Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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In 2000, Peppers was indicted for numerous federal firearms and drug offenses, including murder with a firearm. After a trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. On remand, Peppers pleaded guilty as an armed career criminal in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1) and 924(e)(1). The charging document stated that Peppers had previously been convicted of felonies in six separate proceedings. Peppers was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment--the mandatory minimum under the Armed Career Criminal Act. In his second habeas petition, Peppers challenged that sentence, citing the Supreme Court’s “Johnson” decision, which invalidated ACCA’s residual clause. The district court denied relief. The Third Circuit vacated. The jurisdictional gatekeeping inquiry for successive section 2255 motions based on Johnson requires only that a defendant prove he might have been sentenced under the now-unconstitutional residual clause, not that he was actually sentenced under that clause. A Rule 11(c)(1)(C) guilty plea does not preclude a defendant from collaterally attacking his sentence if his sentence would be unlawful once he proved that ACCA no longer applies to him. A defendant seeking a sentence correction in a successive section 2255 motion based on Johnson, who uses Johnson to satisfy the section 2255(h) gatekeeping requirements, may rely on post-sentencing cases to support his claim. Peppers’s convictions under Pennsylvania’s robbery statute, are not categorically ACCA violent felonies. Peppers did not prove his Johnson claim with respect to his Pennsylvania burglary conviction. The court remanded for analysis of whether treating the robbery convictions as predicate offenses under ACCA, was harmless in light of his other convictions. View "United States v. Peppers" on Justia Law

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Fattah, a prominent fixture in Philadelphia politics, financially overextended himself in both his personal life and his professional career during an ultimately unsuccessful run for mayor. Fattah received a substantial illicit loan to his mayoral campaign and used his political influence and personal connections to engage friends, employees, and others in an elaborate series of schemes aimed at preserving his political status by hiding the source of the illicit loan and its repayment. Fattah and his allies engaged in shady and, at times, illegal behavior, including the misuse of federal grant money and federal appropriations, the siphoning of money from nonprofit organizations to pay campaign debts, and the misappropriation of campaign funds to pay personal obligations. Based upon their actions, Fattah and four associates were charged in a 29-count indictment. Each was convicted on multiple counts. The Third Circuit affirmed in part, rejecting various challenges to evidentiary rulings, jury instructions, and the sufficiency of the evidence, but vacated certain convictions involving jury instructions concerning the meaning of the term “official act” as used in the bribery statute and the honest services fraud statute. In light of the Supreme Court’s 2016 “McDonnell” decision, released the week after the jury verdict, the instructions were incomplete and erroneous. View "United States v. Fattah" on Justia Law

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In 2009, Johnson participated in five bank robberies, carrying a BB gun twice and providing a gun for the others, while serving as a lookout. He was convicted of two counts of conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery, 18 U.S.C. 371; one count of armed bank robbery, 18 U.S.C. 2113(d); four counts of aiding and abetting armed bank robbery, 18 U.S.C. 2 and 2113(d); and three counts of aiding and abetting the use and carrying of a firearm during a crime of violence, 18 U.S.C. 2 and 924(c)(1). For the first count of using a firearm during a crime of violence, the court applied 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A)(ii), which provides that if “the firearm is brandished,” the minimum sentence is seven years. For the second and third firearm counts, the court imposed 25-year sentences under 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(C), which requires a sentence of not less than 25 years for a subsequent conviction. Johnson’s total sentence was 835 months, The Third Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded for consideration in light of Alleyne (2013). The Third Circuit again affirmed, rejecting arguments that the court committed Alleyne errors by not submitting to the jury the questions of “brandishing” or whether two section 924(c) convictions were subsequent convictions. The fact of subsequent conviction is not an element of the offense and need not be submitted to the jury. Robbery is a crime of violence under the section 924(c)(3) elements clause. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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In 2001, Green was sentenced to 687 months of imprisonment for federal drug and firearms convictions. While serving that sentence, Green attacked another inmate with a shank, then pleaded guilty assault with intent to commit murder, 18 U.S.C. 113(a)(1), and was sentenced to 151 months, as a “career offender” under the residual clause of the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines. The Presentence Report did not specify which of Green’s prior convictions qualified as predicate offenses. The sentence, at the low end of the Guidelines, was to run consecutively to the 687 months that he was already serving. The Third Circuit affirmed and, after the Supreme Court’s “Johnson” holding that the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act was void for vagueness, affirmed the dismissal of Green’s motion under 28 U.S.C. 2255 to vacate his sentence. The court concluded that Green’s motion was untimely because the one-year limitations period to bring a challenge on collateral review had passed by the time he filed this motion. Johnson did not constitute a newly recognized right, that would have provided Green a year from when Johnson was decided to file his section 2255 motion, in light of the Supreme Court’s 2017 "Beckles" opinion, that vagueness challenges cannot be brought to the advisory Sentencing Guidelines, View "United States v. Green" on Justia Law

