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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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In 1979-1980, Lesko went on a multi-day “Kill for Thrill” spree with his friend, Travaglia, ending the lives of four individuals in Western Pennsylvania. For the killing of a 21-year-old police officer, Lesko was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Lesko proceeded through many levels of the Pennsylvania state courts and two rounds of federal habeas proceedings. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of his latest petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition, which challenged both his 1981 guilt-phase trial and his 1995 resentencing. The court rejected claims that the prosecution violated Lesko’s Brady rights by suppressing an agreement between a prosecution witness who was found in possession of Lesko’s gun (Montgomery) and the prosecution; a January 1980 police report; and information from the juvenile file of another prosecution witness, Rutherford. Lesko’s counsel did not perform ineffectively by violating his right to testify; Lesko was not prejudiced by any ineffectiveness in failing to properly investigate and present mitigating evidence at resentencing. View "Lesko v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Ford, a Haitian national, became involved in Haitian national politics by joining PPD in 2012; he believed the ruling political party, PHTK, was corrupt and involved in human rights abuses. Ford received anonymous threatening telephone calls; in 2014, armed men encircled Ford’s home, shot into it, and burned it down. Ford reported the attack to Haitian authorities and fled Haiti. The United States began removal proceedings.Ford hired an attorney, who submitted a Form I-589 application for asylum, withholding of removal, and relief under the Convention Against Torture. Ford and the attorney subsequently had little contact. Ford stated the attorney “never prepared me for my final hearing.” The attorney provided scant documentary evidence to support Ford’s application and did not submit any documents about the PPD. The IJ denied relief, finding that Ford was credible but had “submitted no objective evidence” to help meet his burden in proving that he was harassed or persecuted on account of his political opinion or that Ford’s fear of persecution upon his return to Haiti was reasonable. Ford retained new counsel. The BIA affirmed and denied a motion to reopen Ford’s case based on ineffective assistance.The Third Circuit vacated. Ford presents a meritorious ineffective-assistance claim; his lawyer failed to present important and easily available evidence going to the heart of Ford’s claims. View "Saint Ford v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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Gaines served as the “muscle” in a drug house. Thompson came to the house to buy drugs. Williams, a visitor, told Thompson that the house was “closed,” denied him entry, and told him to leave. Thompson kept knocking and asking to come in. Eventually, Gaines walked outside and an argument ensued. Williams joined them. Gaines ultimately stabbed Thompson multiple times. Williams pulled Gaines off of Thompson. Stab wounds resulted in hemorrhaging that caused Thompson’s death. Gaines was convicted in Pennsylvania state court of first-degree murder in Pennsylvania,Gaines sought habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The district court granted his petition, holding that Gaines’s trial counsel was ineffective for not objecting to the omission of a jury instruction that no adverse inference could be drawn from Gaines’s election not to testify in his own defense. The Third Circuit reversed. Gaines’s trial counsel made a reasonable tactical choice when he did not object. Counsel testified he was aware that the court failed to give the requested no-adverse-inference instruction, but that he decided not to object because he “was concerned that throwing [the instruction] in at the end" may have drawn undue attention to the fact that Gaines did not testify. He testified that he was satisfied with the charge as it stood because it placed the burden of proof squarely on the Commonwealth and exhaustively detailed the law of self-defense. View "zGaines v. Superintendent Benner Township" on Justia Law

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In 2020, Abreu pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm as a convicted felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). His PSR calculated his Guidelines range applying the enhancement for a defendant who “committed any part of the instant offense” after a felony conviction for either a “crime of violence” or a “controlled substance offense” U.S.S.G. 2K2.1(a)(4). The enhancement was predicated on his prior conviction for conspiracy to commit second-degree aggravated assault under New Jersey law, The district court applied the enhancement and sentenced Abreu to 56 months’ imprisonment.Following a 2019 Supreme Court case, Kisor v. Wilkie, the Third Circuit reexamined 4B1.2 and concluded that the text of the “controlled substance offense” prong unambiguously excluded inchoate crimes and overruled its “Hightower” precedent. The Third Circuit then vacated Abreu’s sentence, citing the Guidelines’ text and recent Supreme Court precedent and declining to defer to the commentary to 2K2.1, which purports to define the term “crime of violence” to encompass conspiracy crimes. View "United States v. Abreu" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Dawson was caught driving a car containing bags of fentanyl, stamped with the label “Peace of Mind”. Earlier that day, Police had responded to the overdose death of “L.B.”, who was found with bags of fentanyl bearing the same “Peace of Mind” label. L.B.’s cell phone revealed that Dawson had been supplying L.B. with fentanyl. Police used that phone to set up a drug deal with Dawson, apprehending him upon his arrival. Dawson pled guilty to possessing fentanyl with intent to distribute, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C). Dawson was caught with only four grams of fentanyl, but he had been convicted four times of heroin trafficking under Pennsylvania law. The PSR classified him as a career offender and calculated a guidelines range of 188-235 months’ imprisonment. Dawson also objected to the PSR’s mention of L.B.’s death.The court sentenced Dawson to 142 months’ imprisonment; it neither held that Dawson caused L.B.'s death nor deemed the issue irrelevant to crafting a sentence under the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors. The Third Circuit affirmed. Dawson’s state drug trafficking convictions are career offender predicates, as the state offense, 35 Pa. Cons. Stat. §780-113(a)(30), does not criminalize a broader range of conduct than the Guidelines. Dawson did not show that his substantial rights were affected by the district court's failure to rule on whether Dawson caused L.B. to die from a drug overdose. View "United States v. Dawson" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Price was found dead in her bedroom from an overdose of fentanyl. A jury convicted Zayas of distributing and conspiring to distribute the fentanyl that killed Price; of distributing fentanyl to someone who was pregnant; and distributing it within 1,000 feet of a playground. The district court sentenced Zayas to life imprisonment.The Third Circuit affirmed in part, rejecting Zayas’s argument that he was prejudiced by the government’s failure to timely disclose potentially exculpatory evidence–his statements that he believed the drugs that he delivered to Price were in white bags. The evidence is clearly sufficient to establish Zayas’s guilt for distributing and conspiring to distribute the fentanyl that killed Price beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury could reasonably conclude that Price did not have any drugs before she purchased the drugs from Zayas just before her death; that those drugs contained fentanyl because both Price and Zayas had discussed the drugs’ unusual potency. Although the court gave erroneous jury instructions, a rational juror viewing the evidence could only have concluded that he knew she was pregnant. The court vacated in part, finding the evidence insufficient to support his conviction for distributing fentanyl within 1,000 feet of a playground as defined by the statute. View "United States v. Zayas" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Around 2:00 a.m., Philadelphia Police Officers Cannon and Gonzalez, patrolling a “very violent” North Philadelphia area, saw a pickup truck roll through a stop sign and fail to signal a turn. They stopped the truck. While collecting the driver's license and registration, the officers smelled alcohol. The front seat passenger was heavily intoxicated; Hurtt, from behind, attempted to calm him. Hurtt volunteered his identification. When the driver stepped out for a sobriety test, leaving the door open. Cannon got into the truck and pointed his flashlight around the vehicle. Cannon instructed the two passengers to keep their hands visible three times. They did not comply and kept putting their hands in their pockets or the front of their pants. Although he had not yet run the driver’s license or vehicle identification nor finished the sobriety test, Gonzalez put the driver in the patrol car to help clear the passengers. After Hurrt twice appeared to be reaching into a tool bucket, Cannon searched him and found a loaded handgun in his waistband. After being arrested Hurtt made several statements without any Miranda warnings. Hurtt was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1).The Third Circuit reversed the denial of Hurtt’s motion to suppress. Cannon created a safety concern while off-mission from the purpose of the original traffic stop and thereby wrongfully prolonged Hurtt’s detention. The disputed evidence was only uncovered after the officers went off-mission. View "United States v. Hurtt" on Justia Law

