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Articles Posted in Appeals

Sitting here in Atlanta, I really like when I find out about bright, energetic lawyers handling federal criminal cases all around the country. One such case is Burrage v. United States, where this past Tuesday the United States Supreme Court agreed to review important questions as to what it means when “death results” from drug dealing. To many lawyers and others in this field, it might seem that a case like this only really matters to folks defending drug cases. However, this is an important appeal on issues related to causation, the appropriateness of jury instructions, and construing federal statutes.

Mr. Burrage was like too many folks, caught up in the drug business, selling relatively small amounts of controlled substances. His life intersected with Joshua Banka, another lost soul who was a long-standing poly-substance abuser. Burrage sold some heroin to Banka, who died after using some of the drug. Banka had lots of other drugs in his system as well, and his girlfriend acknowledged he’d used some of these other drugs in the day before he died. The experts who testified at trial gave complex answers about the cause of Banka’s death, but they could not say that Banka would not have died if he had not used heroin (this method of saying the word “not” three times in the same sentence appears in the briefs for each side of the case).
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Like our federal cases here in Atlanta and throughout the country, it is important to keep in mind how a federal sentencing hearing takes place. The various phases of the federal sentencing process require the Defendant’s attorney to not only know the law, but also to know the procedure, so that “objections” are properly preserved. A decision issued today by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit makes this point. In that case, the attorney properly objected, thus preserving the issue for appeal. In the Court of Appeals, the Defendant raised the same argument, and the appellate tribunal agreed. The result is a lower sentence for the Defendant. The case is United States v. Washington.

Mr. Washington was charged in a large fraud scheme involving banks and credit card customers. He pled guilty. As a result, the United States Probation Officer prepared the very important document called the “Presentence Investigation Report”, which is often called the “PSR”. The PSR has two major parts, one of which is sort of a miniature biography of the Defendant. The second part of the PSR is where the probation officer makes some recommendations as to how the complex Federal Sentencing Guidelines should apply.
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Hallelujiah! The Supreme Court yesterday continued its recent string of protecting all of our rights by reinvigorating the reach of the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that police need a search warrant to get incriminating evidence from a suspect. Yesterday’s case involved the forcible removal of blood from a drunk driving suspect. By an 8-1 margin the Court held that getting the blood without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. The case is Missouri v. McNeely.

In the early-morning hours of Oct. 3, 2010, Missouri State Highway Patrol Cpl. Mark Winder pulled over Tyler G. McNeely. McNeely, whose speech was slurred and who had alcohol on his breath, failed a field sobriety test and twice refused to take a breath test.
Winder arrested McNeely. While en route to the jail, the officer stopped by a hospital. McNeely refused to submit to a blood test. Officer Winder then ordered a technician to draw blood anyway. The officer later said he did not try and get a warrant because he thought Missouri law did not require it.
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In an amazing opinion issued in Atlanta by the Eleventh Circuit, the court reversed a series of federal criminal convictions because the indictment did not even charge a crime. And, they did so even though none of the lawyers for either side bothered to address whether the indictment properly charged a federal criminal offense! The whole issue came down to whether the Defendant’s actions were “contrary to law”, and because they were not, the court of appeals reversed all their convictions.

The Defendants and their company imported dairy products into the U.S. from Central America. Apparently, several of their imported products were contaminated with E. Coli and salmonella.
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Both in federal criminal cases here in Atlanta and around the country, as well as in the state court proceedings we handle throughout Georgia, we occasionally deal with issues relating to “Double Jeopardy,” the portion of the Fifth Amendment that says prosecutors only get one bite at the apple. Yesterday, by a 8-1 vote, the United States Supreme Court continued to protect all of us against multiple prosecutions by holding there cannot be a second trial even when the judge made a mistake by erroneously granting an acquittal to the Defendant in the first trial. The case is Evans v. Michigan.

