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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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In 1979-1980, Lesko went on a multi-day “Kill for Thrill” spree with his friend, Travaglia, ending the lives of four individuals in Western Pennsylvania. For the killing of a 21-year-old police officer, Lesko was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Lesko proceeded through many levels of the Pennsylvania state courts and two rounds of federal habeas proceedings. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of his latest petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition, which challenged both his 1981 guilt-phase trial and his 1995 resentencing. The court rejected claims that the prosecution violated Lesko’s Brady rights by suppressing an agreement between a prosecution witness who was found in possession of Lesko’s gun (Montgomery) and the prosecution; a January 1980 police report; and information from the juvenile file of another prosecution witness, Rutherford. Lesko’s counsel did not perform ineffectively by violating his right to testify; Lesko was not prejudiced by any ineffectiveness in failing to properly investigate and present mitigating evidence at resentencing. View "Lesko v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Ford, a Haitian national, became involved in Haitian national politics by joining PPD in 2012; he believed the ruling political party, PHTK, was corrupt and involved in human rights abuses. Ford received anonymous threatening telephone calls; in 2014, armed men encircled Ford’s home, shot into it, and burned it down. Ford reported the attack to Haitian authorities and fled Haiti. The United States began removal proceedings.Ford hired an attorney, who submitted a Form I-589 application for asylum, withholding of removal, and relief under the Convention Against Torture. Ford and the attorney subsequently had little contact. Ford stated the attorney “never prepared me for my final hearing.” The attorney provided scant documentary evidence to support Ford’s application and did not submit any documents about the PPD. The IJ denied relief, finding that Ford was credible but had “submitted no objective evidence” to help meet his burden in proving that he was harassed or persecuted on account of his political opinion or that Ford’s fear of persecution upon his return to Haiti was reasonable. Ford retained new counsel. The BIA affirmed and denied a motion to reopen Ford’s case based on ineffective assistance.The Third Circuit vacated. Ford presents a meritorious ineffective-assistance claim; his lawyer failed to present important and easily available evidence going to the heart of Ford’s claims. View "Saint Ford v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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Gaines served as the “muscle” in a drug house. Thompson came to the house to buy drugs. Williams, a visitor, told Thompson that the house was “closed,” denied him entry, and told him to leave. Thompson kept knocking and asking to come in. Eventually, Gaines walked outside and an argument ensued. Williams joined them. Gaines ultimately stabbed Thompson multiple times. Williams pulled Gaines off of Thompson. Stab wounds resulted in hemorrhaging that caused Thompson’s death. Gaines was convicted in Pennsylvania state court of first-degree murder in Pennsylvania,Gaines sought habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The district court granted his petition, holding that Gaines’s trial counsel was ineffective for not objecting to the omission of a jury instruction that no adverse inference could be drawn from Gaines’s election not to testify in his own defense. The Third Circuit reversed. Gaines’s trial counsel made a reasonable tactical choice when he did not object. Counsel testified he was aware that the court failed to give the requested no-adverse-inference instruction, but that he decided not to object because he “was concerned that throwing [the instruction] in at the end" may have drawn undue attention to the fact that Gaines did not testify. He testified that he was satisfied with the charge as it stood because it placed the burden of proof squarely on the Commonwealth and exhaustively detailed the law of self-defense. View "zGaines v. Superintendent Benner Township" on Justia Law

