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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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The defendants each pled guilty to their respective crimes, possession of a firearm by a felon, and wire fraud-identity theft. As part of their plea agreements, each agreed not to argue for a sentence outside the range recommended by the United States Sentencing Guidelines. The government contends that both defendants breached their plea agreements by in fact seeking sentences below the guidelines-recommended ranges. One defense attorney stated” “I would hope Your Honor would consider probation, house arrest, community service, anything other than jail time.” In that case, the sentence roughly a third of the time called for by the sentencing range. The other defendant argued that the defendant’s co-conspirator had received a lower sentence.The Third Circuit vacated the sentences, finding the government’s contentions well-founded. In both cases, defense counsel went beyond presenting facts and advocated for a below-Guidelines sentence. The court rejected one defendant’s argument that evidence discovered during the traffic stop leading to his arrest should have been suppressed because the stop violated the Fourth Amendment; the police officer was justified in stopping his vehicle and did not impermissibly extend the duration of the stop. View "United States v. Campbell" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In 2017, Kirschner earned $30,105 by importing counterfeit coins and bullion and then, posing as a federal law enforcement agent, selling them as genuine articles to unsuspecting customers. Searching his home and interdicting packages, agents seized thousands of counterfeit coins and bullion that, according to the government’s expert, would have been worth approximately $46.5 million if genuine. Kirschner pleaded guilty to impersonating an officer acting under the authority of the United States, 18 U.S.C. 912, and importing counterfeit coins and bars with intent to defraud, 18 U.S.C. 485. The court applied a two-level sentencing enhancement because Kirschner’s fraud used sophisticated means; another two-level enhancement because Kirschner abused a position of public trust to facilitate his crimes; and a 22-level enhancement because the “loss” attributable to his scheme was greater than $25 million but less than $65 million.The Third Circuit vacated Kirschner’s 126-month sentence. While the district court was within its discretion to apply the abuse-of-trust and use-of-sophisticated-means enhancements, it clearly erred in applying the 22-level enhancement for loss, and the error was not harmless. While the court focused on what Kirschner intended to do with the high-value counterfeits, it never found that the government proved, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Kirschner intended to sell the coins as counterfeits (not replicas) for the prices the government claimed. View "United States v. Kirschner" on Justia Law

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Shulick, an attorney, owned and operated DVHS, a for-profit business that provided alternative education to at-risk students. The School District of Philadelphia contracted with DVHS to operate Southwest School for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years. DVHS was to provide six teachers at a cost of $45,000 each; benefits for the staff at a total cost of $170,000 annually; four security workers totaling $130,000 annually; and a trained counselor and two psychology externs totaling $110,000 annually. The agreement was not flexible as to budgeted items. Shulick failed to employ the required dedicated security personnel, hired fewer teachers, provided fewer benefits, and paid his educators far less than required. Shulick had represented to the District that he would spend $850,000 on salary and benefits annually but spent about $396,000 in 2010-11 and $356,000 in 2011-12. Shulick directed the unspent funds to co-conspirator Fattah, the son of a former U.S. Representative, to pay off liabilities incurred across Shulick’s business ventures, keeping a cut for himself.Shulick was convicted of conspiring with Fattah to embezzle from a program receiving federal funds (18 U.S.C. 371), embezzling funds from a federally funded program (18 U.S.C. 666(a)(1)(A)), bank fraud (18 U.S.C. 1344), making a false statement to a bank (18 U.S.C. 1014), and three counts of filing false tax returns (26 U.S.C. 7206(1)). The Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments ranging from speedy trial violations to errors in evidentiary rulings, faulty jury instructions, and sentencing miscalculations. View "United States v. Shulick" on Justia Law

