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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
by
Ali, a non-practicing Muslim of Egyptian descent, was a non-tenured high school teacher. His supervisor received complaints about Ali’s instruction on the Holocaust. One English teacher reported that her students were questioning historical accounts of the Holocaust, opining that Hitler didn’t hate the Jews and that the death counts were exaggerated. Students’ written assignments confirmed those accounts. Ali also presented a lesson on the September 11 terrorist attacks, requiring students to read online articles translated by the Middle Eastern Media Research Institute (MEMRI). Ali posted links to the articles on a school-sponsored website: “U.S. Planned, Carried Out 9/11 Attacks—But Blames Others” and “U.S. Planning 9/11 Style Attack Using ISIS in Early 2015.” The MEMRI articles also contained links to other articles, such as “The Jews are Like a Cancer, Woe to the World if they Become Strong.” A reporter questioned Principal Lottman and Superintendent Zega. Lottman directed Ali to remove the MEMRI links from the school’s website. The following morning, Ali met with Zega and Lottman; his employment was terminated. Ali sued under New Jersey law and 42 U.S.C. 1981, claiming that Lottman referred to him as “Mufasa,” asked Ali if “they had computers in Egypt,” and remarked on his ethnicity during the meetings that resulted in Ali’s termination. He alleged discrimination, hostile work environment, free speech and academic freedom violations, and defamation. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Ali cannot show that his termination for teaching anti-Semitic views was a pretext for discrimination. View "Ali v. Woodbridge Township School District" on Justia Law

by
On April 3, 2020, 20 immigration detainees filed a habeas petition (28 U.S.C. 2241), seeking immediate release, claiming that due to underlying health conditions, their continued detention during the COVID-19 pandemic puts them at imminent risk of death or serious injury. The district court found that the petitioners face irreparable harm and are likely to succeed on the merits, that the government would “face very little potential harm” from their immediate release, and that “the public interest strongly encourages Petitioners’ release.” Without waiting for a response from the government, the court granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) requiring the release. The government moved for reconsideration, submitting a declaration describing conditions at the facilities, with details of the petitioners’ criminal histories. The court denied reconsideration, stating that the government had failed to demonstrate a change in controlling law, provide previously unavailable evidence, or show a clear error of law or the need to prevent manifest injustice. The court extended the release period until the COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted but attached conditions to the petitioners’ release. The government reports that 19 petitioners were released; none have been re-detained. The Third Circuit granted an immediate appeal, stating that the order cannot evade prompt appellate review simply by virtue of the label “TRO.” A purportedly non-appealable TRO that goes beyond preservation of the status quo and mandates affirmative relief may be immediately appealable under 28 U.S.C. 1292(a)(1). View "Hope v. Warden Pike County Correctional Facility" on Justia Law

by
Stephens called 911 and reported that Gibbons hit her and had a gun in his truck. The police responded. Stephens obtained a temporary restraining order, prohibiting Gibbons from possessing firearms and from returning to Stephens’s house. The next day, Gibbons went to Stephens’s house. Stephens was talking on the phone; the friend called the police. Gibbons left Stephens’s house. Trooper Conza arrived. Stephens stated that Gibbons had waved a gun throughout their argument. Conza told Stephens to go to the police barracks and reported over the radio that Gibbons had brandished a firearm. Conza, with Troopers Bartelt and Korejko, visited the nearby home of Gibbons’s mother, James. James stated that she did not know where Gibbons was and that he might be off his schizophrenia medication. While driving to the barracks, Stephens saw Gibbons walking alongside the road and called 911. The Troopers responded. Bartelt parked his car and, exiting, observed that Gibbons was pointing a gun at his own head. Bartelt drew his weapon, stood behind his car door, and twice told Gibbons to drop his weapon. Gibbons did not comply. Bartelt shot Gibbons twice within seconds of stopping his car. Gibbons died that night. In James’ suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the Third Circuit held that Bartelt is entitled to qualified immunity because he did not violate Gibbons’s clearly established rights. Bartelt’s pre-standoff knowledge of Gibbons differs from that of officers involved in cited cases. Bartelt could reasonably conclude that Gibbons posed a threat to others. View "James v. New Jersey State Police" on Justia Law

