Justia U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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In a criminal appeal, Defendant presented two issues. First, whether evidence discovered after a consent search of Defendant’s car should be suppressed because law enforcement stopped Morris without reasonable suspicion or overbore his free will to obtain consent to search his vehicle. Second, whether at sentencing the district court erred in holding that Defendant was ineligible for a minor role adjustment because the other participants in the crime had not been indicted or otherwise identified. 
 The Fifth Circuit vacated the district court’s denial of Defendant’s motion to suppress and remanded for reconsideration of his motion to suppress. The court wrote it was convinced that the sheriff’s deputies in the case effected a stop of Defendant under the Fourth Amendment. The court explained that because the district court held that Defendant was not stopped, it did not determine whether the deputies had reasonable suspicion to do so. Thus, the court’s decision is a determination that the district court must make in the first instance, as it usually involves assessing the credibility of witnesses and weighing this evidence under the totality of the circumstances. View "USA v. Morris" on Justia Law

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Defendants settled a civil enforcement action that the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) brought against them for alleged securities violations. The SEC barred Defendants from denying that they engaged in the charged conduct as a condition of settlement (the “no-deny policy”). The parties executed consent agreements containing provisions to that effect and submitted them to the district court, which entered final judgments. Five years later, Defendants filed a motion under Rule 60(b)(4) and 60(b)(5) seeking relief from the final judgments to the extent that they incorporated the no-deny policy. They argued that the no-deny policy violates their First Amendment and due process rights. The district court denied the motion, and Defendants appealed.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling holding that Defendants are not entitled to relief based on any alleged First Amendment Violations. Defendants argue that, in denying their motion for Rule 60(b)(4) relief, the district court adopted a cribbed view of Espinosa that the Fifth Circuit rejected in Brumfield. The court wrote that Defendants read Brumfield too broadly. That decision expressly recognized that “a judgment is void under Rule 60(b)(4) only if the court lacked jurisdiction of the subject matter, or of the parties, ‘or it acted in a manner inconsistent with due process of law.’”   Next, Defendants asserted that the judgments here should “be set aside as violating the public interest under Rule 60(b)(5).” They argue that retaining the no-deny policy in the judgments harms the public interest. The court explained that Defendants failed to meet their burden of establishing that changed circumstances warrant relief. View "SEC v. Novinger" on Justia Law

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The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (“TDCJ”) has denied prisoner requests to hold religious gatherings for the Nation of Gods and Earths (“the Nation”).   In response, Plaintiff, brought this suit against the TDCJ’s Deputy Director of Volunteer Services and Special Populations, in the hope of vindicating the rights of the Nation’s adherents to congregate. The suit was initially filed pro se over half a decade ago. But Tucker began receiving the aid of pro bono legal counsel a few years later. The State now says that it has promulgated a new policy to govern congregation requests on behalf of the Nation’s adherents. As a result, the State contends that this suit is now moot.   On appeal, the Fifth Circuit vacated the judgment to the congregation claim, holding that there were genuine disputes of material fact as to “whether the state’s ban: (1) advances a compelling interest (2) through the least restrictive means.” Tucker v. Collier (Tucker I), 906 F.3d 295, 302 (5th Cir. 2018). After adopting the changes, TDCJ sought summary judgment on the grounds that Tucker’s case was. The district court dismissed Plaintiff’s claim as moot.   The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling and found that the case is not moot. The court explained that TDCJ’s policy change gives Plaintiff nothing more than the right to apply for a congregation—to date TDCJ has never approved the Nation for congregation. And it is the latter that this suit seeks to obtain. View "Tucker v. Gaddis" on Justia Law

