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Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

Whether here in Atlanta or other places, Carl and I represent a lot of folks who eventually face a sentencing hearing at the end of a federal criminal case.  Anyone whose spare time has brought them here knows that we chat about federal sentencing a lot, whether to analyze or to criticize how it is applied.  But whether we are analysts or critics, we always recognize that the topic remains one of the hottest subjects in the United States Supreme Court.  Yet another case this term, Beckles v. US, exemplifies this point.

OK, first the background.  The infamous “Armed Career Criminal Act” (or “ACCA”), part of the 1986 criminal law re-work that led to the mass-incarceration we are only now digging out from, yields a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone foolish enough to have anything to do with a firearm after having 3 or more prior convictions for drug dealing or a “violent felony”.  As always, the devil is in the details, and the question of what is a “violent felony” has bedeviled federal judges for the past 3 decades.  The issue was made even more difficult when the brains in Congress included as a violent felony any crime that “involves conduct that presents serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  We call this latter phrase the “residual clause” of the ACCA.  After 25 years of trying to figure out what this squishy definition might mean, the late Justice Antonin Scalia (may he rest in peace) convinced his brethren to invalidate the entire clause as being unconstitutionally vague. That case was Johnson v. United States. Continue reading

One version of “white collar crime” that often winds in federal court is called “honest services fraud”.  The basic version of the crime is when someone (usually a person who works either for some large organization, like a business or government) engages in a “scheme to defraud” that is intended to deceive or cheat another and to obtain money or property or cause the potential loss of money or property to another by means of materially false or fraudulent pretenses, representations or promises, or to deprive another of the intangible rights to honest services.  In 2010, the Supreme Court limited the words “intangible rights to honest services” to mean this law only applies to situations involving either a bribery or a kickback.   As a general rule, prosecutors need to prove an exchange, or “quid pro quo”, and must prove that the Defendant did, or refrained from doing, an “official act”, in exchange for money or something else of value.  However, there have been questions as to the type of “official act” which forms the basis of this crime.  Last Friday, the United States Supreme Court agreed to review the case of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell which could provide some answers in this area.

As noted above, honest services bribery or kickback requires an exchange of an official act for money or property. Some earlier decisions rejected efforts by prosecutors to expand the phrase “official acts” to include actions that are “customary” in the performance of many jobs. One court reversed the conviction of a state official who offered, for a fee, to introduce an architectural firm to high-ranking officials who could then secure contracts for the firm. The Defendant there promised to make introductions, but no evidence established that he promised to use his official position to influence those to whom the architectural firm was introduced. That court recognized a distinction between affording access versus actions that influence a decision.

Another federal court of appeals seems to take the same position. That Court said a legislator could not be convicted for taking money from a hospital in return for lobbying mayors to comply with state law in a way that benefited the hospital. That case also seemed to distinguish between actions that use or threaten the use of official powers versus actions that merely trade on reputation or access that accompanies the holding of a certain office.  Yet one more federal appellate court said that “official acts” are limited to those that influence an actual decision about real policies. That case involved a policeman who took payments in exchange for using an official police database to perform license plate and outstanding warrant searches. While accessing the database was part of the officer’s duties, he did not perform an “official act” in return for the money, in that the officer did not exercise any inappropriate influence on decisions made by the organization for which he worked.

Federal criminal cases, State criminal case, here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia and the rest of the country, are all impacted by this morning’s blockbuster ruling from the Supreme Court. The Court held that when a person is arrested, law enforcement cannot simply look through all the data in the arrested person’s cell phone, unless they first get a warrant from a judge. This massively important ruling is just the latest example of how the breakneck pace of modern technology runs square into the Eighteenth Century privacy considerations enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution. I have written about this in earlier posts like this and this. . Read today’s case here.

Back in 1969, the Supreme Court issued a decision called Chimel v. California. Police officers looked through a pack of cigarettes in Mr. Chimel’s pocket after arresting him, discovering contraband. The Supreme Court in that case said the search was OK, creating what we call the “search incident to arrest” principle. When a person is arrested, it is basically OK for the cops to look through anything he or she is carrying or has on his or her person, with no need for a warrant.
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We do lots of federal criminal appeals, and one such case was argued earlier this week in the United States Supreme Court. The case is Rosemond v. United States, and it involves a question that comes up frequently in federal criminal cases. Federal prosecutors often try to hold one person accountable for the actions of another person under a law that prohibits a person from “aiding and abetting” a crime. The person who does the crime is the “principal”, and the question in Rosemond is whether the “aider and abettor” needs to have the same state of mind, or “mens rea”, as the person who does the criminal act.

