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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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Police officers kicked down doors of a Camden, New Jersey residence. Hours earlier, Forrest had finished work for a contractor across the street. He went to the residence to speak with acquaintances and was inside, waiting for a cab. According to Forrest, the officers beat threatened him, then took Forrest to the hospital. In the police report, Officer Parry wrote that he had observed Forrest engaging in a hand-to-hand drug transaction, that Forrest initiated the physical altercation with officers, and that Forrest was in possession of 49 bags of a controlled substance. Forrest filed an Internal Affairs complaint in July 2008 but had no response. Forrest pleaded guilty to possession with intent and served 18 months. He was released when Parry admitted that he had falsified the police report. Three officers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to deprive individuals of their civil rights, disrupting over 200 criminal cases. Forrest’s suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, 1985 was among 89 lawsuits against Camden. Forrest opted out of a global settlement. The district court unilaterally divided Forrest’s municipal liability claim into three theories: failure to supervise through Internal Affairs, failure to supervise, and failure to train. The court associated certain evidence to only the first theory, granted Camden summary judgment on the failure to supervise and train theories, excluded evidence that was material to the remaining theory, and “effectively awarded summary judgment on the state law negligent supervision claim.” The jury instructions confused the relevant law. The Third Circuit vacated. The artificial line, drawn by the district court, between what were ostensibly theories with largely overlapping evidence resulted in erroneous rulings as to what was relevant, and instructions as to what law the jury was to apply. View "Forrest v. Parry" on Justia Law

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Payano, a citizen of the Dominican Republic, came to the U.S. legally at age 12. In 1998, at age 18, he pleaded guilty to first-degree possession of a controlled substance. In 2001, after completing his sentence, he was removed. Payano illegally reentered the U.S. in 2012. During a 2017 Pennsylvania traffic stop, the trooper found a kilogram of cocaine hidden in Payano's vehicle. Payano was charged with illegal reentry and possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine. The district court agreed that the drugs were the fruit of an unconstitutional search. The government dismissed the drug charge. Payano pleaded guilty to illegal reentry. Because Payano’s 1998 conviction was for drug possession, not drug distribution, it was a felony under federal law, not an aggravated felony. Payano’s plea was under 8 U.S.C. 1326(b)(1), which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. The PSR calculated the Guidelines range as 24-30 months’ imprisonment and correctly listed the statutory maximum, but cited 1326(b)(2) (illegal reentry following an aggravated felony with a 20-year maximum). The government sought an upward variance because Payano had been “convicted of an aggravated felony" and had the court “correct” the PSR to reflect that Payano had pleaded guilty to “aggravated reentry.” Payano’s counsel agreed. The court imposed a four-year sentence. The Third Circuit vacated, agreeing that there was error but declining to extend the “Molina-Martinez“ presumption of prejudice because a mistaken understanding about the applicable statutory range, without more, has far less bearing on the actual sentence than a Guidelines-calculation error. The error did affect Payano’s substantial rights and without correction would seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. View "United States v. Payano" on Justia Law

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In 1993, three men broke into the Connor home. Connor and Ezekiel returned during the break-in; Ezekiel was shot and killed. The intruders fled. Roach was arrested and charged with first-degree murder under Virgin Islands law and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution under federal law. He testified that he did not commit the crime and did not know a possible co-conspirator, Simon. Roach was convicted. Simon was later arrested. The Virgin Islands charged him with burglary, conspiracy, and first-degree premeditated murder. One week before trial, it moved to amend to charge felony-murder, robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery. Simon’s attorney unsuccessfully objected. Two days before trial, the court again permitted an amendment. At trial, the government presented Roach as its key witness. Roach indicated that Simon orchestrated the burglary and shot Ezekiel. The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a stipulation to vacate and reduce Roach’s conviction to second-degree murder. The Third Circuit remanded the denial of Simon’s habeas petition. The Superior Court abused its discretion in declining to conduct an evidentiary hearing to address Simon’s claim that the government violated its Brady obligations by failing to disclose a prior agreement with Roach. The Appellate Division erred in dismissing Simon’s claim that his trial counsel was ineffective without remanding for an evidentiary hearing. Simon presented facts that, if true, tend to show his counsel had a conflict of interest by representing a co-conspirator at the time of his trial. View "Simon v. Government of the Virgin Islands" on Justia Law

