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Articles Posted in Federal Criminal Law News

Last Friday, the Eleventh Circuit, which hears federal appeals here in Atlanta, Georgia, reversed Lance Lall’s conviction for credit card fraud related offenses. Although Lall was Mirandized and arguably not in custody, the Court held that his confessions were not voluntarily given, in violation of the Due Process Clause. The investigating officer had told Lall that he would not pursue charges against him.

The case began with an armed robbery at the home of twenty-year-old Lall, his parents, and his siblings. The robbers said they were searching for money and equipment owned by Lance Lall. The detectives interrogated Lall in his bedroom, telling him and his family that information he shared would not be used to prosecute him. Lall showed the detectives the equipment he used to commit identity theft and explained how each device worked. Within hours, a detective alerted the Secret Service to the evidence. Several days later, the detective called Lall in to the police station, telling him he would not need a lawyer and that he would not charge him with this. Lall was ultimately arrested by the Secret Service and tried in federal court.

The Court first analyzed the statement given in Lall’s bedroom. The Court held that the detective’s statement that he would not pursue charges was misleading and undermined the Miranda warnings he initially gave, but did not resolve the issue of whether Lall was in custody for that statement. Instead, the Court analyzed the case using the Due Process Clause, holding that the totality of the circumstances demonstrated that Lall’s statements were involuntarily given. Factual misrepresentations are not enough to render a confession involuntary. However, the deceptive promises made by the detectives here were so egregious as to make the subsequent statements involuntary. In addition, “[i]t is inconceivable that Lall, an uncounseled twenty-year-old, understood at the time that a promise by [the state police detective] that he was not going to pursue any charges did not preclude the use of the confession in a federal prosecution.”

This morning the United States Supreme Court issued three opinions.

In Graham v. Florida, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without the opportunity for parole for a nonhomicide crime.

Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion, joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. Chief Justice Roberts concurred only in the judgment. Justice Stevens filed a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Scalia and in part by Justice Alito, who also filed a dissent. The opinions in Graham v. Florida are available here.

Phaknikone.jpgYesterday, the Eleventh Circuit, which hears appeals from federal cases here in Atlanta, held in U.S. v. Phaknikone that profile photographs from the criminal defendant’s Myspace account were inadmissible evidence of character. The government argued that the photos demonstrated modus operandi: the defendant’s gangsta style as shown in the photographs identified the defendant because he robbed banks “like a gangster.” The Court saw through the argument, but held that admitting the photos was harmless error, due to the “overwhelming” evidence of Phaknikone’s guilt.

The relevant photograph in this case showed Phaknikone in the driver’s seat of a car. A tattoo is visible on his neck, as well as a large tattoo on his left arm, and he is holding a handgun in his right hand. A passenger is handing something to a child in the back seat of the car. The Court held that this photograph “proves only that Phaknikone, on an earlier occasion, possessed a handgun in the presence of a child. Although the photograph may portray a ‘gangster-type personality,’ the photograph does not evidence the modus operandi of a bank robber who commits his crimes with a signature trait.”

Phaknikone was convicted on fifteen counts stemming from seven bank robberies in late 2006 and early 2007 in Northeast Georgia. He was captured fleeing one robbery and confessed to three more. Evidence regarding clothing and shoes worn by the robbers, eyewitness accounts of his tattoos, and behavior during the robberies was introduced by the government, as well. The Court held that the evidence was overwhelming, viewed in its totality, so the admission of the photographs was harmless error.

This week, the Eleventh Circuit held that the rule making the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) retroactive was valid. In passing the rule, the Attorney General did not provide a notice and comment period as required by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The Court held, over Judge Wilson’s strong opinion concurring only in the result, that the Attorney General had “good cause” to skip the mandatory notice and comment procedures.

This issue is the subject of a Circuit Court split. The Fourth Circuit has held that the Attorney General complied with the APA, whereas the Sixth Circuit concluded that the retroactivity rule is invalid for failure to show good cause.

The good cause exceptions are contained at 5 U.S.C. §§ 553(b)(3)(B) and (d)(3). These exceptions allow the agency to skip notice and comment “when the agency for good cause finds (and incorporates the finding and a brief statement of reasons therefore in the rules issued) that notice and public procedure thereon are impracticable, unnecessary, or contrary to the public interest.” The exception must be read narrowly.

Yesterday the federal Supreme Court decided Padilla v. Kentucky. The Court recognized its “responsibility under the Constitution to ensure that no criminal defendant – whether a citizen or not – is left to the mercies of incompetent counsel. To satisfy this responsibility, [the Court held] that counsel must inform her client whether his plea carries a risk of deportation.”

Until yesterday’s decision, the lower federal courts almost unanimously held that lawyers are required to tell their clients about only ‘direct’ consequences of pleading guilty. Deportation (now called “removal”) has long been seen as a potential collateral consequence of certain convictions. While professional norms have long required such advice, until Padilla, failure to so advise did not meet the Strickland test for ineffectiveness. The Court held that the direct/collateral distinction is inappropriate in a Strickland claim concerning deportation risk.