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In 1995, firefighters responded to a fire at a house where Brown, age 17, lived with family members. Three firefighters died when a staircase collapsed. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) opened an arson investigation and offered a $15,000 reward. Wright’s testimony undermined Brown’s alibi. Abdullah testified that Brown later confessed that he had started the fire. The prosecution’s witnesses denied receiving payment or having been promised payment in exchange for their testimony. The state court jury convicted Brown, who was sentenced to three consecutive terms of life imprisonment.Brown filed unsuccessful post-sentence motions concerning payment to witnesses. In 2001, Brown unsuccessfully sought federal habeas relief. Years later, Brown filed a petition under Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), alleging newly-discovered evidence based on an expert opinion about the cause of the fire. In response to an FOIA request, ATF provided canceled checks showing it had made payments of $5,000 and $10,000 in 1998 relating to the fire. Abdullah acknowledged receiving $5,000 from ATF after Brown’s trial; Wright acknowledged receiving $10,000. The PCRA court found that Brown’s claims about the prosecution’s nondisclosure of the witnesses’ rewards satisfied exceptions to the PCRA’s time-bar and granted Brown a new trial.Meanwhile, a federal grand jury indicted Brown for the destruction of property by fire resulting in death, 18 U.S.C. 844(i). The state court dismissed the state charges. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of a motion to dismiss the federal indictment. Retrying a defendant because the conviction was reversed for trial error is not second jeopardy. The court declined to consider an exception to the dual sovereignty doctrine, under which a state crime is not “the same offense” as a federal crime, even if for the same conduct. View "United States v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Aristy-Rosa, a citizen of the Dominican Republic, was admitted to the U.S. in 1993 as a lawful permanent resident. Several years later, he was convicted of attempted criminal sale of cocaine and was sentenced to five years’ probation. Aristy-Rosa received a notice, charging him as subject to removal because he had committed a crime relating to a controlled substance, 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(B)(i), his controlled substances conviction constituted an aggravated felony, section 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), and he was an alien who was inadmissible under 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(2)(A)(i)(II) at the time of his application for adjustment of status. Aristy-Rosa conceded removability and sought no relief from removal. An IJ ordered Aristy-Rosa removed. Aristy-Rosa did not appeal but later filed unsuccessful motions to reopen his removal proceedings to apply for adjustment of status and other relief.In 2017, New York Governor Cuomo fully and unconditionally pardoned Aristy-Rosa for his controlled substance conviction. Aristy-Rosa moved to reopen his removal proceedings, arguing that the pardon eliminated the basis for his removal. The IJ denied the motion, reasoning that it was time- and number-barred and that a pardon fails to extinguish the basis for removal where the underlying conviction was for a controlled substance offense. The BIA and Third Circuit dismissed his appeals. Section 1227(a)(2)(B), which provides for the removal of an alien convicted under any law relating to a controlled substance, contains no pardon waiver. View "Aristy-Rosa v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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Peroza-Benitez awoke, hearing Reading Police Officers breaking down his apartment door. They were executing a search warrant related to suspected drug offenses. Peroza-Benitez climbed out of his window onto the roof wearing undergarments and flip flops and led officers on a rooftop chase. Officer Smith radioed that Peroza-Benitez had a firearm. Peroza-Benitez apparently dropped the firearm, which landed in an alley. Peroza-Benitez denies having a firearm. Peroza-Benitez entered an abandoned building and attempted to escape through a window. Smith and Haser grabbed Peroza-Benitez and attempted to hoist him back inside; he resisted. Haser punched Peroza-Benitez. The officers let go. Peroza-Benitez fell and landed in a below-ground, concrete stairwell. Officers’ testimony differs as to whether Peroza-Benitez voluntarily moved upon landing. Peroza-Benitez testified that he was knocked temporarily unconscious. Officer White tased Peroza-Benitez, without providing a verbal warning. Peroza-Benitez was taken to the hospital, where he underwent surgery for arm injuries and a fractured leg.The district court rejected his 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit on summary judgment, citing qualified immunity. The Third Circuit vacated. There was a “clearly established” right for an injured, visibly unarmed suspect to be free from temporarily paralyzing force while positioned as Peroza-Benitez was. A reasonable jury could conclude that Haser “repeatedly” punched Peroza-Benitez in the head and caused him to fall, in violation of that right. Tasing a visibly unconscious person, who just fell over 10 feet onto concrete, also violates that person’s Fourth Amendment rights. View "Peroza-Benitez v. Smith" on Justia Law

