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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Bracey was convicted of murder in 1995. The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Plummer, an alleged eyewitness, and Bell, who claimed Bracey had confessed to him. At trial, both acknowledged that they had received favorable plea agreements in exchange for their testimony. Bracey's appeal and state habeas petitions were unsuccessful. In 2010, Bracey learned the Commonwealth had disclosed only some of the cases that were pending against Plummer and Bell. State courts rejected Bracey's petition under Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act as time-barred; the factual basis of the claim could have “been ascertained [earlier] by the exercise of due diligence.” The district court dismissed Bracey's 2011 federal habeas petition as untimely under 28 U.S.C. 2244(d)(1)(D), reasoning that the plea agreements were public records; Brace filed his petition more than one year after the “factual predicate” for his Brady claim “could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.” The Third Circuit denied review.Three years later, the circuit held (Dennis) that a defendant has no burden to “scavenge for hints of undisclosed Brady material” even if the material part could be found in public records. The prosecution’s “duty to disclose under Brady is absolute.” Bracey moved for reconsideration under Rule 60(b). The Third Circuit vacated a summary denial. Dennis effected a material change in Circuit law. A defendant can reasonably expect—and is entitled to presume—that the government fulfilled its Brady obligations because the prosecution’s duty to disclose in no way hinges on defense efforts. View "Bracey v. Superintendent Rockview SCI" on Justia Law

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When LaSpina began working for the Scranton Public Library, all Library employees were exclusively represented in collective bargaining by Local 668. No employee had to join the Union; an employee could join and pay full membership dues or decline to join and pay a lesser nonmember “fair-share fee.” LaSpina joined the Union. In 2018, the Supreme Court held, in "Janus," that compelling nonmembers to pay fair-share fees violates their First Amendment associational rights. LaSpina resigned from the Union and sued, seeking monetary, injunctive, and declaratory relief, including a refund of the portion of the dues she paid the Union equal to the nonmembers’ fair-share fees, and a refund of membership dues deducted from her paycheck after she resigned.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the claims. LaSpina had no standing to seek a refund of any portion of the dues she made prior to Janus because she cannot tie the payment of those dues to the Union’s unconstitutional deduction of fair-share fees from nonmembers. If LaSpina is due a refund of monies that were deducted from her wages after she resigned, the claim is not a federal one. LaSpina’s claim that the Union may not collect any dues from an employee until that employee knowingly and freely waives their constitutional right to resign from membership and withhold payments is moot as LaSpina no longer is a Union member. View "LaSpina v. SEIU Pennsylvania State Council" on Justia Law

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On February 24, 2003, Diodati arrived at work, unlocked the store, and entered. Someone behind her “pushed his way inside," and told her to turn off the alarm. Diodati did so. The masked intruder demanded money from the safe. Diodati handed him envelopes containing money; he set down a folder that he had been carrying and a gun. When the robber stood up, he picked up the gun but left the folder, and told her to go to the second safe, which was in her office. Taking about $7,000, the intruder went out the back and into to a running automobile. Detective Godlewski processed for fingerprints on the counter, the door that the robber tore partially off its hinges, and the Manila left by the intruder. Some prints belonged to Travillion, who was found guilty of the robbery and sentenced to a mandatory 10-20 years' imprisonment, consecutive to the separate sentence of life without the possibility of parole that he was serving as a result of a separate 2006 second-degree murder conviction.The Third Circuit granted Travillion habeas relief, finding that the Pennsylvania court’s adjudication of his insufficient evidence claim involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. Evidence that Travillion’s fingerprints were found on the easily movable folder and paper inside the folder and Diodati's description of the robber, which did not match Travillion but did not exclude him is not sufficient evidence for a rational trier of fact to place Travillion at the scene of the crime when the crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt. View "Travillion v. Superintendent Rockview SCI" on Justia Law