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A DEA officer learned that Williams bought heroin in Detroit, which he sold in Pittsburgh, and placed a GPS tracker on Williams’s car to monitor his movements.. The officer planned to have Williams’s car stopped upon its return to Pennsylvania. That evening, Pennsylvania State Trooper Volk observed Williams’s car speeding, stopped it, issued a citation, and told Williams that he was free to go. Before Williams left, Trooper Volk asked for consent to search his car. Williams signed a “Waiver of Rights and Consent to Search.” Troopers searched Williams’s car. Unable to locate any narcotics, they requested a narcotics-detection dog. Williams eventually stated: “you searched my car three times, now you hold me up and I have to go.” There was a lot of noise from traffic and the wind and, other than Williams’s testimony, there was no evidence that Trooper Volk heard this. The search continued. Williams told the officers not to search his phone without a warrant. Williams objected when troopers began to disassemble Williams’s speakers, stating “I’ve been out here half an hour, man.” Seventy-one minutes into the search, Trooper Volk discovered 39 grams of heroin in a sleeve covering the car’s parking brake lever. Williams pled guilty to possession of heroin with intent to distribute, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(C). The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of his motion to suppress and his 160-month sentence. Williams did not unequivocally withdraw his consent to the search. View "United States v. Williams" on Justia Law

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Pennsylvania State Trooper Volk, a drug interdiction officer on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, stopped Green, who had multiple prior arrests for drug and weapon offenses. Green allowed Volk to search his vehicle. Volk did not discover any contraband but detected the smell of raw marijuana in the trunk. The following day, Volk noticed Green’s vehicle heading the opposite direction, followed, and ascertained his speed by “pacing” Green’s vehicle. Volk determined that Green was traveling 79 miles per hour and pulled him over. Volk struck up a lengthy conversation with Green. Volk indicated that Green was free to leave but again asked to search Green’s vehicle. Green declined, explaining that he was in a hurry. Volk instructed Green to wait in his car until further notice. After approximately 15 minutes, a canine unit arrived and alerted for drugs in the trunk. Volk obtained a search warrant a few hours later. A search of Green’s trunk revealed roughly 1,000 bricks of heroin weighing nearly 20 pounds. Green pled guilty to possession with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin and was sentenced to 120 months of imprisonment. The Third Circuit affirmed. Volk had a reasonable suspicion that Green was speeding, so the stop was justified. Given Green’s statements about his travel, the smell of marijuana in his trunk, and his criminal history, Volk had a “particularized and objective” basis for suspecting that Green was engaged in criminal activity. View "United States v. Green" on Justia Law