They say you always “remember your first”, so I have a fond memory of the initial time (23 years ago, time flies!) I won an appeal of a federal criminal conviction, which also involved the aiding and abetting theory of liability. My case involved a young man who foolishly drove other guys who committed a series of armed bank robberies. I was able to convince the Court of Appeals that for the very first of those robberies, my client could not be held accountable for the gun that was used inside the bank. The Court of Appeals agreed that under the “aiding and abetting” theory of liability there must be proof that the aider and abettor had knowledge of the gun and the same intent or purpose as the other person who does the dirty deed. In my case, there was no proof that my guy knew about and agreed with the use of the very first gun before it was used. On appeal, I was able to convince the judges to reverse the conviction for use of that first gun, and thus lopped 20 years off my client’s sentence.
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I am always harping about how lawyers defending against federal crimes need to be creative, and need to challenge whether their clients even committed a crime. About 15 years ago, I raised a series of challenges against what is called the “straw purchase” theory of liability when a person buys a gun but later transfers the weapon to another person. The law merely says that gun dealer needs to keep records, and also says that the buyer cannot make a false statement about a “material” matter. ATF kept changing position, but finally said that it is a false statement about a material matter if the buyer intended to give the gun to another person. One of the cases where I raised this challenge resulted in an opinion in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and can be seen here.

Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court accepted a straw purchase case for review later this year or early in 2014. The case is United States v. Abramski.
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The United States Supreme Court recently announced that it will take on the case of U.S. v. Castleman. In that case, the federal court of appeals decided that Mr. Castleman’s prior conviction in Tennessee for “misdemeanor domestic assault” did not fall within the federal crime that prohibits gun possession by anyone with a prior conviction for a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence”. This case encompasses not only the national debate concerning guns and violence, it also shows how the federal government is trying to further and further expand the reach of federal crimes. Likewise, it demonstrates how good lawyers often prevail in federal criminal cases.

Like many Americans, Mr. Castleman apparently got into a domestic squabble. He was charged with a crime because he committed an assault on the mother of his child, and like so many incidents, he got a sentence of probation. Several years later, federal authorities investigated him for gun crimes, resulting in charges for violating Title 18, United States Code, section 922(g)(9), which makes it a crime for any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a firearm. The phrase “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” is defined as a misdemeanor offense, committed by a person with a specified domestic relationship to the victim, that “has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.”
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As any reader of this blog knows, I am a big fan of good, aggressive and persistent criminal defense lawyers. I have had the chance to practice and observe many great criminal defense lawyers, here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia, and in other parts of the country when my work takes me to places like Florida, Alabama, New York and California. I especially like it when criminal defense lawyers “stay the course”, and continue pressing the same argument over the years until they finally prevail. Precisely that situation took place this past Monday when the United States Supreme Court overruled Harris v. United States. What happened was that the Court finally changed its mind, and decided that mandatory minimum sentences are not excluded from the rule first announced in New Jersey v. Apprendi. The case from this Monday is Alleyne v. United States, and can be found here. I previously posted on this issue here.

Mr. Alleyne’s Public Defenders were just such persistent and aggressive criminal defense attorneys. They objected to the sentencing judge’s ruling, which was correct at the time it was made. They continued their objection all the way to the Supreme Court, which agreed with them Monday and changed that rule. Here’s how it happened.
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In a case that criminal defense lawyers here in Atlanta and around the country need to all read, yesterday the United States Supreme Court ruled that the police can take DNA samples from people who are merely arrested for serious crimes, and that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution does not prohibit this practice. The decision can be found here. I predicted in a previous post that this would be a close decision, and it was: 5-4. One major surprise was that Justice Breyer, normally a friend of personal liberties, sided with the majority in ruling that warrantless extraction of DNA samples passes constitutional scrutiny. The dissent was sort of “Nino and the Ladies”, with Justice Antonin Scalia being joined by the three female Justices, Sotomayor, Ginsberg and Kagan.

Recall that this case involved Alonzo King, who was arrested in Maryland for menacing a crowd with a gun. Under Maryland law, the police extracted a DNA swab which was later sent to and made a part of a national database. Sometime later still, King’s DNA was matched to a rape investigation from six years earlier. The Maryland Supreme Court threw out King’s conviction because the DNA was extracted without a warrant nor was there any individualized suspicion that justified taking the DNA sample. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Maryland judges, and instead compared the process of taking DNA with other activities during the criminal booking process such as photographing and fingerprinting suspects when they are booked.
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As I noted in this post, on Tuesday the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Kaley v. United States, a case calling on the Justices to answer the question of whether the Sixth and Fifth Amendments afford a Defendant the right to a pretrial hearing to challenge the seizure of her assets under the federal forfeiture laws when that seizure basically prevents her from hiring and paying for counsel of her choice. It is more than a little ironic that they decided to review the case on the same day we were all celebrating the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark case ruling by the Supreme Court that everybody facing felony charges has the right to an attorney, even if he or she cannot afford to pay the lawyer. While we have made strides in the past five decades, in many ways we are worse off when a person faces the wrath of the federal government bent on a criminal prosecution.

On the one hand, we still have a long way to go when we provide counsel to people who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. Many wonderful lawyers are public defenders who struggle to provide the best defense they can while handling massive and crushing caseloads. While Defendants have the “right” to an attorney, far too often the system is set up so that the public defender simply cannot spend much time with any one client, more or less rendering meaningless the Constitutional “right to counsel” enshrined in the Gideon case.
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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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