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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Aguirre-Miron pleaded guilty to child-pornography offenses: three counts of production, 18 U.S.C. 2251(a), (e); one count of receipt, 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(2), (b)(1); and one count of possession, 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(4)(B), (b)(2). The district court adopted the calculations from the PSR. The Sentencing Guidelines require the grouping of certain closely related counts. The PSR grouped Aguirre-Miron’s receipt and possession counts but did not group Aguirre-Miron’s production counts; nor did it group the production counts with the receipt and possession counts. It listed four groups of offenses, determined that the offense level for the production counts was 38 and the offense level for the receipt and possession counts was 40, including a five-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. 2G2.2(b)(5) because Aguirre-Miron “engaged in a pattern of activity involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor” when he produced child pornography. With Aguirre-Miron’s combined offense level and other enhancements and reductions, the PSR offense level was capped by the Sentencing Guidelines at 43. The resulting Guidelines sentence was 130 years’ imprisonment.The court granted a downward variance, which produced a Guidelines range of 360 months to life imprisonment and sentenced Aguirre-Miron to 360 months’ imprisonment. The Third Circuit vacated, holding that the court miscalculated the Sentencing Guidelines range by not grouping the production counts with the receipt and possession counts under U.S.S.G. 3D1.2(c), which was a plain error that affected Aguirre-Miron’s substantial rights. View "United States v. Aguirre-Miron" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Attorney Smukler ran political campaigns for 30 years and developed expertise with Federal Election Commission law. In 2012, U.S. Representative Brady ran for reelection in Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District in Philadelphia. Brady's challenger, Moore, struggled to raise money and personally loaned his campaign about $150,000. Brady agreed to give Moore $90,000 to drop out of the race. To steer the money to Moore, Smukler devised a plan that involved a bogus corporation, “dummy invoices,” and funneling cash through a political consulting firm. In the 2014 Democratic Primary for the Thirteenth Congressional District of Pennsylvania, Smukler dipped into the general election reserve on behalf of former U.S. Representative Margolies, then used friends and family as strawmen to evade federal election laws.Smukler was convicted on nine counts of election law violations. He was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment, plus fines and assessments. The Third Circuit vacated the convictions on two counts but otherwise affirmed. The court upheld the jury instructions defining the term “willfully,” except with respect to counts that charged Smukler with violating 18 U.S.C. 2 and 1001(a)(1) by causing the false statements of others within the Brady and Margolies campaigns. A proper charge for willfulness in cases brought under those sections in the federal election law context requires the prosecution to prove that defendant knew of the statutory obligations, that he attempted to frustrate those obligations, and that he knew his conduct was unlawful. View "United States v. Smukler" on Justia Law

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Senke was arrested after starting an online conversation with an officer posing as an underage boy. Senke requested naked photographs of the boy, asked about the boy’s sexual experiences, transmitted graphic photographs of himself, and offered to buy the boy gifts. Senke traveled to meet the boy. Detectives took Senke into custody. He was charged under 18 U.S.C. 2423(b), 2422(b), 1470. His public defender moved to withdraw. After interviewing Senke, the court permitted him to proceed pro se, with the public defender as standby counsel. Senke filed multiple unsuccessful pretrial motions before agreeing to accept appointed counsel (Comerford). Senke later asserted that Comerford tried to pressure him to take a plea, did not take or return phone calls, refused to go over evidence, calling it “to[o] disgusting,” failed to turn over discovery, and was not preparing a defense strategy. Senke did not specifically request the appointment of new counsel. Defense counsel did not present any evidence at trial, relying solely on an entrapment defense.The Third Circuit affirmed Senke’s convictions. The district court’s failure to address Senke’s complaints regarding Comerford was an abuse of discretion but the court declined to review the error for prejudice on direct appeal in the first instance. Senke was not prejudiced by the court’s failure to verify on the record that Senke and his attorney discussed the presentence report. The court vacated in part; special conditions of supervised release banning Senke’s computer and internet use violated Circuit precedent. View "United States v. Senke" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal 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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Lucas, a financial advisor, wanted to take over Burke Farm to obtain funding from a New Jersey program that paid property owners for easements to preserve farmland. Lucas submitted a fraudulent application to assume Burke Farm’s mortgage; obtained a $250,000 loan from a client under false pretenses; and forged a signature on the promissory note. The farm was owned by Diamond, LLC. Lucas, his wife, and his father used the proceeds of his fraud to acquire the LLC. Convicted of wire fraud, engaging in an illegal monetary transaction, loan application fraud, making false statements to the IRS, aggravated identity theft, obstructing a grand jury investigation, and falsifying records in a federal investigation, Lucas consented to the criminal forfeiture of Burke Farm in conjunction with his 60-month sentence. The LLC filed an unsuccessful objection, 21 U.S.C. 853(n)(6)(A),The Third Circuit reversed. The LLC acquired Burke Farm over five years before Lucas’s crimes and is a legitimate, separate legal entity from Lucas. The court noted that the government could have sought criminal forfeiture of Lucas’s interest in the LLC and civil forfeiture of his family’s interests. Although illicit proceeds were involved in the family’s acquisition of Diamond, the LLC acquired the farm legitimately years before. The government must turn square corners when it exercises its power to confiscate private property. View "United States v. Lucas" on Justia Law