The Strickland test has two prongs. First the Court must decide whether the attorney’s representation “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” The second prong, prejudice to the defendant, was not at issue in Padilla because the lower courts had not reached it. This second prong may be difficult to satisfy in many of these cases because many states require trial courts to advise defendants who plead guilty of potential immigration offenses. Here in Georgia, in 2000 trial courts began advising defendants that a guilty plea “may have an impact” on the defendant’s immigration status. However, Padilla may be a useful tool for challenging certain guilty plea convictions in Georgia prior to 2000.

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit federal appeals court decided U.S. v. Sneed. In this Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) case, the Court decided that U.S. v. Shepard, decided by the Supreme Court in 2005, abrogated the Eleventh Circuit’s 2000 decision in U.S. v. Richardson. The Court held that sentencing courts may look only to Shepard-approved material and facts to which the defendant has assented (such as undisputed facts in the PSI) in determining whether ACCA prior offenses were committed on different occasions.

As we explained in this post, the ACCA provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for federal criminal defendants who have three previous convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses. Those offenses must have been committed on temporally distinct occasions. In Sneed, the defendant had three previous drug convictions that were charged in a single indictment in Alabama. The state indictment did not provide dates or times for the offenses, so the district court looked to police reports attached to the government’s sentencing memorandum to determine that the offenses were committed on different occasions.

In 2000, the Eleventh Circuit held in Richardson that “determining whether crimes were committed on occasions different from one another requires looking at the facts underlying the prior convictions.” In that case, police reports showed that the prior crimes had been temporally distinct and their accuracy was not contested. The Eleventh Circuit relied on the police reports and concluded that the crimes were distinct.

The Health Care bill that passed last night provides for additional funding to the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program (HCFAC). This program was established as a part of the Heath Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in 1996 “to combat fraud committed against all health plans, both public and private.” The HCFAC program coordinates federal, state, and local law enforcement actions with respect to health care fraud and abuse.

Section 1304 of the bill passed last night provides additional funding to the tune of $250 million between 2011 and 2016 to the HCFAC program. The HCFAC Account is funded by the Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1395i(k). It covers the costs of:

(i) prosecuting health care matters (through criminal, civil, and administrative proceedings);

Congratulations to Jake Waldrop and the Federal Defender Office here in Atlanta for winning one at the Court of Appeals this week! Yesterday, the Eleventh Circuit held that Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35, which imposes a seven-day jurisdictional time limit on modifications of sentences, applies to crack resentencings, as well as original sentencings.

The opinion in the case, U.S. v. Phillips, is available here.

The Federal Defender blog has a post on the case here.

Last week, the Third Circuit, which hears appeals from federal cases in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey, heard oral arguments in a worrisome electronic privacy case: In The Matter Of The Application Of The United States Of America For An Order Directing A Provider Of Electronic Communication Service To Disclose Records To The Government. The Department of Justice is challenging a denial of a request for cell phone location data in a drug-trafficking case, which was signed by all of the magistrate judges in the Western District of Pennsylvania and affirmed by the district court judge.

At oral arguments, Third Circuit Judge Sloviter seemed understandably concerned about the privacy implications and potential over-reaching by the government in allowing police to obtain information about a person’s location based on cell phone data without probable cause. Judge Tashima, visiting from the Ninth Circuit, seemed more sympathetic to the government’s argument. Judge Roth, also on the panel, did not attend the oral arguments. An audio recording of the arguments is available here.

Professor Orin Kerr, at The Volokh Conspiracy blog, explained the case in this post and blogged the oral arguments in this post. His posts, and the extensive discussion in the comments, provide a good overview of the legal arguments involved in the case. We have also posted the appellate briefs below. We disagree with Professor Kerr’s Fourth Amendment argument that Smith v. Maryland (in which the Supreme Court held that use of a pen register is not a “search” for Fourth Amendment purposes because the user of the phone voluntarily conveys the outgoing numbers to the phone company) is applicable precedent, because a cell phone user actively dials a phone number, but only passively shares his location with the phone company. We hope that the Third Circuit decides that a warrant is necessary for the police to obtain such information.

Last week the Eleventh Circuit, which sits here in Atlanta, Georgia, decided U.S. v. Jules. The Court held that “when a district court intends to rely on new information in deciding a motion for the modification of a sentence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2),” both the federal government and the criminal defendant are entitled to notice of the information and an opportunity to respond.

Jules was originally sentenced to 151 months, the bottom of his Guidelines range, for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 50+ grams of cocaine base. The Guidelines were subsequently amended to reduce the base offense-level in such a case. Thereafter, Jules requested a modification of his sentence. The probation office sent a memo to the district court detailing misconduct by Jules while in prison. That memo was neither docketed nor provided to either of the parties. The district court relied on the sanctions in the memo in denying Jules’ motion for modification.

The Eleventh Circuit held that, although a defendant in a § 3582(c)(2) proceeding is not afforded all of the protections as at an original sentencing, the “fairness and due process principles embodied in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the Sentencing Guidelines’ policy statements, and the reasoning of [the Fifth and Eighth Circuits] compel us to hold that each party must be given notice of and an opportunity to contest new information relied on by the district court in a § 3582(c)(2) proceeding. The court also stated that a hearing is permissible for allowing parties to contest such information, but not necessary.

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