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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Orie, a former state senator, used her government-funded legislative staff to do fundraising and campaigning for her reelection. When the Commonwealth investigated, she tried to hide and destroy documents. Orie's sisters, including a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, were also charged. At trial, Orie introduced exhibits with directives to her chief of staff, not to do political work on legislative time. The prosecution determined that these exhibits had forged signatures. The court found that the forged documents were “a fraud on the Court,” and declared a mistrial. The Secret Service subsequently found that many of the exhibits were forged. During Orie’s second trial, the prosecution's expert testified that Orie’s office lease barred her staff from using that office for anything besides legislative work. Orie unsuccessfully sought to call an expert to testify that the senate rules let staff do political work from legislative offices on comp time. Orie was convicted of theft of services, conspiracy, evidence tampering, forgery, and of using her political position for personal gain, in violation of the Pennsylvania Ethics Act. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of her federal habeas petition, first finding that it lacked jurisdiction to consider her Ethics Act challenge because she is not in custody for those convictions. The court rejected a double jeopardy argument. The state court reasonably found that a mistrial was manifestly necessary because the forged documents could have tainted the jury’s verdict. Orie did not show that her senate-rules expert’s testimony would have been material, so she had no constitutional right to call that witness. View "Orie v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Jury selection in Howell’s 2004 prosecution consisted of two venire panels. The first included 35 individuals, two of whom were black; both were excused for hardship. The second panel included 25 potential jurors, all of whom were white. Howell, a black man, was convicted for the 2002 felony murder of a white man by an all-white jury. Before jury selection, Howell filed a Motion to Ensure Representative Venire, arguing that he was entitled to a jury pool that represented a fair cross-section of the community, particularly with respect to race. The court held a hearing on Howell’s allegations that black individuals were systemically under-represented in Allegheny County’s jury pools and considered expert testimony that black individuals made up 4.87% of Allegheny County’s jury pool but made up 10.7% of the population of Allegheny County eligible for jury service. The court denied Howell’s motion. The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that Howell had not been denied a trial by a fair cross-section of the community. In Howell’s federal habeas proceeding, the court assumed, without deciding, “that the Superior Court erred in requiring [Howell] to show discriminatory intent,” but concluded that Howell failed to establish a Sixth Amendment violation because other courts found no constitutional violation in cases with higher percentages of disparity. The Third Circuit affirmed. Any underrepresentation in Howell’s jury pool was not caused by a systematically discriminatory process. View "Howell v. Superintendent Rockview SCI" on Justia Law

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While investigating reports that Aviles was conducting a drug-trafficking operation, the Lebanon County Drug Task Force obtained a warrant to search Aviles’s residence. In the probable cause affidavit, officers relied upon information gathered through multiple controlled buys conducted by confidential informant “RCI-1,” describing the dates of the buys, the affiants and their Task Force experience, and a general explanation of controlled buys, including the use of recorded Task Force currency. In the resulting searches, officers recovered large quantities of controlled substances, drug paraphernalia, and firearms. Aviles and 12 co-defendants were arrested and charged. Aviles unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence, claiming the officers included false information in their affidavit and omitted other information. He argued that, while the general description of controlled buys represented that currency is exchanged for drugs, some of Aviles’s buys may have involved RCI-1’s exchanging prescription drugs instead of currency. He claimed that RCI-1 had conducted additional drug-related transactions with Aviles outside of the controlled buys. The court conducted an evidentiary hearing, allowing both parties to question the officers but refusing the defense’s request to question RCI-1 based on concerns regarding her identity. Convicted, Aviles was sentenced to life imprisonment under the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. 841(b); the court found that Aviles’s prior state court convictions qualified as “felony drug offenses.” The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress but, holding that at least two of his prior convictions do not qualify as felony drug offenses, vacated the sentencing order. View "United States v. Aviles" on Justia Law