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Reeves was convicted of robbery, carrying a firearm without a license, and second-degree murder relating to a 2006 armed robbery of a gas station convenience store that resulted in the clerk's death. Reeves, arrested three years later, was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He filed a four-months-late federal habeas petition, asserting ineffective assistance of counsel and seeking to excuse his untimeliness based on the "Schlup" actual innocence exception to procedural default, extended to time-barred petitions in 2013. The Third Circuit remanded, finding that Reeves identified evidence that may show actual innocence that was not presented to the jury. When a petitioner asserts ineffective assistance of counsel based on counsel’s failure to discover or present the very exculpatory evidence that demonstrates his actual innocence, such evidence constitutes new evidence for purposes of the Schlup actual innocence gateway. The court noted evidence that was known but not presented, pertaining to an individual (Anderson) who had previously been convicted of other crimes who failed to show up at a work-release center located near the site of the crime and who fit the physical description of the robber. Anderson called the mother of his child days after the robbery, telling her he had “a lot of money” for outstanding child support. Two witnesses stated that Anderson told him that he was involved in the robbery and had recounted details. View "Reeves v. Superintendent Fayette SCI" on Justia Law

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In 1995, a Pennsylvania jury found Abdul-Salaam guilty of first-degree murder, robbery, and conspiracy. After a one-day penalty phase hearing in which Abdul-Salaam’s counsel presented three mitigation witnesses, the jury sentenced Abdul-Salaam to death. Abdul-Salaam, after exhausting his state remedies, filed a federal petition for habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. 2254, challenging his sentence, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to investigate adequately and to present sufficient mitigation evidence at sentencing. The Third Circuit reversed the denial of relief. Trial counsel could not have had a strategic reason not to investigate Abdul-Salaam’s background, school, and juvenile records, to acquire a mental health evaluation, or to interview more family members about his childhood abuse and poverty, counsel’s performance was deficient. There is a reasonable probability that the un-presented evidence would have caused at least one juror to vote for a sentence of life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Abdul-Salaam has met the prejudice prong of the ineffective assistance of counsel inquiry. View "Abdul-Salaam v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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In 2017, New Jersey replaced its system of pretrial release, which had long relied on monetary bail, based on a finding that the system resulted in the release of defendants who could afford to pay for their release, even if they posed a substantial risk of flight or danger to others, and the detention of poorer defendants who presented minimal risk and were accused of less serious crimes. Following a constitutional amendment, the New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Act, 3 N.J. Stat. 2A:162–15, created a new framework that prioritizes the use of non-monetary conditions of release over monetary bail. The Reform Act establishes a multi-step process the court must follow when deciding to release or detain an eligible defendant after considering multiple factors. Plaintiffs challenged the Act as a violation of the Eighth Amendment, the Due Process Clause, and the Fourth Amendment, seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the state “from taking any actions to enforce statutory provisions [of the Act] . . . that allow imposition of severe restrictions on the pre-trial liberty of presumptively innocent criminal defendants without offering the option of monetary bail.” The Third Circuit affirmed the district court, finding that there is no federal constitutional right to deposit money or obtain a corporate surety bond to ensure a criminal defendant’s future appearance in court as an equal alternative to non-monetary conditions of pretrial release. View "Holland v. Rosen" on Justia Law

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In 1998, Ramos threw a brick at a child, who then required medical treatment; Ramos pled guilty to aggravated assault. In 1999, Ramos was apprehended with heroin and convicted of manufacturing, delivering, or possessing with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance, and knowingly possessing a controlled substance. In 2001, Ramos broke into a store and stole furniture; he pled guilty to burglary. In 2008, Philadelphia police observed Ramos selling crack cocaine out of a truck, arrested Ramos, and recovered a loaded handgun from the vehicle. Ramos pled guilty, stipulating that he was a career offender. The court concluded that Ramos had three predicate drug or violent felony convictions under the Armed Career Criminal Act and was subject to a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence. Factoring in Ramos’s acceptance of responsibility, the court determined that Ramos’s Guidelines range was 248-295 months’ imprisonment. The court sentenced Ramos to 180 months of imprisonment. In 2016, Ramos sought post-conviction relief (28 U.S.C. 2255), arguing that, under the Supreme Court’s “Johnson” decision his burglary conviction was no longer a career offender predicate. The Third Circuit applied the modified categorical approach to Pennsylvania’s divisible aggravated assault statute and held that Ramos’s conviction for second-degree aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, 18 Pa. C.S. 2702(a)(4), is categorically a crime of violence. View "United States v. Ramos" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law