Mr. Evans was accused of setting a building on fire. One Michigan law makes it a crime to burn a dwelling, while a second law makes it a crime to burn “other real property.” At the close of the evidence, the Defendant’s lawyer pointed to standard jury instructions which require proof that the property was a “non-dwelling” before a person could be convicted of the crime of burning “other real property.” The trial judge, noting that the property owner said the building WAS a dwelling, granted an acquittal for the Defendant because the prosecution had failed to prove the property was NOT a dwelling. It turns out the trial judge was completely wrong, in that burning “other real property” is a lesser-included offense of the greater crime of burning a dwelling. The prosecution appealed, and Michigan’s appellate courts decided that a second trial was OK, even despite the protections from the Double Jeopardy Clause.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that retrial following a court-decreed acquittal is barred, even if the acquittal was based upon an egregiously erroneous foundation. An “acquittal” includes any ruling that the prosecution’s proof is insufficient to establish criminal liability for an offense. This is different from procedural rulings, which lead to dismissals or mistrials for reasons unrelated to factual guilt or innocence. An acquittal is a substantive ruling that concludes proceedings absolutely, and thus raise significant Double Jeopardy concerns. Here, the trial court clearly evaluated the prosecution’s evidence and determined that it was legally insufficient to sustain a conviction. While the acquittal was the product of an erroneous interpretation of governing legal principles, that error affects only the accuracy of the determination to acquit, not its essential character.

Along the way, the Supreme Court addressed the prosecution’s argument that Mr. Evans got a “windfall”, and he should not get the benefit of a real bonehead ruling by the trial judge. The U.S. Supreme Court was unimpressed, noting that States and the federal government have the power to prevent such situations by disallowing the practice of midtrial acquittals, encouraging courts to defer consideration of a motion to acquit until after the jury renders a verdict, or providing for mandatory continuances or expedited interlocutory appeals. The bottom line: the Double Jeopardy Clause remains intact as one of the bulwarks protecting individuals from multiple prosecutions, even when the first case was erroneously decided against the prosecution.
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Good lawyering in federal criminal cases often requires that the attorney not only be a student of the law, he or she needs to also recognize when a particular issue might be a current “loser” but the higher courts are waiting to change the rule. That might turn out to be the situation in Alleyne v. United States, a case recently accepted for review by the United States Supreme Court. Mr. Alleyne’s prescient Public Defenders objected to a ruling that was correct at the time it was made, but early next year the Supreme Court will hear arguments as to whether the rule should be changed.

In 2000, the Supreme Court issued the landmark ruling of Apprendi v. New Jersey. That case held for the first time that any fact that can change the maximum punishment to which a Defendant is exposed must be pled in the indictment, and proven to the jury by the usual “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. This is very important because until that time many facts that result in potentially longer prison sentences could be decided by one person, the sentencing judge, and that judge could use the less stringent “preponderance” evidentiary standard.
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Here in Atlanta, in both federal court and in state court criminal cases, we regularly see situations where the police stop a person’s vehicle, and walk a drug detecting dog around the car. If the dog “alerts”, the police contend they have sufficient grounds, or “probable cause”, to search the vehicle. I am currently litigating just such a case in the Georgia Court of Appeals, but the issue turns on whether they had the right to keep the driver at the side of the road long enough so as to let the dog do his thing. This term, the United States Supreme Court will confront a case out of Florida that presents a clear question: whether the police may conduct a warrantless search for drugs based solely on an alert by a drug-sniffing dog without any other evidence of the dog’s reliability so long as the dog has been “trained” or “certified.” The case if Florida v. Harris, and it will be argued in a few weeks.

Here’s how the case got to the Supreme Court. In rural Liberty County, a sheriff’s deputy was on patrol with his trusty drug-detecting dog named Aldo. The dog had been trained to detect the illegal drug methamphetamine. The deputy pulled over Clayton Harris, because his truck’s license plate had expired. The officer noticed that Harris was shaking badly, and was breathing rapidly – telltale signs, for the officer, that Harris might be on drugs. The officer wanted to search the truck, but Harris refused. The officer then had the dog walk around the truck, and the animal “alerted” to a drug on the door handle of the driver’s side of the truck. With that “alert” as legal justification, the officer searched the interior of the truck’s cab, and found ingredients for making methamphetamine.