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In September 2016, 10 co-defendants were charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and theft of government property; nine were also charged with aggravated identity theft. They had filed false tax returns using stolen identities to obtain illegal refunds. One of the grand jurors was an alleged victim of defendant Liverpool. The juror’s full name was listed in the original indictment and in an exhibit presented to the grand jury. An IRS agent had interviewed the alleged victim eight months earlier. When the government identified Liverpool and the other defendants during the proceedings and asked whether the jurors knew any of the defendants, there were no positive responses. The alleged victim voted to return a true bill.The government learned of this in 2017. In September 2018, the government filed a superseding indictment, which was returned by a new grand jury weeks before trial, with only minor changes to the original indictment. The government disclosed the grand jury defect to three defendants who had pleaded guilty. Two defendants unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the indictments, arguing that the defect in the original grand jury violated the Fifth Amendment and that the superseding indictment was issued after the limitations period expired. The Third Circuit dismissed an appeal for lack of jurisdiction. The order is not a “final decision” of the district court, 28 U.S.C. 1291, and is not a “collateral” order subject to immediate review. View "United States v. Alexander" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Wilmington Trust financed construction projects. Extensions were commonplace. Wilmington’s loan documents reserved its right to “renew or extend (repeatedly and for any length of time) this loan . . . without the consent of or notice to anyone.” Wilmington’s internal policy did not classify all mature loans with unpaid principals as past due if the loans were in the process of renewal and interest payments were current, Following the 2008 "Great Recession," Wilmington excluded some of the loans from those it reported as “past due” to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve. Wilmington’s executives maintained that, under a reasonable interpretation of the reporting requirements, the exclusion of the loans from the “past due” classification was proper. The district court denied their requests to introduce evidence concerning or instruct the jury about that alternative interpretation. The jury found the reporting constituted “false statements” under 18 U.S.C. 1001 and 15 U.S.C. 78m, and convicted the executives.The Third Circuit reversed in part. To prove falsity beyond a reasonable doubt in this situation, the government must prove either that its interpretation of the reporting requirement is the only objectively reasonable interpretation or that the defendant’s statement was also false under the alternative, objectively reasonable interpretation. The court vacated and remanded the conspiracy and securities fraud convictions, which were charged in the alternative on an independent theory of liability, View "United States v. Harra" on Justia Law

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Davis answered a Craigslist.com ad, entitled “Wild child,” posted by Officer Block, who was conducting a sting operation. The ad stated that the poster was an 18-year-old woman. During their correspondence, Block posed as an eighth-grade girl, “Marisa.” They exchanged text messages for eight days. Davis showed repeated reluctance to engage in lewd conversation, expressed fear of getting caught, stated that he was gay, and claimed that he was 19; he was 30. His responses were permeated with innuendo. He addressed Marisa's virginity, plied her with compliments, asked when she was not supervised, repeatedly attempted to get her to meet, and offered her gifts. They agreed to meet and spend the day together at a water park. Marisa expressed concern about getting pregnant. Davis assured her that he would bring “protection.” Davis traveled from New York to Pennsylvania with three condoms in his pocket.Davis was convicted of use of an interstate facility to attempt to knowingly persuade, induce, entice and coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity, 18 U.S.C. 2422(b), and travel in interstate commerce with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor, section 2423(b). The Third Circuit affirmed his convictions and 127-month sentence, rejecting claims of insufficient evidence and of entrapment and upholding the application of a sentencing enhancement for Davis’s misrepresentation of his age and of his sexual orientation. View "United States v. Davis" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Under the Controlled Substances Act, a person may not make, distribute, or sell drugs, 21 U.S.C. 841, and may not own or maintain a “drug-involved premises,” for using, sharing, or producing drugs (section 856). Section 856 was added in 1986 in response to the proliferation of crack houses and was extended to reach even temporary drug premises. Safehouse wants to try a new approach to combat the opioid crisis by opening a safe-injection site that would offer drug treatment and counseling, refer people to social services, distribute overdose-reversal kits, and exchange used syringes for clean ones, with a consumption room where users could inject themselves with illegal drugs, including heroin and fentanyl, that the user brings in from outside. The user would not be allowed to share or trade drugs on the premises. Staffers would watch users for signs of overdose and intervene with medical care as needed. Safehouse hopes to prevent diseases, counteract drug overdoses, and encourage drug treatment.The district court held that section 856(a)(2) does not apply to Safehouse’s proposed consumption room, declining to reach Safehouse’s Commerce Clause or Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb–2000bb-3, defenses. The Third Circuit reversed. Safehouse’s benevolent motive makes no difference; its safe-injection site falls within Congress’s power to ban interstate commerce in drugs. Courts are not arbiters of policy but must apply the laws as written. View "United States v. Safehouse" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In 2012, Rad and others were charged with acquiring penny stocks, “pumping” the prices of those stocks by bombarding investors with misleading spam emails, and then “dumping” their shares at a profit. Rad was convicted of conspiring to commit false header spamming and false domain name spamming under the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM), 15 U.S.C. 7701(a)(2), which addresses unsolicited commercial email. The PSR recommended raising Rad’s offense level to reflect the losses inflicted on investors, estimating that Rad realized about $2.9 million in “illicit gains” while acknowledging that because “countless victims” purchased stocks, the losses stemming from Rad’s conduct could not “reasonabl[y] be determined.” Rad emphasized the absence of evidence that any person lost anything. Rad was sentenced to 71 months’ imprisonment. The record is silent as to how the court analyzed the victim loss issue. The Third Circuit affirmed. DHS initiated removal proceedings under 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), which renders an alien removable for any crime that “involves fraud or deceit” “in which the loss to the victim or victims exceeds $10,000.” The IJ and the BIA found Rad removable.The Third Circuit remanded. Rad’s convictions for CAN-SPAM conspiracy necessarily entail deceit under 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(43)(M)(i). The second element, requiring victim losses over $10,000, however, was not adequately addressed. The court noted that intended losses, not just actual ones, may meet the requirement. View "Rad v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law