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Santarelli was convicted of multiple crimes, including mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, and was sentenced to 70 months of imprisonment. The Third Circuit affirmed. Santarelli’s conviction became final on December 12, 2014. On November 30, 2015, Santarelli timely sought habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2255, alleging ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel in a combined 130 ways, In August 2016, Santarelli sought to amend her initial habeas petition to “include” in the “multiple grounds and constitutional violations . . . that specifically relate to enhancements, sentencing[,] and [S]entencing [G]uidelines.” The district court denied the motion as “time-barred” because the new allegations did not “relate back” to the initial habeas petition pursuant to FRCP 15(c). The court also denied Santarelli’s habeas petition on the merits. The Third Circuit denied a certificate of appealability with respect to the denial of Santarelli’s initial habeas petition on the merits but held that the allegations contained in Santarelli’s Motion to Amend “relate back” to the date of her initial habeas petition under Rule 15(c) and that her Subsequent Petition is not a “second or successive” habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. 2244 and 2255(h). The court remanded for the district court to consider the merits of her initial habeas petition as amended. View "United States v. Santarelli" on Justia Law

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Nunez was indicted for passport fraud, making a false representation of U.S. citizenship, using a false social security number, and producing a state driver’s license not issued for her use. Nunez was detained under the Bail Reform Act (BRA), 18 U.S.C. 3142(d), which permits the 10-day pretrial detention of non-citizens who may pose a flight risk or danger so ICE may take them into custody. ICE lodged a detainer. Twelve days later, a different magistrate arraigned Nunez, denied the government’s motion for pretrial detention, and set conditions for her release. The district court upheld the order. ICE then executed its detainer, taking Nunez into custody for her removal proceedings. While in ICE custody, Nunez unsuccessfully moved to dismiss her indictment or obtain release, arguing that section 3142(d) gives the government “the choice of [either] taking the Defendant into [ICE] custody during the ten-day period and proceeding with removal or continuing with the criminal prosecution in which case the BRA controls.” The court held that 8 U.S.C. 1226(a)(1) allowed ICE to detain Nunez during the pendency of removal proceedings notwithstanding the criminal action; her detention did not conflict with the BRA. The Third Circuit dismissed an appeal of the ruling denying the request to dismiss the indictment, which was not a final ruling. The court affirmed the denial of Nunez’s claim that her BRA release order foreclosed her ICE detention. View "United States v. Nunez" on Justia Law

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The FBI recruited Fairview Township Police Officer Baker’s fellow officer, Bennage, to assist in an investigation into allegations that Baker was involved in stealing drug proceeds. Baker learned that Bennage had found cash on a drug-overdose victim; Baker texted, “Where’s mine? LOL.” Bennage responded that others had been watching. Baker responded, “next time. LOL.” Days later, after Bennage and other officers discovered multiple stacks of cash during a search, Baker sent Bennage a text saying that he would help with the evidence and “don’t get greedy, be smart.” Baker told Bennage to put his share in a toolbox in Baker’s truck. Less than a month later, the FBI and Bennage executed an undercover operation in which Bennage and Baker stopped an FBI agent traveling with $15,000, posing as a drug trafficker. Bennage took the ‘trafficker’ in for booking, leaving Baker alone with the vehicle. Baker searched the car. He discovered the $15,000. FBI cameras recorded the process. Baker took $3,000. He later confessed to the thefts and was convicted of stealing or embezzling public money, 18 U.S.C. 641. The Third Circuit affirmed, upholding the trial court’s refusal to give an entrapment jury instruction and a jury instruction requiring the government to prove that he had an intent to permanently, rather than temporarily, deprive the government of its money, and its refusal to allow Mrs. Baker to testify about the financial burden of her cancer-related medical bills. View "United States v. Baker" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law