by
In 1976, the body of 15-year-old “Kathy” was found near her Indiana County, Pennsylvania home. Kathy’s death involved a brutal assault, rape, and a gunshot to the head. Kathy's sisters, ages nine and 12, stated that she had gotten into a car with a man with blue eyes, black hair that came below his ears and curled at the ends, sideburns, heavy eyebrows, and a heavy mustache. Fogle had “straight reddish-blonde hair that dropped down his back and a matching, full beard that reached his waist.” After three years, Fogle became a suspect because a psychiatric patient described seeing Kathy get in a car with Fogle and his brother. The story was largely inconsistent with statements by Kathy’s sisters. Jailhouse informants were recruited and counseled by law enforcement with promises of leniency. The prosecutors “either knew about, encouraged, or permitted” this strategy. A jury found Fogle guilty of second-degree murder. In 2015, Fogle obtained DNA evidence excluding both himself and his brother as the source of semen collected from Kathy. His conviction was vacated. The Commonwealth declined to pursue new charges, describing the case as lacking “prosecutorial merit.” Fogle, having spent three decades in prison, sued the prosecutors and Indiana County under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of their motions to dismiss based on absolute immunity. Only truly prosecutorial functions, not investigative conduct, justify complete protection from suit. Fogle’s complaint alleges actions that fall outside the narrow doctrine of absolute immunity. View "Fogle v. Sokol" on Justia Law

by
The Pennsylvania Attorney General (OAG) charged Walker with forgery and computer crimes. The prosecutor and the lead investigator requested that Penn State produce Walker’s emails from her employee account. At Penn’s request, they obtained a subpoena. The subpoena was missing information regarding the date, time or place where the testimony or evidence would be produced, or which party was requesting the evidence. The subpoena was incomplete and unenforceable. The prosecutor offered the subpoena to Penn’s Assistant General Counsel, who instructed an employee to assist. After the OAG obtained Walker’s emails, the pending criminal charges were dismissed with prejudice. Walker filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court dismissed, citing qualified immunity because Walker did not have a clearly established right to privacy in her work emails. A Third Circuit panel affirmed, reasoning that Penn produced the emails voluntarily, rather than under coercion resulting from the invalid subpoena and was acting within its legal authority and through counsel. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Walker's amended complaint, alleging violations of the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. 2701 (SCA). The SCA is inapplicable because Penn does not provide electronic communication services to the public. Penn acted within its rights as Walker’s employer in voluntarily disclosing her work emails. Penn’s search of its server to produce Walker’s emails is not prohibited by the SCA, regardless of whether its counsel was induced by deceit or knowingly cooperative. It is the law of the case that Penn consented to disclose Walker’s emails. View "Walker v. Coffey" on Justia Law

by
During the 2016 presidential campaign, C.M., not yet 12 years old, publicly endorsed Donald Trump and released videos seen by thousands. A video in which C.M. called Hillary Clinton “deplorable” attracted more than 325,000 views on Facebook alone. C.M. stated: The people I talk about in these posts really have it coming. In 2018, Newsweek published an article, “Trump’s Mini-Mes,” that featured a photo of C.M. holding up a Trump campaign sign; it referred to Trump supporters recruiting children as spokespeople and to children “being weaponized” to defend “raw racism and sexual abuse.” The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of C.M.'s false light and defamation suit. The article contained derogatory opinions based only on disclosed facts, which are not enough to show defamation or false light. Every contested statement is an opinion, label, or speculation based on disclosed facts and alleges no specific wrongdoing; derogatory characterizations without more are not defamatory. C.M. is a limited-purpose public figure. He voluntarily injected himself into the political controversies and enjoys significantly greater access to the channels of effective communication than his peers. C.M. did not plead facts showing actual malice, which the First Amendment requires of those who step into the political spotlight. View "McCafferty v. Newsweek Media Group Ltd" on Justia Law

