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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Convicted of wire fraud, for his scheme to defraud Gains Capital, Banks was sentenced to 104 months’ imprisonment. Banks made fraudulent deposits of $324,000 and unsuccessfully executed 70 withdrawals/transfers totaling $264,000. Gain Capital, however, did not transfer any to Banks and suffered no loss.The Third Circuit remanded for resentencing. The district court erred in applying the loss enhancement to the U.S.S.G. fraud guideline. The loss enhancement in the Guideline’s application notes impermissibly expands the word “loss” to include both intended loss and actual loss. The court affirmed the conviction, rejecting an argument that the court erred in denying Cross his constitutionally protected right to self-representation. The court predicated its finding that Banks could not understand the risks of self-representation on Banks’s voluminous filings and the court’s own observations of Banks over several years, including his “unrelenting and persistent focus on CIA-managed ‘voice-to-skull’ technology, a construct as to which he admits he has no factual basis to conclude was ever applied to him.” The court properly concluded Banks could not knowingly and voluntarily waive his right to counsel. The court upheld special device-purchase and financial-transactions conditions of supervised release and a requirement that Banks participate in DNA collection. View "United States v. Banks" on Justia Law

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Investigating drug trafficking based on the report of a confidential informant, the police entered the homes of both Alexander and his girlfriend, without search warrants. Officers entered Alexander’s home and secured the premises, then waited to conduct a search until a warrant was issued. At Alexander’s girlfriend’s home, they secured the premises and were applying for a warrant, which was all but certain to issue, when they received what they understood as consent to a search. Alexander was charged with possession with intent to distribute 28 grams or more of cocaine base, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B); possession with intent to distribute cocaine; possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A)(i); and possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2).The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of Alexander’s motion to suppress, citing the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule. There was probable cause to believe Alexander had cocaine and drug-dealing paraphernalia in both houses. Officers had reason to believe that Alexander had been tipped off so that evidence of drug dealing would be imminently destroyed. Exigent circumstances justified the officers entering without a warrant; the search of Alexander’s residence was valid because a warrant was properly issued. View "United States v. Alexander" on Justia Law

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In 2012, the DEA, the FBI, and the Chester Police Department initiated a joint investigation of a drug trafficking conspiracy (DTG) that employed confidential informants, controlled purchases of narcotics, surveillance, pole cameras, pen registers, and court-authorized wiretaps. To facilitate their drug trafficking, members of the DTG illegally carried guns and stashed both drugs and guns in alleyways and in a playground.Some members pled guilty; the four Appellants, among others, were convicted on drug conspiracy and related charges. The Third Circuit affirmed their convictions and sentences. Any improper expert testimony in violation of Rule of Evidence 704(b) was harmless error in light of the evidence that supports the Appellants’ membership in the conspiracy. The court rejected claims that the district court erred in its instructions and interrogatories to the jury concerning the quantity of drugs for which they were held responsible and erred in admitting evidence of firearms and acts of violence in the vicinity of the DTG’s territory during the period of the conspiracy. The court properly calculated the sentences, considering career offender status, acceptance of responsibility, firearms enhancements, and drug quantities attributable to the Appellants. View "United States v. Womack" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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A York, Pennsylvania woman told law enforcement that Dyer had attacked her with a handgun, trafficked women, and sold drugs from his house. They obtained a warrant to search Dyer’s home for “[f]irearms, illegal drugs, [and] cell phones” after a search of his criminal history revealed that Dyer, a felon, may have possessed a firearm. Officers executed the warrant the following day; they found Dyer, who directed them to a firearm that matched the woman's description. They also seized “the Box” containing pills, drug packing materials, and ID” from a shelf in Dyer’s son’s bedroom. ATF Agents obtained another warrant to search Dyer’s residence, garage, and the surrounding curtilage for drugs and drug paraphernalia; they found pentylone capsules (bath salts), and digital scales with cocaine residue.Charged with knowingly possessing a firearm as a convicted felon, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, criminal conspiracy to distribute and possess pentylone with the intent to distribute, and possession of pentylone with the intent to distribute. Dyer moved to suppress all the evidence. The court ultimately refused to exclude the firearm properly seized during the first search and the drugs, digital scales, and packaging seized during the second search. Dyer pled guilty to the felon in possession of a firearm charge, Dyer appealed the admission of the Box. The Third Circuit affirmed. The Box was immaterial to his case and admitting it was at most harmless error. View "United States v. Dyer" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Clark, a JTVCC inmate, was treated for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder at the prison for at least 10 years, a fact of which the prison officials were aware. Despite having few disciplinary “points” on his record and no security classification meriting solitary confinement, Clark remained in the unit for seven months, alone in his cell except for three one-hour intervals per week. Clark was not allowed to work or participate in educational or religious services. He was permitted only four phone calls and four visitors per month. Inmates must “earn their way out” of solitary confinement; while in isolation, Clark would “yell and bang on the door." Prison officials considered these outbursts to be disciplinary incidents. When Clark questioned his confinement, he was put in the “naked room,” an isolation cell where he had only an open smock. Clark's mental illness caused behavior that was punished by conditions that furthered his deterioration. Clark experienced “increased hallucinations, paranoia, self-mutilation, sleeplessness, and nightmares.”Officials failed to abide by a policy requirement to consider his mental illness. Clark alleges they knew of the American Correctional Association study on the effects of solitary confinement on seriously mentally ill inmates. The study singled out JTVCC’s Warden, stating that he is not “open to change in regards to restrictive housing" regarding the mentally ill. The Third Circuit reversed the qualified immunity dismissal of Clark’s 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit. His allegations trigger established Eighth Amendment protection. View "Clark v. Coupe" on Justia Law

