Articles Posted in Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals

Our local Federal Court of Appeals, sitting just down the street from our offices here in Atlanta, yesterday reversed a federal criminal conviction for obstruction of justice. The prosecutors contended that the defendant tried to obstruct a forfeiture matter. The Eleventh Circuit joined other courts and relied on some earlier Supreme Court cases by holding that there cannot be a conviction in this context unless there is evidence that the defendant was aware of the forfeiture proceeding he obstructed. The case is United States v. Friske.

Mr. Friske lives in Wisconsin, but his friend (Erickson) got busted in Florida for drug crimes. Law enforcement listened to calls Erickson made from jail to Friske where he asked the latter to do a “repair job” and remove “three things” buried near Erickson’s pool. Agents got there before Friske, and found $375,000 buried in that location. Later, they observed Friske coming away from the pool area, covered in dirt. Friske made some baloney statements to the police, and later conceded he was just “trying to help a friend.”

The government indicted Friske for attempting to obstruct an official proceeding by attempting to hide and dispose of assets involved in a forfeiture case, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §1512(c)(2). The Eleventh Circuit joined other appellate courts by holding there is a “nexus” requirement in this statute which requires a connection between the obstructive conduct and the proceeding in question. Stated another way, “if the defendant lacks the knowledge that his actions are likely to affect the judicial proceeding, he lacks the requisite intent to obstruct.”

Just a few hours ago the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sitting here in Atlanta affirmed most, but not all, of the convictions in the long-running saga of US v. Don Siegelman and Richard Scrushy.

Don Siegelman was the Governor of Alabama. Richard Scrushy was the founder and Chief Executive Officer of HealthSouth. The case stemmed from allegations that Governor Siegelman placed Scrushy and others on a State Board in return for a $500,000 payment. The government charged them with a series of crimes relating to alleged public corruption. Specifically, Siegelman and Scrushy were alleged to have violated 18 U.S.C. §666(a)(1)(B), the law that prohibits bribery involving organizations that receive federal funds. The government also charged the defendants with “honest services” mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit same. Finally, Governor Siegelman was charged with obstruction of justice.

While the case was on appeal, the Supreme Court issued the well-known decision in US v. Skilling, a ruling that restricts the scope of the federal “honest services” branch of mail and wire fraud. Each defendant contended that Skilling changed the landscape, and that their convictions must be reversed. Likewise after the verdicts, the defendants uncovered what appeared to be troubling evidence of juror misconduct and exposure to extrajudicial materials.

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided United States v. Williams. The Court held that the sentencing judge clearly erred in granting a reduction for acceptance of responsibility and denying an enhancement for obstruction of justice because Mr. Williams testified to his factual innocence at trial after withdrawing his guilty plea.

Following a car chase in Atlanta, Georgia that culminated with Mr. Williams receiving a gun shot to an eye, Williams was charged with assaulting three federal marshals. Williams entered a guilty plea, but withdrew it due to the potential sentence. He then testified at trial that he hadn’t known his pursuers in unmarked vehicles were law enforcement officers.

The sentencing judge relied on a presentence report that recommended he receive three points off for acceptance of responsibility. She explained, “I think particularly in this case where he was shot, his ability to have his own trial and tell his story was important. I mean, I consider that an important part of my job, is to provide trials to people who have a story that legitimately needs telling.” Explaining that she would not punish Mr. Williams for exercising his constitutional right to trial, she awarded two points off for acceptance of responsibility. The Eleventh Circuit held that it was “erroneous to award a reduction for acceptance of responsibility when a defendant denies guilt in the face of evidence to the contrary” and Mr. Williams had done exactly that by “admitt[ing] he was guilty initially, but withdr[awing] his plea” and then testifying to his innocence “despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Davis v. United States. The Court will resolve a federal circuit court split: whether the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applies to a search that is later ruled unconstitutional. This March, the Eleventh Circuit held in Davis that the exclusionary rule does not apply when the police conduct a search reasonably relying on well-settled precedent, even if that precedent is later overturned. We hope the Court reverses this decision.

In Davis, the defendant was a passenger in a routine traffic stop in Alabama. He gave the police officers a false name. When asked to exit the vehicle, Davis removed his jacket and left it in the car, then was taken toward a group of bystanders. The bystanders provided his real name, leading to Davis’s arrest for giving a false name. In the search incident to his arrest, the officers found a gun in the jacket, which was still in the car. Davis was convicted of possession of a firearm and sentenced to more than 18 years.

As we explained in this post, the Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant in April 2009. The Court held that police are authorized “to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search,” unless some evidence related to the crime of arrest may be in the vehicle. This decision rendered the search in Davis unconstitutional.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held last week that a ten-year delay between indictment and arrest did not deprive Victor Garcia Villarreal of his constitutional right to a speedy trial. The Court employed a four-factor balancing test, holding that although the length of the delay gave rise to a presumption of prejudice, the reason for the delay, failure to promptly assert the right, and lack of actual prejudice showed that Villarreal was not denied his right to a speedy trial. In weighing the final three factors, the Court gave substantial deference to the district court’s factual findings that Villarreal had evaded arrest and the delay had caused the government actual prejudice, rather than the defendant.