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Around 2:00 a.m., Philadelphia Police Officers Cannon and Gonzalez, patrolling a “very violent” North Philadelphia area, saw a pickup truck roll through a stop sign and fail to signal a turn. They stopped the truck. While collecting the driver's license and registration, the officers smelled alcohol. The front seat passenger was heavily intoxicated; Hurtt, from behind, attempted to calm him. Hurtt volunteered his identification. When the driver stepped out for a sobriety test, leaving the door open. Cannon got into the truck and pointed his flashlight around the vehicle. Cannon instructed the two passengers to keep their hands visible three times. They did not comply and kept putting their hands in their pockets or the front of their pants. Although he had not yet run the driver’s license or vehicle identification nor finished the sobriety test, Gonzalez put the driver in the patrol car to help clear the passengers. After Hurrt twice appeared to be reaching into a tool bucket, Cannon searched him and found a loaded handgun in his waistband. After being arrested Hurtt made several statements without any Miranda warnings. Hurtt was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1).The Third Circuit reversed the denial of Hurtt’s motion to suppress. Cannon created a safety concern while off-mission from the purpose of the original traffic stop and thereby wrongfully prolonged Hurtt’s detention. The disputed evidence was only uncovered after the officers went off-mission. View "United States v. Hurtt" on Justia Law

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Keles was admitted into Rutgers’s Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department’s graduate program and received his M.S. degree in 2014. While pursuing this degree, Keles expressed his interest in continuing his studies as a Ph.D. student. To continue their studies as Ph.D. students, M.S. students in the CEE Department must submit a “Change-in-Status” form, identifying advisors and describing their research plans. At the end of the M.S. program, Keles submitted an incomplete Change-in-Status form. Keles disputed that he needed to submit a completed Change-in-Status form due to his claimed enrollment as an M.S.-Ph.D. student. Members of the CEE Department and the University’s administration informed him that he needed to satisfy the admission prerequisites. Keles neither found an advisor nor submitted a completed form but sought to register for classes in 2015. Rutgers’s Administration informed Keles that his lack of academic standing prevented him from registering.Keles sued, alleging contract, tort, statutory, and due process claims. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of his suit, finding that Rutgers adhered to its own policies and did not act in bad faith. All M.S. students were subject to the same departmental requirements. Rutgers afforded Keles sufficient process and did not venture “beyond the pale of reasoned academic decisionmaking.” View "Keles v. Bender" on Justia Law

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Becker’s pregnant girlfriend was shot to death on August 12, 2011. In an interview immediately after the shooting, Becker waived his Miranda rights and stated that he only wanted to clean the gun and “play around.” On August 18, after Becker’s discharge from a psychiatric hospital, he went voluntarily for a second interview. In a video-recorded interview, police repeated the Miranda warnings and neither placed Becker in handcuffs nor arrested him. The door to the interview room was unlocked. Police offered Becker drinks, cigarettes, and breaks. After approximately one hour, Becker stated: “I have nothing more to say ‘cause no matter what I say, youse trying to make me something I’m not.” Investigators left the room for several minutes. About an hour later, Becker responded to questions regarding his abusive history: “OK. I’m done now.” He never explicitly asked or attempted to leave. Police continued to question Becker, who was convicted of murder in the first degree and murder in the third degree. Becker unsuccessfully appealed the denial of his motion to suppress the second interview.The district court rejected his federal habeas petition and found “no basis” for a Certificate of Appealability (COA). The Third Circuit affirmed, applying the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. 2254 deferential standard to the state trial court’s findings when considering a request for a COA. Becker cannot meet that standard. View "Becker v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Based on a scheme to file false unemployment claims with the Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Service Members Program, Hall and his wife, Blunt, were charged with mail fraud, money laundering, aggravated identity theft, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The government introduced recordings of telephone calls made from Blunt’s cell phone to unemployment compensation offices. Blunt testified that Hall made most of those calls. The Third Circuit vacated Hall’s conviction, citing spousal privilege. Before his new trial, Hall unsuccessfully objected to the admission of certain evidence.The Third Circuit affirmed Hall’s convictions. The court upheld the admission of testimony by Hall’s former probation officer, Leon, testimony that it was Hall’s voice on the recordings. The court rejected arguments that Leon’s testimony was unreliable because it was based on insufficient contacts with Hall, was a product of impermissible pressure, and violated Hall’s Fifth Amendment rights. The court also rejected a claim that the recording of Hall’s post-arrest interview was inadmissible for its proffered purpose: allowing the jury to compare Hall’s voice on the interview with the recorded voice, as it would impermissibly task the jury with identifying the voice, Federal Rule of Evidence 901, and require them to act as voice identification experts, Rules 606 and 701. The Fourth Amendment did not require the government to obtain search warrants for Hall’s bank records. View "United States v. Hall" on Justia Law