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In 2001, Penn State’s former president, Spanier, and others decided not to report to state authorities suspected sexual abuse of children involving the school’s football program and Jerry Sandusky, the well-known defensive coordinator for Penn State’s football team. In 2007, Pennsylvania amended the statutory definition of child endangerment and its statute of limitations. In 2012, Spanier was charged. The jury was instructed in language that tracked the post-amendment statute. The Commonwealth argued that Spanier engaged in a course of conduct endangering child welfare until 2012, and therefore he “was charged well within the applicable statute of limitation.” In affirming Spanier’s 2017 conviction, the state court concluded that Spanier's conduct violated the 1995 statute as interpreted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2015. The federal district court granted Spanier’s federal habeas corpus petition and vacated his conviction.The Third Circuit reversed. The Pennsylvania court’s affirmance of Spanier’s conviction, based on its conclusion that his conduct was covered by the 1995 statute was not “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” While that court applied state supreme court precedent post-dating the conduct in question, the supreme court’s interpretation of the statute was not unforeseeable nor indefensible. View "Spanier v. Director Dauphin County Probation Services" on Justia Law

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In 2011, Folajtar pled guilty to a federal felony: willfully making a materially false statement on her tax returns, which is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $100,000, 26 U.S.C. 7206(1). She was sentenced to three years’ probation, including three months of home confinement, a $10,000 fine, and a $100 assessment. She also paid the IRS over $250,000 in back taxes, penalties, and interest. Folajtar was then subject to 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), which prohibits those convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison from possessing firearms.Folajtar sued, asserting that applying section 922(g)(1) to her violated her Second Amendment right to possess firearms. The district court dismissed, finding that Folajtar did not state a plausible Second Amendment claim because she was convicted of a serious crime. The Third Circuit affirmed, noting the general rule that laws restricting firearm possession by convicted felons are valid. There is no reason to deviate from this long-standing prohibition in the context of tax fraud. View "Folajtar v. Attorney General of the United States" on Justia Law

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Pennsylvania Act 77 established “no-excuse” absentee voting. All eligible Pennsylvania voters may vote by mail without showing their absence from their voting district on the day of the election; “[a]pplications for mail-in ballots shall be processed if received not later than five o’clock P.M. of the first Tuesday prior to the day of any primary or election” and “a completed absentee [or mail-in] ballot must be received in the office of the county board of elections no later than eight o’clock P.M. on the day of the primary or election” for that vote to count.The Democratic Party argued that a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and mail-delivery delays made it difficult for absentee voters to timely return their ballots in the 2020 primary election. On September 17, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that USPS’s existing delivery standards could not meet the timeline built into the Election Code and that the Pennsylvania Constitution required a three-day extension of the ballot-receipt deadline for the general election. Pennsylvania voters were notified of the extension. The U.S. Supreme Court denied an emergency stay request while requiring that county boards of elections segregate ballots received during the extension.Another federal suit, brought by voters, alleged the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had elevated mail-in voters to a “preferred class” and that counting ballots received after Election Day would unlawfully dilute their votes. The district court denied a preliminary injunction, noting that the provision did not extend the period for mail-in voters to actually cast their ballots and that federal courts should ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.”The Third Circuit denied a request for expedited briefing and affirmed without deciding whether the provisions are proper exercises of Pennsylvania’s authority to regulate federal elections. When voters cast their ballots under a facially lawful election rule, private citizens lack standing to enjoin the counting of those ballots on the grounds that the source of the rule was the wrong state organ or that doing so dilutes their votes or constitutes differential treatment. View "Bognet v. Secretary Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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On December 24, 1982, Philadelphia police officers found Allen lying in his blood between cars. The police found no other physical evidence relating to Allen's death. Howell was arrested. At the preliminary hearing, Parnell testified that on the night of the murder, he saw Howell pull out a gun, shoot Allen, and take his watch and wallet. Parnell did not testify at trial. Hearst and Jones testified to hearing the shot, running to the scene, and seeing a man with a gun running away. Hearst identified Howell; Jones described his clothing. Workman testified that he had been smoking marijuana with Parnell and Howell when Howell spotted Allen, said “I’m going to get him,” confronted Allen, and shot him. On cross-examination, Workman admitted he had lied in his original statement. Williams testified that the next morning, Howell visited her, told her that he had shot someone, and he showed her the gun and Allen's ring.Williams, Hearst, and Jones later recanted; Parnell confessed to Allen’s murder. Howell claimed actual innocence. The district court ruled that the recantations were categorically unreliable and not an appropriate basis for habeas relief. The Third Circuit vacated the dismissal of Howell’s petition. Although recantations are generally looked upon with suspicion, they are not subject to a categorical rejection; these recantations cast significant doubt on Howell’s conviction, particularly when considered together with Parnell’s confession. Although the hurdle for actual-innocence relief on an otherwise time-barred habeas claim is high, it is possible that Howell can clear it. View "Howell v. Superintendent Albion SCI" on Justia Law