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The Third Circuit granted a petition for review challenging the BIA's decision affirming the IJ's denial of petitioner's application for withholding of removal under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT). The court held that the IJ and BIA erred in deciding that petitioner's conviction for conspiracy to commit wire fraud is a conviction for a particularly serious crime, making him ineligible for withholding of removal. In this case, the IJ and BIA failed to correctly apply the analysis articulated in In re N-A-M-, skipping right over the preliminary consideration of elements. Therefore, on remand, the agency should first determine whether the elements of petitioner's offense potentially fall within the ambit of a particularly serious crime. Only then may it proceed to consider the facts and circumstances particular to petitioner's case. The court also held that the IJ failed to observe the rule articulated in Abdulai v. Ashcroft, 239 F.3d 542, 554 (3d Cir. 2001), requiring immigration judges to notify a noncitizen in removal proceedings that he is expected to present corroborating evidence before finding that failure to present such evidence undermines his claim. Therefore, the court must remand for a new corroboration determination. View "Luziga v. Attorney General" on Justia Law

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Velazquez and his girlfriend had a physical altercation. He threatened her at his preliminary hearing and, from prison, sent threatening letters. Velazquez refused to enter his detention cell; the guard sustained scratches during the struggle. Velazquez was charged with burglary, intimidating a witness, terroristic threats, harassment, and aggravated assault. Due to Velazquez’s history of mental illness, his attorney advised him to enter a guilty but mentally ill (GBMI) plea under Pennsylvania law, waiving the right to a jury trial. If that plea is accepted, the defendant may receive mental health treatment while serving her sentence. A judge may not accept a GBMI plea unless she examines certain reports, holds a hearing, and determines that the defendant was mentally ill at the time of the offense. If the judge does not accept the GBMI plea, the right to a jury trial is returned. Velazquez’s GBMI plea was not accepted. The judge did not examine reports nor hold a hearing and did not determine whether Velazquez was mentally ill. Velazquez’s right to trial was not reinstated. The judge recorded that Velazquez had entered a normal guilty plea. Counsel did not object. The Third Circuit granted relief on Velazquez’s habeas petition, finding ineffective assistance of counseI. The district court had habeas jurisdiction although the petitioner merely asserted that the wrong guilty plea was entered. The requisite prejudice can be shown although the appropriate plea would not have resulted in a reduced sentence. View "Velazquez v. Superintendent Fayette SCI" on Justia Law

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The five Petitioners were convicted, among other offenses, of violating 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A), which proscribes the use or carry of a firearm during and in relation to a “crime of violence” or “drug trafficking crime,” as well as the possession of a firearm in furtherance of any such crime. Section 924(c)(3) defines “crime of violence” to mean a felony offense that “(A) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another” (elements clause) or “(B) that by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense” (residual clause). Each petitioner filed a second or successive habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. 2255(h)(2) to challenge their sentences section 924(c), arguing that 924(c)(3)’s residual clause is unconstitutionally vague, given its textual similarity to the residual clauses found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Johnson v. United States, (2015), and Sessions v. Dimaya (2018). The Supreme Court subsequently found 924(c)(3)(B) unconstitutionally vague, United States v. Davis, (2019). The Third Circuit granted the petitions, noting that they are now timely under Davis, precluding the need for analysis of the applicability of Johnson and Dimaya. View "In re: Williams" on Justia Law

