated. Once petitioners were released from detention, their individual claims became moot so the court retained jurisdiction only to rule on the motion for class certification—not to decide the merits issues. View "Gayle v. Warden Monmouth Cnty. Corr. Inst." on Justia Law

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On April 22, 2012, Philadelphia Police Officer Dempsey was on solo patrol in a radio car in North Philadelphia, armed with a baton, a taser, and a handgun. Around 2:00 a.m. and again at 5:30, Dempsey received a call that a naked man was standing in North Mascher Street. Dempsey and other officers responded, but found no one. At 6:00 a.m., a passing motorist informed Dempsey of a naked man at the corner of North Mascher and Nedro Avenue. Dempsey radioed in the information, drove to the intersection, and saw a naked man (Newsuan), standing in front of a residence. Accounts diverge as to what happened next. Ultimately Newsuan, high on PCP, attacked Dempsey, slammed him into multiple cars, and tried to remove Dempsey’s handgun. Dempsey shot and killed Newsuan. The district court entered summary judgment, rejecting excessive force claims by Newsuan’s estate under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Third Circuit affirmed. Regardless of whether Dempsey unnecessarily initiated a one-on-one confrontation with Newsuan that led to the subsequent fatal altercation, Newsuan’s violent attack on officer Dempsey was a superseding cause that severed any causal link between Dempsey’s initial actions and his subsequent justified use of lethal force. View "Johnson v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law