Harris was charged with possessing materials for making meth. His very able public defenders argued that the search of the truck’s interior violated the Fourth Amendment because the deputy had no legal basis for conducting such a search. The Florida Supreme Court subsequently agreed, concluding that Aldo’s “alert” to a substance on the truck door handle was not sufficient to justify searching the cab. The state Supreme Court said that an “alert” is not enough by itself to satisfy a court that the dog is properly trained and certified for the detection of a specific illegal drug. Instead, the highest court in Florida held that an “alert” can provide the basis for a search only if the evidence shows how the particular dog was trained, what was done to satisfy an expert that the dog was adequately trained, how the dog had actually performed in “alerting” to drugs in other situations, and how well trained and how experienced was the dog’s police handler.

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Federal criminal trials almost always involve the question of “knowledge”, meaning that the prosecution is obligated to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant “knew” about some fact. In US v. Vana Haile, the Eleventh Circuit here in Atlanta showed how the issue of “knowledge” can change, depending on the facts and the specific crime involved.

Mr. Vana Haile and another man named Beckford were charged with and convicted of conspiracy and attempt to possess with intent to distribute marijuana and cocaine and knowing possession of several firearms in conjunction with their drug trafficking offenses. One of the firearms crimes alleged that the Defendants possessed a machine gun. The government also alleged that a different crime was violated because one of the weapons had an obliterated serial number.
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The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes the well-known protection against double jeopardy. Some lawyers and lay people might not realize that there is sort of a “little brother” to the protection against double jeopardy, which is called the rule of “collateral estoppel.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, down the street from us here in Atlanta, recently used the “little brother” to reverse a criminal conviction from the Middle District of Florida. The case is United States v. Valdiviez-Garza.

Double jeopardy protects against multiple prosecutions for the same offense. Collateral estoppel, on the other hand, teaches that when an issue of ultimate fact has once been determined by a valid and final judgment, that issue cannot again be litigated between the same parties in any future lawsuit. In other words, if there was an earlier criminal case that the Defendant won, and if the jury in that previous case “necessarily determined” a certain fact in the Defendant’s favor, then there cannot be a later case against that same Defendant if the subsequent case requirs proof of that same fact. Therefore, the big issue in this context almost always is whether the earlier trial involved a fact or issue that was “necessarily determined” in the defendant’s favor.

In Valdiviez-Garza, he had previously been charged with illegally re-entering the U.S. after a previous deportation. He won that case by arguing that he was not an illegal alien because he obtained citizenship through his father, who was also a citizen. Several years later, he was prosecuted again for illegally entering the country, and this later case also required the prosecutor to prove he was not a citizen. However, he got convicted the second go-round. He appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, and they agreed that he should have never faced the second prosecution because of the collateral estoppel rule. The only issue in his first trial was whether he was an alien, and he won. There never should have been a second prosecution, because the issue of his alienage had already been determined in the earlier trial.

A few hours ago the Atlanta-based United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed a former county attorney’s mail fraud and money laundering convictions based on a “material variance” between the allegations in the indictment and the proof at trial. The money laundering charges were based on the underlying fraud case, so these convictions also were reversed. A second set of fraud convictions were affirmed, but because the sentence was based on both sets of fraud charges, the court sent the matter back for a new sentencing hearing. The case is United States v. Lander.

Mr. Lander was the County Attorney of Dixie County, Florida. He also was trying to develop a vitamin company. The Court affirmed the fraud conviction that arose from the scheme involving the vitamin company.

Other fraud and money laundering charges emanated from a different set of facts. Some real estate investors wanted to develop property in the county and approached Lander for assistance. The developers put up about $850,000 as assurance that the project would go forward. Lander deposited these funds into his law firm’s trust account, but used a large chunk of these funds for purposes not related to the real estate development.

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