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Inmate Mammana felt ill after eating and visited the medical ward. A physician assistant checked Mammana’s blood sugar level, and told Mammana “to return the following day after eating.” For several days, Mammana continued to feel ill after eating and returned to the medical ward. The physician assistant referred Mammana to Allenwood’s psychologist, who could not determine the cause of Mammana’s discomfort. Medical Assistant Taylor said she would not re-admit Mammana to the medical ward, despite having never examined Mammana. Nonetheless, Mammana was escorted back to the medical ward. After taking his blood pressure, Taylor accused him of “harassment, stalking, and interference with the performance of duties.” Mammana was transferred to administrative segregation. Mammana refused his assigned segregation cell and was placed into the “Yellow Room,” which was regarded as “mental and physical abuse.” Mammana was stripped of his clothing and given only “paper-like” coverings; the room had a “bright light” "24 hours a day” and was “uncomfortably cold.” Mammana had no bedding or toilet paper. Mammana continued to feel ill, yet his requests for medical treatment were refused. Mammana remained in the Yellow Room for four days. A hearing board eventually concluded “there was no basis” for Taylor’s report. Mammana remained in administrative segregation for four months after leaving the Yellow Room. The district court dismissed his claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Third Circuit vacated the dismissal of his Eighth Amendment claim; Mammana has adequately alleged a sufficiently serious deprivation rather than merely “uncomfortable” conditions. View "Mammana v. Federal Bureau of Prisons" on Justia Law

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Bastardo-Vale, a citizen of Venezuela, who entered the U.S. on a student visa, sought review of the Board of Immigration Appeals decision that his Delaware conviction for second-degree unlawful imprisonment constituted a “particularly serious crime,” rendering him ineligible for asylum and withholding of removal relief, 8 U.S.C. 1158(b)(2), 1231(b)(3). His state conviction arose from a forcible sexual encounter with a fellow student; he pleaded no contest to second-degree unlawful imprisonment and was sentenced to the maximum term of one year’s imprisonment, which was suspended for eleven months of time served. The Department of Homeland Security then charged Bastardo-Vale with removability under 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(A)(i), for being convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude, and under 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(1)(C)(i), for failing to comply with the conditions of his nonimmigrant status. Overruling its own precedent, the Third Circuit denied the petition for review. The phrase “particularly serious crime” as used in both the asylum and withholding of removal statutes includes, but is not limited to, aggravated felonies. The phrase “particularly serious crime” means the same thing in both statutes, and the language of those statutes shows that aggravated felonies are a subset of particularly serious crimes. View "Bastardo-Vale v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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Hillocks, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago and a lawful U.S. permanent resident, was convicted of using a communication facility to facilitate a felony. The Board of Immigration Appeals applied the modified categorical approach, looked to Hillocks’s plea colloquy, and found that Hillocks used a phone to facilitate the sale of heroin. The Board found that his conviction was therefore both an aggravated felony and related to a controlled substance, 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2) and ordered Hillocks removed. The Third Circuit vacated the removal order. The categorical approach does not call for the consideration of the facts of a particular case; the court presumes that the state conviction rested upon the least of the acts criminalized by the statute, and then determines whether that conduct would fall within the federal definition of the crime. The modified approach only applies when the statute of conviction has alternative elements, and “at least one” of the alternative divisible categories would, by its elements, be a match with a generic federal crime. Pennsylvania’s statute does not have enumerated categories that suggest alternate elements, it does not provide different punishments depending on the underlying crime; the underlying felonies serving as a basis for a conviction under the statute are means, not separate elements. View "Hillocks v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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In 1987, Romansky was convicted of car theft-related crimes. His case worked its way through the Pennsylvania courts and eventually generated a federal habeas corpus petition. The district court denied “Romansky’s lengthy, multifaceted petition” and declined to grant a certificate of appealability. The Third Circuit granted a certificate of appealability on two issues. The court then affirmed, concluding that the petition is not timely under 28 U.S.C. 2244(d) as to claims concerning the events surrounding Romansky’s first trial in 1987. Romansky’s post-conviction claim as to that trial was not resolved until 1997; the limitations period would have expired one year later, in 1998. This petition, alleging that he was deprived of due process by the discrepancy between the conspiracy charge as described in the charging documents and the charge as presented to the jury, was not filed until 2009. The sentence imposed in 2000 after a retrial was not a new judgment on the undisturbed counts of conviction. Romansky was not denied the effective assistance of counsel when his lawyer during the 2000 retrial and resentencing refused to raise the issue of the 1987 conspiracy-charge discrepancy despite repeated requests that he do so. View "Romansky v. Superintendent Greene SCI" on Justia Law