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In 1995, Range pleaded guilty to making false statements about his income to obtain $2,458 of food stamp assistance in violation of Pennsylvania law, a conviction that was classified as a misdemeanor punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Range was sentenced to three years’ probation, plus restitution, costs, and fines. Three years later, Range attempted to purchase a firearm but was rejected by the instant background check system. Range’s wife subsequently bought him a deer-hunting rifle. Years, later Range learned that he was barred from purchasing and possessing firearms because of his welfare fraud conviction. He sold his rifle to a firearms dealer and sought a declaratory judgment that 18 U.S.C. 922(g) violated the Second Amendment as applied to him. The section prohibits firearm ownership by any person who has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year—the federal definition of a felony.The district court rejected the suit, holding that the Second Amendment does not protect “unvirtuous citizens.” The Third Circuit affirmed. Based on history and tradition, “the people” constitutionally entitled to bear arms are “law-abiding, responsible citizens,” a category that properly excludes those who have demonstrated disregard for the rule of law through the commission of felony and felony-equivalent offenses, whether or not those crimes are violent. Even if Range fell within “the people,” the government demonstrated that its prohibition is consistent with historical tradition. View "Range v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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After completing a minimum sentence, Pennsylvania inmates are eligible to serve the rest of their sentence on parole. The decision to grant parole is discretionary. Most parolees first rely on halfway houses. Public houses have only 700 spaces, and private contract facilities have 2,100 spaces statewide but each year, about 9,000 Pennsylvania inmates are released on parole. The State Police must notify each resident, school district, day-care center, and college about nearby registered violent sex offenders, making it difficult to place sex offenders into community halfway houses because of community backlash. Sex offenders also tend to linger in halfway houses longer than other parolees because of the difficulties in finding alternate housing. The Department of Corrections considers 13 factors before placing a parolee in a halfway house, including community sensitivity to a criminal offense or specific criminal incident.In a class action challenge, the district court held that paroled sex offenders are similarly situated to other paroled offenders and that there could be no rational basis to delay their placement into halfway houses because of “community sensitivity.” The Third Circuit reversed. A discretionary grant of parole cannot erase the differences between sex crimes and other crimes. DOC’s halfway house policy considering “community sensitivity,” among many other factors, is rationally related to legitimate government interests. View "Stradford v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Langley was arrested in connection with a Newark drug trafficking operation. Langley agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 28 grams or more of crack-cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 846, which carries a mandatory five-year minimum sentence, agreeing that he would not argue for a sentence below five years’ imprisonment and that he would enter into an appellate waiver, applicable to any challenges to a sentence of five years or below. During his plea hearing, the district court engaged in a thorough colloquy and ensured that Langley had discussed his plea agreement with his counsel and that he understood the appellate waiver. The court considered his arguments concerning the pandemic, the effect of the crack/powder cocaine disparity on the Guidelines calculation, and the age of his criminal convictions. The court determined that the applicable guideline range was 110-137 months and sentenced Langley to 60 months’ imprisonment.In lieu of filing an appellate brief, Langley’s counsel moved to withdraw, asserting in his Anders brief that he identified “no issue of even arguable merit.” Langley submitted a pro se brief, arguing for a further sentencing reduction. The Third Circuit dismissed. Langley’s court-appointed counsel filed an Anders brief that, on its face, met the standard for a “conscientious investigation" of possible grounds for appeal. Counsel is not required to anticipate or address all possible arguments. There are no non-frivolous issues for Langley to raise on appeal. View "United States v. Langley" on Justia Law

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Gussie was charged with fraud. Virgin Islands prosecutors later learned one of the grand jurors might have been a victim of Gussie’s scheme. The government obtained a superseding indictment from a new grand jury about a year later. A jury convicted Gussie, who was sentenced to 45 months in prison.The Third Circuit affirmed. The superseding indictment cured any potential defect, making any error harmless. Gussie suffered no prejudice facing charges under the validly returned superseding indictment. The court rejected Gussie’s arguments that allowing an alleged victim to sit on the grand jury considering an indictment against her was “so prejudicial” that it caused the grand jury “no longer to be a grand jury,” requiring dismissal with prejudice and that the superseding indictment exceeded the statute of limitations because the original indictment was not validly pending when the superseding indictment returned. While Gussie claimed the government knew the juror was a possible victim and permitted the juror’s participation, the district court found no supporting facts for that assertion. View "United States v. Gussie" on Justia Law

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In August 2009, Kennedy and his father were arrested by Philadelphia police during an armed home invasion. In October 2013, after numerous delays, they went on trial. Both were convicted. Kennedy was sentenced to 10-15 years of imprisonment. After failing to obtain redress under the Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief Act, Kennedy’s appeal was rejected by the Pennsylvania Superior Court. In July 2019, Kennedy filed a pro se federal habeas petition, arguing that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. The district court denied Kennedy’s petition on grounds of procedural default and adopted the state-court finding that only 16 days of the 50-month delay in bringing Kennedy to trial were attributable to the Commonwealth. The court additionally held his petition to be “without merit."The Third Circuit reversed, concluding that Kennedy’s procedural default was excused and that his Sixth Amendment Speedy Trial Right was violated. The Commonwealth had, in the interim, conceded that Kennedy’s Sixth Amendment claim was exhausted. The court noted that a 50-month delay is exceptional and that the Commonwealth did not overcome the presumptive prejudice of a four-year delay, despite the strength of its case at trial. Kennedy has also identified prejudice stemming from loss of employment, anxiety, and incarceration. View "Kennedy v. Superintendent Dallas SCI" on Justia Law