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James arranged to sell cocaine to a DEA confidential informant, took a bag containing 12 kilograms of cocaine to a hotel room where the informant was staying, and negotiated a price of $13,500. DEA agents immediately arrived and arrested James. James, who apparently had no criminal history, was charged with conspiracy to distribute narcotics, 21 U.S.C. 846, and possession with intent to distribute narcotics, section 841(a)(1). After being thoroughly questioned by the judge, James agreed to the government’s statement of facts and entered a plea of guilty to Count 1, which the court accepted. Months later, before sentencing, James filed a pro se “motion to dismiss counsel based upon ineffectiveness of counsel,” asserting his innocence, and claiming duress and that he did not understand the plea agreement. Newly-appointed counsel moved to withdraw the plea and argued entrapment. The court denied the motion, reasoning that “an entrapment defense is a claim of legal innocence, not factual innocence,” and James had failed to assert factual innocence. The Third Circuit affirmed. Even if James’s assertion of legal innocence (entrapment) were sufficient, bald assertions of innocence are insufficient to permit a defendant to withdraw his guilty plea. The court noted his earlier admissions, including that he negotiated the price on a per-kilo basis; James’s statements during the plea hearing indicate that his plea was knowing, voluntary, and fully informed. View "United States v. James" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law

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Greene and his girlfriend, Manley, traveling in a van without its lights on, were stopped by Hanover Township Officer Stefanowicz. Manley was driving, but was unable to produce a driver’s license, vehicle registration, or proof of insurance. She gave Stefanowicz a rental car agreement in the name of Hurtudo-Moreno that listed no other authorized drivers. Stefanowicz smelled unburnt marijuana emanating from the vehicle. Greene was “repeatedly seeking to leave... and reaching for his waistband.” Stefanowicz executed a “Terry” pat-down, and felt a bulge, the seal of a plastic baggie, and the texture of its contents. Stefanowicz immediately recognized the bag as marijuana and placed Greene under arrest. Stefanowicz searched the van and found bullets in the glove box and in Manley’s purse. Walking to the squad car, Greene was bending over and walking in unusual ways. Another officer searched Greene further and located a loaded, stolen handgun in his groin area. The police arrested Manley. Greene expressed concern for Manley and volunteered that he would “take the hit” for the gun. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of his suppression motions and his conviction (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1)). Stefanowicz’s response to Greene's question about the charges Manley faced did not constitute the functional equivalent of interrogation. Greene asked for the information; his response was unforeseeable. Stefanowicz’s answer was brief, accurate, and unrelated to the gun and bullets. Greene was not “emotionally upset or overwrought.” The “plain-feel doctrine” permits an officer to seize an object when, given his training and experience, he develops probable cause to believe it is contraband by the time he concludes it is not a weapon and “in a manner consistent with a routine frisk.” View "United States v. Greene" on Justia Law

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In 2014, A.M. defrauded two banks and their customers, using skimming devices and PIN-pad overlays on ATMs. He was charged with 19 counts of bank fraud and aggravated identity theft, 18 U.S.C. 1028A and 1344. He pleaded guilty to only one count of each. A.M. objected to his guideline calculation for the bank-fraud conviction because it included a two-level enhancement for using “device-making equipment” to make counterfeit debit cards, U.S.S.G. 2B1.1(b)(11)(A)(i). He argued that his conviction for aggravated identity theft precluded that enhancement. The court disagreed but, because of A.M.’s cooperation, sentenced him to only 10 months’ imprisonment on that count. A.M. objected that the government had not also moved for a departure below the mandatory minimum sentence for his aggravated-identity-theft sentence. The court found that identity theft is an especially severe crime and sentenced A.M. to the mandatory minimum sentence of two years’ consecutive imprisonment. The Third Circuit affirmed. While device-making equipment can copy means of identification, it is not itself a means of identification, so the device-making enhancement was proper. The law empowers courts to depart below a statutory minimum only “[u]pon motion of the Government,” 18 U.S.C. 3553(e). The government made no such motion with respect to aggravated identity theft. View "United States v. Meireles-Candel" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law

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Trant and Ashby had a heated encounter at a gas station in Bovoni, St. Thomas, that ended with each displaying his pistol. After law enforcement officers looked into these events, Trant was convicted as a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). The Third Circuit affirmed. The district court did not abuse its discretion by granting the government’s motion to re-open its case-in-chief because Trant was not prejudiced. The motion was made before Trant had the opportunity to present his evidence, thereby giving him the opportunity to respond and also limiting any disruption to the proceedings. The court rejected Trant’s argument that the court should have permitted him to question Ashby about his possession of a firearm, suggesting it was probative of Ashby’s character for untruthfulness and necessary for the jury to evaluate Ashby’s credibility. The implausible nature of Ashby’s having an ulterior motive for testifying hardly made it “obvious” that Trant had the right to ask Ashby about the latter’s illegal possession of a firearm. Trant’s conviction was supported by sufficient evidence. View "United States v. Trant" on Justia Law