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Doe I was certified committable in 2011 after he became depressed and had an emergency evaluation. Doe II was certified committable in 1996 after he threatened to harm himself. Both commitment certification records were recorded in the Pennsylvania Instant Check System and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System databases. As a result, they were prohibited from purchasing firearms when they later attempted to do so. They allege that the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act (PUFA) section 6105(c)(4) is facially unconstitutional because it deprives all those who are committed under the Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act (MHPA) section 302, of their Second Amendment rights without procedural due process.The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment rejecting the claims. While those committed under MHPA 302 have a protected liberty interest in the right to bear arms, PUFA section 6105(c)(4) provides sufficient procedural protections before depriving them of their Second Amendment rights. Finding “no reason to second-guess the adequacy of Pennsylvania’s requirement under MHPA 302 that a physician determine that one is a danger to himself or others as a result of mental illness and is ‘severely mentally disabled . . . and in need of immediate treatment,’” the court reasoned that once a person has been involuntarily committed, that person joins the class of those historically without Second Amendment rights. The court also noted available post-commitment remedies. View "John Doe 1 v. Governor of Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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An individual arrested in Philadelphia typically is brought before an Arraignment Court Magistrate for a preliminary arraignment. If an arrestee seeks review of the magistrate’s decision, an emergency municipal court judge is available to conduct an immediate review by telephone. The hearings are open to the public, but transcripts of the hearings are not made and audio recordings are not available to the public. Following a hearing, the public may obtain copies of court documents, including the bail bond, the criminal complaint, the bail hearing subpoena, and a bail appeal report if applicable. Those documents do not include the parties’ arguments or the magistrate’s reasoning. Bail Fund sends volunteers into Philadelphia bail hearings to observe and report on the proceedings and produces reports to educate Philadelphia citizens and officials. Bail Fund sought permission to create its own audio recordings, and later filed suit raising an as-applied First Amendment challenge to Pennsylvania Rules: Criminal Procedure 112(C); Judicial Administration 1910(B); and Philadelphia Municipal Court Arraignment Court Magistrate 7.09.4 The district court granted Bail Fund summary judgment.The Third Circuit reversed, declining to extend the First Amendment right of access to the courts into a right to make or require the creation of audio recordings. Bail Fund can attend bail hearings and take handwritten notes; that its volunteers may not be able to capture every word does not meaningfully interfere with the public’s ability to inform itself of the proceedings. View "Reed v. Devlin" on Justia Law

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Tyson handed his gun to Powell and waited in the getaway car while Powell shot and killed two men in a stopped van. A Monroe County, Pennsylvania jury convicted Tyson of two counts of first-degree murder as an accomplice. In seeking post-conviction relief in state court, Tyson claimed his trial counsel was ineffective for not objecting to the court’s erroneous instruction, which he argued allowed the jury to find him guilty without finding he possessed the requisite intent to kill.In federal habeas proceedings, the district court held the state court reasonably applied federal law in finding his trial counsel was not ineffective and denied relief. The Third Circuit reversed, finding a strong likelihood the jury convicted Tyson as an accomplice to first-degree murder without finding he possessed the specific intent to kill. There was no language in the instruction that would lead the jury to connect the requisite intent to kill to the role of an accomplice. In light of the instruction’s “profound impropriety,” the court concluded that trial counsel acted unreasonably in failing to object. Counsel’s failure to object to the court’s instruction led to the likelihood that the jury interpreted the law in a way that lessened the Commonwealth’s burden of proof. View "Tyson v. Superintendent Houtzdale SCI" on Justia Law