Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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Martin pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1); (b)(1)(B)(iii). The parties agreed that Martin’s advisory Guidelines range was 70-87 months’ imprisonment and that a sentence of 87 months was appropriate. According to the Probation Office, Martin’s Guidelines range was 188-235 months’ because Martin was a career offender. At sentencing, the district court stated that Martin was a career offender, noting crimes of aggravated assault, resisting arrest, and fleeing a police officer. After considering the 18 U.S.C. 3553 factors, the Court sentenced Martin to 87 months’ imprisonment. Martin did not appeal. In 2014, the Sentencing Commission promulgated Guidelines Amendment 782, retroactively reducing the base offense for many drug quantities, including the drug quantity associated with Martin’s offense. Martin sought a reduction of sentence under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(2), citing Amendment 782. The district court found him ineligible for relief because his Guidelines range was based on his status as a career offender rather than the drug quantity. The Third Circuit affirmed. Martin’s status as a career offender meant that he was not eligible for a reduced sentence. View "United States v. Martin" on Justia Law

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The district court denied a motion to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP) filed by Millhouse, a Lewisburg prisoner. The court identified five strikes under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 28 U.S.C. 1915(g), and found that Millhouse failed to establish that he was under imminent danger of serious physical injury. The statute limits IFP status: In no event shall a prisoner bring a civil action or appeal a judgment in a civil action or proceeding under this section if the prisoner has, on 3 or more prior occasions, while incarcerated or detained in any facility, brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States that was dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, unless the prisoner is under imminent danger. The Third Circuit vacated. For purposes of this appeal, Millhouse has only one strike. The court must look to the date the notice of appeal is filed, not the date on which the court rules, in assessing whether a particular dismissal counts as a strike and a dismissal without prejudice for failure to state a claim does not rise to the level of a strike. View "Millhouse v. Heath" on Justia Law

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The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 124 Stat. 119, requires employer-provided health insurance plans to cover various preventative services, including FDA-approved contraceptives, at no cost to participating employees. The “Contraceptive Mandate” includes a limited exemption for houses of worship and their integrated auxiliaries. Religious non-profit and for-profit employers may receive an accommodation whereby they opt out of providing contraceptive coverage, with the government then arranging for their employees to receive the coverage through third parties at no cost to, and with no participation of, the objecting employers. An anti-abortion group argued that, under the Equal Protection Clause, if a religious organization may be exempted from the Contraceptive Mandate, then non-religious entities with an identical stance on contraceptives must also be exempted. Employees of the group argued that the Contraceptive Mandate violated the Church Amendment, 42 U.S.C. 300a–7(d), and that maintaining a health insurance plan that covers contraceptives through their employer violates their religious rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb to 2000bb-4. The Third Circuit affirmed rejection of those claims. The Contraceptive Mandate does not exempt a secular anti-abortion group with no religious affiliation and an employee’s religious beliefs are not substantially burdened by the law’s requirement that his employer’s insurance plan cover contraceptives. View "Real Alternatives Inc v. Secretary Department of Health" on Justia Law

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A gunman murdered Cooley in an Erie, Pennsylvania bar in 1994. Four years later, the Commonwealth tried Haskell for Cooley’s murder. The primary issue was whether Haskell was the gunman. In addition to circumstantial evidence, the Commonwealth presented four eyewitnesses: One recanted his pre-trial testimony implicating Haskell and two had previously denied that they could identify the shooter. The fourth eyewitness, Blue, did provide consistent testimony claiming she could identify the shooter. She claimed to expect nothing in exchange for her testimony but Blue and the prosecutor knew that she expected to receive help in her own pending criminal matters in exchange for her testimony. The prosecutor failed to correct Blue’s statement and went on to rely on it and vouch for Blue in his closing argument. The Third Circuit granted Haskell’s habeas petition. Haskell was not required to show Blue’s perjured testimony caused him “actual prejudice” under the Supreme Court’s standard in Brecht v. Abrahamson (1993). Brecht does not apply when the state has knowingly presented or failed to correct perjured testimony. In those circumstances, a petitioner carries his burden when he has shown a reasonable likelihood the false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury, under the Supreme Court’s 1972 "Giglio" holding. View "Haskell v. Superintendent Greene SCI" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, two African-American men, were hired by STI, a staffing agency, as general laborers, for Chesapeake oil and natural gas company. Shortly thereafter, the only other African-American male on the crew was fired. Plaintiffs allege that: when they arrived at work on several occasions, someone had anonymously written “don’t be black on the right of way” on the sign-in sheets; although they have more experience working on pipelines than their non-African-American coworkers, they were only permitted to clean around the pipelines rather than work on them; and, when working on a fence-removal project, a supervisor stated that if they had “niggerrigged” the fence, they would be fired. Plaintiffs reported the offensive language and were fired two weeks later without explanation. They were rehired shortly thereafter, but terminated again for “lack of work.” Plaintiffs sued, alleging harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, 42 U.S.C. 1981. The court dismissed, finding that the alleged harassment was not “pervasive and regular,” that there were not sufficient facts demonstrating intent to fire Plaintiffs because of their race, and that Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that an objectively reasonable person would have believed that the supervisor's comment was unlawful. The Third Circuit reversed, finding Plaintiffs’ harassment and retaliation claims plausible and that the district court incorrectly “jettisoned” the burden-shifting formula. The correct standard for evaluating harassment is “severe or pervasive.” A single incident can amount to unlawful activity. View "Castleberry v. STI Group" on Justia Law