by
Folk was convicted of distribution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base, two counts of using a firearm to further a drug trafficking offense, and of felon in possession of a firearm. The PSR deemed Folk a career offender under U.S.S.G. 4B1.1 because he had prior felony convictions for “crimes of violence” and recommended enhancing Folk’s Guidelines range from 384-465 months to between 420 months and life imprisonment. The district court discussed Folk’s previous convictions: two robberies in 2001, simple assault in 2003, and terroristic threats in 2003, and adopted the PSR’s recommended range but sentenced Folk to 264 months’ imprisonment. His conviction was affirmed; Folk did not challenge his sentence or his career-offender designation. A subsequent 28 U.S.C 2255 motion argued that Folk's career-offender designation was invalid because the Supreme Court’s 2015 “Johnson” decision rendered section 4B1.2(a) void. The district court denied the motion. The Third Circuit affirmed. A challenge to an incorrect career-offender designation under the Guidelines is not an omission inconsistent with the rudimentary demands of fair procedure and is not cognizable under section 2255. An incorrect designation that results in a sentence within the statutory maximum is not a fundamental defect inherently resulting in a complete miscarriage of justice. The court denied Folk’s motion to expand the certificate of appealability because he does not satisfy the standard for a second 2255 motion. View "United States v. Folk" on Justia Law

by
In 2014, Sampson pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). The district court denied his motion to withdraw his plea and sentenced him to 15 years' imprisonment. The Third Circuit affirmed. The district court denied his subsequent 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion, finding his claims waived or meritless. Sampson filed a 28 U.S.C. 2244 and 2255(h) motion seeking permission to file a second or successive 2255 motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. The Third Circuit denied the application, concluding that there was no new rule of constitutional law, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court, that was previously unavailable. Sampson cited the Supreme Court’s 2019 “Rehaif” holding that the government must prove that a defendant charged with violating section 922(g) knew both that he possessed a firearm and that he belonged to the relevant class of persons barred from possessing a firearm. Rehaif did not state a rule of constitutional law but only addressed what the statutes require for a conviction and the rule has not been made retroactive. Sampson was informed that the government was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Sampson knowingly possessed a firearm and pled guilty. View "In re: Sampson" on Justia Law

by
Diaz was charged with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute drugs. His five co-defendants pled guilty. Albert-Heise, assigned to represent Diaz, accepted a new position. Dissatisfied with his newly-appointed attorney, O’Brien, Diaz requested new counsel, stating that O’Brien pressured him to plead guilty, did not accept Diaz’s advice on pretrial motions, and failed to share discovery. The district court then appointed Kalinowski. Diaz subsequently complained about Kalinowski’s failure to communicate with him. Kalinowski never complied with a court order to respond to Diaz. Diaz again requested new counsel. The court did not inquire further or schedule any hearing and granted a continuance without commenting on Diaz’s request for new counsel. Diaz and Kalinowski appeared together for a pretrial conference; neither raised any issue related to the representation. Twice more, Diaz wrote to the court complaining of Kalinowski. The case proceeded to trial with Kalinowski representing Diaz. The Third Circuit affirmed his conviction, despite expressing concern that the district court “may not have been as attentive to Diaz’s complaints regarding his counsel as it should have been,” and that certain testimony by a government witness violated Rule 701 (lay opinion testimony). The improper testimony did not prejudice Diaz so as to affect his substantial rights. The court did not clearly err when it attributed more than 20 grams of heroin to Diaz at sentencing. View "United States v. Diaz" on Justia Law

by
Customs and Border Protection K-9 Officer Lopez was working at the airport in St. Thomas and took his certified canine, Bo, into a cargo plane to inspect incoming mail. Bo alerted to a package, indicating the presence of drugs. The package purportedly had been sent by Price, whose address was in South Carolina, and had been mailed to Meade in St. Thomas. Kouns removed it from the plane, opened the box and brought out a piece of clothing that smelled strongly of marijuana, although no drugs were found. When Kouns returned the item to the box, a magazine and round of ammunition fell to the floor. The officers discovered the unassembled parts of a gun. Days later, a postal inspector contacted Customs regarding another package, bearing the same names and addresses. Lopez and Kouns responded. Because of the addresses and the package's weight, Kouns suspected it might contain another gun. An x-ray revealed items an apparent gun and ammunition. Kouns opened the package and discovered a gun and ammunition. Homeland Security arranged a controlled delivery of the packages. Authorities apprehended Baxter as the sender of the packages; he was charged with two counts of illegal transport of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(5). The District Court of the Virgin Islands granted his motion to suppress. The Third Circuit vacated, holding that Customs permissibly conducted the searches pursuant to the border search exception to the Fourth Amendment. View "United States v. Baxter" on Justia Law