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

Articles 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

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The Albanian-born brothers lived in New Jersey illegally. They came to the FBI’s attention because of a 2006 video that depicted them at a firing range in the Pocono mountains shooting weapons and shouting “jihad in the States.” The FBI deployed cooperating witnesses to monitor their activities and arranged a controlled sale of semi-automatic weapons. Based on a plot to attack the Fort Dix Army base and other military facilities, they were convicted of conspiracy to murder members of the U.S. military, 18 U.S.C. 1114, 1117; possession or attempted possession of firearms in furtherance of a crime of violence, 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A) and 924(c)(1)(B)(ii); possession of machineguns, 18 U.S.C. 922(o); and possession of firearms by an illegal alien, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(5).The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of their habeas petitions, in which they argued that their 18 U.S.C. 924(c) convictions must be vacated under the Supreme Court’s 2019 “Davis” holding. Because each defendant was subject to an unchallenged life sentence, any potential vacatur of their Section 924(c) convictions would result in no practical change to their confinement. The “concurrent sentence doctrine” provides a court “discretion to avoid resolution of legal issues affecting less than all of the counts in an indictment where at least one count will survive and the sentences on all counts are concurrent.” View "Duka v. United States" on Justia Law

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Allinson was convicted of federal programs bribery, 18 U.S.C. 666(a)(2), and conspiracy, 18 U.S.C. 371, in connection with a pay-to-play scheme involving Pawlowski, the former Mayor of Allentown, Pennsylvania.The Third Circuit affirmed. Sufficient evidence showed the parties’ plan to steer a Parking Authority contract to Allinson’s law firm in exchange for campaign contributions to support Allinson’s bribery conviction; it is an “official act” for a public official to use his power to influence the awarding of government contracts, even if the official lacks final decision-making power. The court rejected Allinson’s argument that the indictment, which alleged a single conspiracy among Allinson and others, impermissibly varied from the evidence at trial that, he claimed, proved only multiple, unrelated conspiracies. The charged conspiracy included over 10 alleged co-conspirators and seven distinct sub-schemes, only one of which involved Allinson but the government’s efforts at trial were reasonably calculated to prevent guilt transference. No constructive amendment of the indictment occurred. The prosecution’s statement in closing arguments that “Bribery happens with a wink and a nod and sometimes a few words, an understanding between two people,” was not improper. Allinson failed to show “clear and substantial prejudice” resulting from the joint trial. View "United States v. Allinson" on Justia Law

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Pawlowski, the former mayor of Allentown, Pennsylvania, was convicted of federal programs bribery, 18 U.S.C. 666; Travel Act bribery, 18 U.S.C. 1952; attempted Hobbs Act extortion, 18 U.S.C. 1001; wire and mail fraud, honest services fraud, making false statements to the FBI, and conspiracy. The charges stemmed from a scheme in which Pawlowski steered city contracts and provided other favors in exchange for campaign contributions. The district court imposed a 180-month sentence.The Third Circuit affirmed. There was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find “quid pro quo” to support the bribery convictions. Any error caused by Pawlowski's inability to recross-examine a government witness was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Pawlowski’s sentence is procedurally and substantively reasonable. The case against Pawlowski was strong. The evidence showed a man eager to influence and be influenced if it would help him fund his political campaigns. View "United States v. Pawlowski" on Justia Law

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Dongarra, incarcerated for bank robbery, was transferred to a new prison and went through the onboarding process, supervised by Officer Smith. Smith gave him an ID card that indicated “Registered Offender,” and a T-shirt “know[n]” to be a “sex offender T-shirt.” The shirt falsely suggested that he had been imprisoned at Terre Haute, “a sex offender prison.” Dongarra stated that he “could be killed” if prisoners mistook him for a sex offender. Smith said he did not care and that he “hope[d] [Dongarra] kn[e]w how to fight.” Dongarra appealed to other staff, who asked Smith for another T-shirt. Smith refused. Frightened, Dongarra skipped meals and lost weight and stopped going out for recreation. Dongarra filed a grievance. Though he never got a response, a few weeks later the prison replaced his ID card and T-shirt.Dongarra sued Smith and two unnamed officers, seeking damages and an injunction, citing “Bivens.” The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of his 42 U.S.C. 1983 case. Injunctive relief is not available because Dongarra had not sued anyone who could fire or discipline Smith and by the time Dongarra sued, the prison had corrected the error. No court has extended Bivens to cover similar facts; “special factors” bar extending Bivens here. Although the officer violated Dongarra’s rights, the feared risk never materialized. Damages cannot be awarded to compensate him for an assault that never happened. View "Dongarra v. Smith" on Justia Law