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Morton pleaded guilty to drug crimes. The government claims that during the investigation, it intercepted telephone calls between Morton and Fagan, revealing that Morton sold cocaine to Emanuel. Morton asked Fagan to collect the proceeds from Emanuel in exchange for a finder’s fee. This transaction was not mentioned in Morton’s plea agreement. Morton separately agreed to provide information about her knowledge of and participation in any crimes, without any promise of immunity. Morton testified as a government witness in several matters.When Morton was called to testify at a hearing to revoke Fagan’s supervised release, based on Fagan’s attempt to collect Emanuel’s debt, Morton invoked the Fifth Amendment. The court directed her to answer or risk charges of criminal contempt. Morton declined. The government indicted Morton under 18 U.S.C. 401(3); the court did not allow the government to introduce the plea or cooperation agreements into evidence, nor did it allow Morton's attorney to testify about the advice he provided; it allowed the introduction of excerpts from the revocation hearing transcript when the court warned Morton her invocation of the Fifth Amendment was inappropriate. Convicted, Morton was sentenced to 37 months’ imprisonment, consecutive to her 97-month sentence for her drug offenses.The Third Circuit vacated the contempt conviction. Without knowing whether Morton’s testimony at the revocation hearing could have tended to incriminate Morton in new crimes, the court order requiring Morton to testify was invalid. Without a valid court order, there is no criminal contempt. View "United States v. Morton" on Justia Law

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In 2013, Raia ran for election to the Hoboken city council and chaired a political action committee, promoting a ballot referendum to weaken rent control laws. Raia’s PAC cut $50 checks to hundreds of voters. Raia claimed that those voters had done get-out-the-vote work, such as wearing campaign-branded t-shirts and handing out campaign literature. Raia lost the election. The government concluded that Raia instructed campaign workers to collect unsealed mail-in ballots so that he could verify whether each bribed voter cast his ballot as directed before having a $50 check issued to the voter. Charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, 18 U.S.C. 371, with the underlying offense being the use of the mails to facilitate an “unlawful activity” in violation of the Travel Act, 18 U.S.C. 1952(a)(3) (state bribery offenses), Raia’s co-conspirators pleaded guilty. Raia was convicted.The court calculated Raia’s Guidelines range as 15–21 months’ imprisonment and sentenced Raia to three months. The government appealed, claiming that the court miscalculated the Guidelines offense level by not applying a four-level aggravating role enhancement under U.S.S.G. 3B1.1(a) and a two-level obstruction of justice enhancement under section 3C1.1. The Third Circuit vacated and remanded for the district court to make whatever factual findings are necessary to determine whether either or both of the enhancements apply. View "United States v. Raia" on Justia Law

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In consolidated appeals, the government challenged the sentences given to Campbell, one year plus one day for possession of guns and ammunition as a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g), and Yusuf, 30 months for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1349, and aggravated identity theft, section 1028A(a)(1). Each pled guilty and agreed not to argue for a sentence outside the range recommended by the Sentencing Guidelines. The government contends that both defendants breached their plea agreements by actually seeking sentences below the guidelines-recommended ranges.The Third Circuit vacated the sentences. Although courts must give both defense counsel and the defendant an opportunity to speak before imposing a sentence, Rule 32(i) does not give defendants license to disavow their obligations under a plea agreement. The defendants affirmatively advocated for sentences below the agreed-upon guidelines range. The court also rejected Campbell's claim that evidence discovered during the traffic stop leading to his arrest should have been suppressed under the Fourth Amendment; the police officer involved was justified in stopping Campbell’s vehicle and did not impermissibly extend the duration of the stop. View "United States v. Yusuf" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Counterman entered a plea of guilty to possession with intent to distribute in excess of 50 grams of methamphetamine, money laundering, and aiding and abetting. His contemporaneously-filed plea agreement stated that the possession charge carried a mandatory minimum period of imprisonment of 20 years. The government subsequently submitted an “Information of Prior Convictions” under 21 U.S.C. 851(a), which resulted in the imposition of an enhanced sentence of 144 months.The Third Circuit vacated. Under 21 U.S.C. 851(a)(1), no person convicted of Counterman's drug offense "shall be sentenced to increased punishment by reason of one or more prior convictions, unless before trial, or before entry of a plea of guilty, the United States attorney files an information with the court . . . stating in writing the previous convictions to be relied upon.” The court rejected arguments that Counterman received actual notice of the enhancement and that the sentence imposed falls within the pre-enhancement range contemplated by statute and the Sentencing Guidelines. The filing of a 21 U.S.C. 851(a)(1) information is mandatory. Counterman, without actual notice of the government’s intent to rely on a particular prior conviction for an enhancement and the attendant opportunity to contest it, waived his trial rights. The error affected Counterman’s substantial rights and the fundamental fairness of the proceeding. View "United States v. Counterman" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law