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Becker’s pregnant girlfriend was shot to death on August 12, 2011. In an interview immediately after the shooting, Becker waived his Miranda rights and stated that he only wanted to clean the gun and “play around.” On August 18, after Becker’s discharge from a psychiatric hospital, he went voluntarily for a second interview. In a video-recorded interview, police repeated the Miranda warnings and neither placed Becker in handcuffs nor arrested him. The door to the interview room was unlocked. Police offered Becker drinks, cigarettes, and breaks. After approximately one hour, Becker stated: “I have nothing more to say ‘cause no matter what I say, youse trying to make me something I’m not.” Investigators left the room for several minutes. About an hour later, Becker responded to questions regarding his abusive history: “OK. I’m done now.” He never explicitly asked or attempted to leave. Police continued to question Becker, who was convicted of murder in the first degree and murder in the third degree. Becker unsuccessfully appealed the denial of his motion to suppress the second interview.The district court rejected his federal habeas petition and found “no basis” for a Certificate of Appealability (COA). The Third Circuit affirmed, applying the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. 2254 deferential standard to the state trial court’s findings when considering a request for a COA. Becker cannot meet that standard. View "Becker v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Defreitas, an enforcement officer for the U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S.V.I.) Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, asked for sexual favors in exchange for not reporting a female immigrant who was unlawfully present in the U.S.V.I. Defreitas was convicted of soliciting a bribe, V.I. CODE tit. 14, 403, and violating the Travel Act, 18 U.S.C. 1952(a)(3) but was acquitted of a blackmail charge, 18 U.S.C. 873.The Third Circuit declined the request to certify any questions to the Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands but vacated the convictions, holding hold that the evidence presented was insufficient to prove that Defreitas engaged in an “official act” under either statute. Custom may inform the understanding of official duties when those “duties [are] not completely defined by written rules,” but custom alone cannot establish what constitutes an “official act.” Even assuming that the testimony of Defreitas’s partner established a custom of reporting undocumented immigrants, that evidence was insufficient to prove that Defreitas’s decision not to report was an “official act.” There existed no internal regulation, guideline, or statute that advised the Department to engage in any activity related to the policing of immigration laws. View "United States v. Defreitas" on Justia Law

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Based on a scheme to file false unemployment claims with the Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Service Members Program, Hall and his wife, Blunt, were charged with mail fraud, money laundering, aggravated identity theft, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The government introduced recordings of telephone calls made from Blunt’s cell phone to unemployment compensation offices. Blunt testified that Hall made most of those calls. The Third Circuit vacated Hall’s conviction, citing spousal privilege. Before his new trial, Hall unsuccessfully objected to the admission of certain evidence.The Third Circuit affirmed Hall’s convictions. The court upheld the admission of testimony by Hall’s former probation officer, Leon, testimony that it was Hall’s voice on the recordings. The court rejected arguments that Leon’s testimony was unreliable because it was based on insufficient contacts with Hall, was a product of impermissible pressure, and violated Hall’s Fifth Amendment rights. The court also rejected a claim that the recording of Hall’s post-arrest interview was inadmissible for its proffered purpose: allowing the jury to compare Hall’s voice on the interview with the recorded voice, as it would impermissibly task the jury with identifying the voice, Federal Rule of Evidence 901, and require them to act as voice identification experts, Rules 606 and 701. The Fourth Amendment did not require the government to obtain search warrants for Hall’s bank records. View "United States v. Hall" on Justia Law