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The New Jersey Attorney General, investigating Smith & Wesson under the state's Consumer Fraud Act, issued a subpoena seeking documents related to Smith & Wesson’s advertisements. Instead of producing the documents, Smith & Wesson filed suit in federal court under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging the subpoena violated the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The state trial court subsequently ordered Smith & Wesson to show cause and threatened the company with contempt and a ban on sales in New Jersey; the court rejected the constitutional arguments presented in the federal suit. Smith & Wesson unsuccessfully sought an emergency stay of production. In federal court, Smith & Wesson added claims that the Attorney General’s suit was “retaliation" for the exercise of its First Amendment right to petition a court for redress.The Attorney General moved to dismiss the federal suit, citing “Younger” abstention. The district court dismissed the complaint, stating “the subpoena-enforcement action involves orders in the furtherance of state court judicial function.” Smith & Wesson eventually produced the subpoenaed documents under a protective order. The Third Circuit vacated the dismissal, citing the district court’s “virtually unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given.” Abstention was not warranted in this case because the document production order was not “uniquely in furtherance of the state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions.” View "Smith & Wesson Brands Inc v. Attorney General New Jersey" on Justia Law

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The Albanian-born brothers lived in New Jersey illegally. They came to the FBI’s attention because of a 2006 video that depicted them at a firing range in the Pocono mountains shooting weapons and shouting “jihad in the States.” The FBI deployed cooperating witnesses to monitor their activities and arranged a controlled sale of semi-automatic weapons. Based on a plot to attack the Fort Dix Army base and other military facilities, they were convicted of conspiracy to murder members of the U.S. military, 18 U.S.C. 1114, 1117; possession or attempted possession of firearms in furtherance of a crime of violence, 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A) and 924(c)(1)(B)(ii); possession of machineguns, 18 U.S.C. 922(o); and possession of firearms by an illegal alien, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(5).The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of their habeas petitions, in which they argued that their 18 U.S.C. 924(c) convictions must be vacated under the Supreme Court’s 2019 “Davis” holding. Because each defendant was subject to an unchallenged life sentence, any potential vacatur of their Section 924(c) convictions would result in no practical change to their confinement. The “concurrent sentence doctrine” provides a court “discretion to avoid resolution of legal issues affecting less than all of the counts in an indictment where at least one count will survive and the sentences on all counts are concurrent.” View "Duka v. United States" on Justia Law

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Dongarra, incarcerated for bank robbery, was transferred to a new prison and went through the onboarding process, supervised by Officer Smith. Smith gave him an ID card that indicated “Registered Offender,” and a T-shirt “know[n]” to be a “sex offender T-shirt.” The shirt falsely suggested that he had been imprisoned at Terre Haute, “a sex offender prison.” Dongarra stated that he “could be killed” if prisoners mistook him for a sex offender. Smith said he did not care and that he “hope[d] [Dongarra] kn[e]w how to fight.” Dongarra appealed to other staff, who asked Smith for another T-shirt. Smith refused. Frightened, Dongarra skipped meals and lost weight and stopped going out for recreation. Dongarra filed a grievance. Though he never got a response, a few weeks later the prison replaced his ID card and T-shirt.Dongarra sued Smith and two unnamed officers, seeking damages and an injunction, citing “Bivens.” The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of his 42 U.S.C. 1983 case. Injunctive relief is not available because Dongarra had not sued anyone who could fire or discipline Smith and by the time Dongarra sued, the prison had corrected the error. No court has extended Bivens to cover similar facts; “special factors” bar extending Bivens here. Although the officer violated Dongarra’s rights, the feared risk never materialized. Damages cannot be awarded to compensate him for an assault that never happened. View "Dongarra v. Smith" on Justia Law