The full opinion in United States v. Villarreal is available here.

Last month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which makes it a federal crime to use or possess a firearm in connection with a crime of violence, can apply to crimes of violence committed outside the United States. In U.S. v. Belfast, the first case prosecuting an individual under 18 U.S.C. § 2340A (the Torture Act,) the Court upheld a § 924(c) conviction where the American citizen defendant tortured people in Liberia.

The defendant, a man of many names whom the court referred to as Emmanuel, is the American born-and-raised son of Charles Taylor, a former president of Liberia who is currently on trial for crimes against humanity in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. President Taylor put Emmanuel in charge of the “Anti-Terrorism Unit,” which was known in Liberia as the “Demon Forces.” In that role, Emmanuel tortured many individuals between 1999 and 2002. Twelve pages of the Court’s 87-page opinion recount horrifying details of that torture.

The Court justified the application of § 924(c) to crimes of violence committed extraterritorially by arguing that the plain language of § 924(c) provides for its application to any crimes that “may be prosecuted in a court of the United States.” Because the Torture Act, which applies extraterritorially, may be prosecuted in federal courts, the Court reasoned, “a § 924(c) charge can arise out of extraterritorial conduct that is found to be in violation of the Torture Act.”

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, decided United States v. Irey. The 142-page majority opinion recounted gruesome sex crimes that Mr. Irey admitted to committing against as many as 50 Cambodian girls, some as young as four years old. The Court held that the 17½ year sentence ordered by the federal district court judge was a substantively unreasonable downward variance and remanded for sentencing within the Sentencing Guidelines range, which was 30 years at both the top and bottom. As one of the dissenting judges noted, “hard facts often lead to bad law” and we worry that this case will unduly limit district court judges’ discretion in imposing variances in future sentencing decisions.

The lengthy majority opinion began with an account of Mr. Irey’s criminal conduct and case. In short, Mr. Irey repeatedly traveled to Cambodia and China, where he bought underaged Cambodian girls to abuse in horrific ways that the Court said set Mr. Irey apart from “many examples of man’s inhumanity” that steadily flow through the Court of Appeals. During that abuse, he produced “some of the most graphic and disturbing child pornography that has ever turned up on the internet.” He later distributed those images, which have become widely known as “the Pink Wall series.” He was charged with and pleaded guilty to one count of violating 18 U.S.C. § 2251(c), which prohibits producing such images of child pornography elsewhere, then transporting them into the United States.

Under the Sentencing Guidelines, the adjusted offense level for Mr. Irey’s conduct would have led to an advisory sentence of life imprisonment. However, the statutory maximum for his crime as charged was 30 years. For that reason, the Guidelines range was 30 years.

In late May, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from federal cases in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, decided U.S. v. Cunningham. The Court held that the federal statute that provides for revocation of supervised release is constitutional under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, despite its provision for reimprisonment of a criminal defendant based upon conduct that is not proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

The supervised release revocation statute is at 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e)(3). It permits a district court to “revoke a term of supervised release, and require the defendant to serve in prison all or part of the term of supervised release” upon a finding “by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant violated a condition of supervised release.”

In 2000, in Apprendi v. New Jersey, the Supreme Court held that, other than prior convictions, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. In 2004, the Supreme Court explained in Blakely v. Washington that the “statutory maximum” is the maximum sentence a judge may impose based upon the facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by the defendant.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Dolan v. United States, resolving a circuit court split. This decision abrogates U.S. v. Maung, a 2001 Eleventh Circuit case that held that a federal court imposing a criminal sentence lacks the authority to enter a restitution order after the 90-day deadline has expired. The Supreme Court held that, at least where the sentencing court clearly advised before the deadline that it would order restitution, that court may order the specific amount after the deadline has expired.

The majority opinion by Justice Breyer is available here, along with a dissenting opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Stevens, Scalia, and Kennedy.

This Monday, the Eleventh Circuit held in Gilbert v. United States that, for federal sentencing purposes, the act of being a U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1 career offender is essentially a separate offense. Based upon the Supreme Court’s retroactive decision in Begay and the Eleventh Circuit’s implementation of that decision in Archer, Gilbert is actually innocent of committing two violent felonies, the basis for that offense. Because circuit law squarely foreclosed his claim when he raised it at sentencing, on appeal, and in his first 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion, Gilbert was entitled to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. He may now be eligible for immediate release.

The Original Sentence and Appeals

In 1997, Gilbert was convicted of a crack cocaine offense and sentenced as a career offender under § 4B1.1 based upon previous convictions for possessing crack with intent to sell and carrying a concealed firearm. Under the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines, the enhancement increased his Guidelines range from 151-188 months to 292-365 months. Gilbert argued that carrying a concealed firearm was not a crime of violence, but the district court judge disagreed and, stating that he thought the sentence was too high, reluctantly sentenced Gilbert to 292 months. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit held that carrying a concealed firearm was a crime of violence for purposes of the career offender guideline. Gilbert’s pro se § 2255 motion was denied in 1999, all post-conviction options now exhausted.