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In 2014, father had partial custody of S.H.; S.H. accused mother of abuse and fled from her home to father. Father sought a temporary order of full custody. A Pennsylvania judge granted mother emergency custody. S.H. was referred to Centre County’s Children and Youth Services (CYS) because of the abuse allegations. CYS concluded that the allegation did not meet the definition of child abuse but continued its investigation, giving S.H. the option of moving into a group home or remaining with his mother. S.H. did not want to stay with her. Mother arranged for S.H. to stay in Youth Haven and objected to any contact with father, claiming that she had sole custody. CYS and Youth Haven allowed contact. After a visit, father complained about Youth Haven, which told CYS that S.H. could not stay due to problems with father. CYS informed father that he could no longer contact S.H. at Youth Haven. Hamilton filed a federal suit, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that conspiracy to deprive him of his constitutional rights by “placing S.H. in a shelter tantamount to confinement” and “arbitrarily and capriciously terminating all paternal visits and contact.” While that case progressed, S.H. left Youth Haven. A new Pennsylvania judge vacated the prior emergency custody order, granted father physical custody of S.H., and prohibited contact between S.H. and mother. The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal, finding that the case was mooted when father obtained custody. View "Hamilton v. Bromley" on Justia Law

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Geraci, part of a police watchdog group, attended an anti-fracking protest at the Philadelphia Convention Center, carrying her camera and a pink bandana that identified her as a legal observer. When the police acted to arrest a protestor, Geraci moved to record the arrest without interfering. An officer pinned Geraci against a pillar for a few minutes, preventing her from observing or recording the arrest. Fields, a Temple University sophomore, was on a public sidewalk where he observed officers across the street breaking up a party. He took a photograph. An officer ordered him to leave. Fields refused; the officer arrested him, confiscated and searched Fields’ phone, and opened several photos. The officer released Fields with a citation for “Obstructing Highway and Other Public Passages.” The charge was later withdrawn. Fields and Geraci brought 42 U.S.C. 1983 claims, alleging First Amendment retaliation. Although the Police Department’s official policies recognized their First Amendment right, the district court granted the defendants summary judgment on those claims, finding no evidence that plaintiffs’ “conduct may be construed as expression of a belief or criticism of police activity.” The Third Circuit reversed, noting that every circuit that has addressed the issue has found that the First Amendment protects the act of photographing or otherwise recording police officers conducting their official duties in public. View "Fields v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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De Ritis became an Assistant Public Defender for Delaware County in 2005. After being promoted to the “trial team,” De Ritis was told, in 2012, that he would be transferred back to the juvenile court unit. De Ritis contends that others told him that he was transferred because De Ritis’s clients were not pleading guilty fast enough. De Ritis assumed the information was accurate. He informed judges, private attorneys, and his colleagues that he was “being punished” for “taking too many cases to trial.” De Ritis did not discuss the issue with his supervisor, Roger. Denied a transfer back to the trial team, De Ritis contacted the County Solicitor, who contacted Roger and was told that De Ritis “was not performing well.” Roger learned of De Ritis’s allegations and fired him. De Ritis brought suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming that the termination violated De Ritis’s First Amendment rights. The district court denied the Public Defender’s motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The Third Circuit reversed. The First Amendment does not protect the speech at issue: statements made while performing official job responsibilities, speculative comments about the reason for a perceived demotion, and recklessly false rumors circulated to government officials. View "De Ritis v. McGarrigle" on Justia Law

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The fathers of minor children in New Jersey challenged the state law governing child custody proceedings between New Jersey parents. In a suit against state court judges, under 42 U.S.C. 1983, they argued that the “best interests of the child” standard that New Jersey courts use to determine custody in a dispute between two fit parents is unconstitutional. The fathers alleged that their parental rights were restricted, or that they were permanently or temporarily separated from their children, by order of the New Jersey family courts without adequate notice, the right to counsel, or a plenary hearing, i.e. without an opportunity to present evidence or cross-examine and that although mothers and fathers are, in theory, treated equally in custody disputes under New Jersey law, in practice courts favor mothers. The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of the suit, after holding that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine did not bar the suit, which was not challenging the state court judgments, but the underlying policy that governed those judgments. The court concluded that the judicial defendants were not proper defendants, having acted in an adjudicatory capacity and not in an enforcement capacity. View "Allen v. DeBello" on Justia Law

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Vickers punched his victim once but the victim suffered a fractured skull, brain hemorrhaging, and was in a coma for four days. Pennsylvania law provides that for a criminal case to be tried without a jury, “[t]he judge shall ascertain from the defendant whether this is a knowing and intelligent waiver, and such colloquy shall appear on the record. The waiver shall be in writing, made a part of the record, and signed by the defendant, the attorney for the Commonwealth, the judge, and the defendant’s attorney.” Those procedures were not followed in Vickers’s case. The judge found Vickers guilty. Vickers sought state post-conviction relief, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. Because Vickers’s private attorney had been replaced by a public defender, the attorney was unaware that the process had not been followed, but recommended that Vickers pursue a bench trial for strategic reasons and thought that Vickers wanted a bench trial. The court concluded that Vickers “freely, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his jury trial rights.” Vickers sought habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The Third Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of relief. The proper prejudice inquiry is whether there is a reasonable likelihood that, but for his counsel’s deficient performance, Vickers would have exercised his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. He failed to make that showing. View "Vickers v. Superintendent Graterford SCI" on Justia Law