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After a man was found incompetent to stand trial, and his civil commitment proceeding was dismissed, he stayed in jail for six more years. Plaintiff, the man’s guardian, filed suit against the District Attorney, Sheriffs, and Clay County under Section 1983, challenging the man’s years-long detention.   The district court first dismissed the District Attorney from the case. However, the court determined that the Sheriffs were not entitled to qualified immunity on the detention claim because their constitutional violations were obvious. It denied summary judgment to Clay County too, finding that there was strong evidence that the Sheriffs were final policymakers for the county.   The Fifth Circuit dismissed Clay County’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction and affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgment as to the Sheriffs.  The court first held that it lacked jurisdiction over the ruling keeping Clay County in the case. The Court explained that, unlike the Sheriffs, municipalities do not enjoy immunity. Further, the court wrote it did not have pendent party jurisdiction over Clay County. Defendants assume that if Clay County’s liability is “inextricably intertwined” with that of the individual officers, that provides “support [for] pendent appellate jurisdiction.” But the court has never permitted pendent party (as opposed to pendent claim) interlocutory jurisdiction.   Further, taking the evidence in Plaintiff’s favor, the Sheriffs violated the man’s due process right by detaining him for six years in violation of the commit-or-release rule and the circuit court’s order enforcing that rule. The court explained that it was clearly established that the Sheriffs could be liable for a violation of the man’s clearly established due process right. View "Harris v. Clay County, MS" on Justia Law

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Defendant, seeking habeas relief, alleged that prosecutors unconstitutionally suppressed a document that would have aided his case and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel during his trial and his direct appeal.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed holding that Defendant failed to demonstrate that any of his habeas claims merit relief. Defendant first asserted that the prosecution violated his Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), by suppressing FD-302 evidence favorable to his case. The court wrote that the impeachment value of the 302 is insufficient to undermine confidence in the trial and the jury’s verdict, such that the 302 is not material, and Defendant’s Brady claim therefore fails.   Next, because none of the prosecutor’s statements, taken in context, constitute improper vouching, Defendant cannot argue that his trial counsel should have objected to them and was ineffective for not doing so. And even if the prosecution acted improperly as to some of its closing remarks, Defendant fails to show how any strategic decision on his counsel’s part not to object rises to ineffective assistance. View "USA v. Valas" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 922(g)(1). The jury instructions did not specify that the jury must find that Defendant knew he was a felon when he possessed a firearm. After Defendant’s conviction and sentencing, the Supreme Court decided in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019), that knowledge of felony status is an essential element of that offense. The following year, Defendant filed a motion with the district court under 28 U.S.C. Section 2255, arguing that because of Rehaif the court should vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. The district court denied the motion, concluding that Rehaif did not establish a new right that applies retroactively as required for such collateral actions.   The Fifth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded. The court considered whether in Rehaif the Supreme Court newly recognized a right and whether that right has been made retroactive to cases on collateral review. The court concluded that the Supreme Court did indeed recognize a new right—the defendant’s right to have the Government prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew of his felony status when he possessed a firearm.Next, the court wrote, that rule applies retroactively. The Supreme Court has explained that “[n]ew substantive rules generally apply retroactively” to finalized convictions. Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348, 351 (2004). The court explained that remand is appropriate because the district court has not addressed procedural default or the merits of Defendant’s claim. View "USA v. Kelley" on Justia Law

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The district court enjoined Texas laws regulating the disposal of embryonic and fetal tissue remains. The state requires facilities performing abortions to dispose of these remains in one of four ways: “(1) interment”; (2) cremation; (3) incineration followed by interment; or (4) steam disinfection followed by interment. Tex. Health & Safety Code Section  697.004(a). The district court assumed that the Texas laws further a legitimate state interest. Under the Casey balancing approach, the district court concluded that “the challenged laws impose significant burdens on abortion access that far outweigh the benefits the challenged laws confer.”   The Fifth Circuit held that because the Supreme Court overruled Casey and Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), now under Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., -- S. Ct. --, 2022 WL 2276808 “[t]he Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion.” Thus, the court vacated the injunction issued in the case and remanded for further proceedings consistent with Dobbs. View "Whole Woman's Health, et al v. Young" on Justia Law

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John Jay’s assistant coach (“Coach”) was “increasingly agitated, angry and enraged over his belief that the referee crew was making ‘bad calls,’” and over “alleged racial comments” Plaintiff, a referee, had directed at players. Coach told John Jay players “to hit” Plaintiff because “he need[ed] to pay the price.” The Coach pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily injury, affirming that he did “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly cause bodily injury to Plaintiff by striking him.” This civil rights suit, filed in state court and later removed to federal court, followed.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the school district. The court held no policy or custom of Northside Independent School District directed the assault on Plaintiff—quite the opposite, the Coach had gone rogue in ordering the assault—so the district is not liable under section 1983.   But the state-created-danger theory does not even fit this situation in which a public employee ordered private actors to commit an assault. Instead, the theory applies when a state actor creates a dangerous condition that results in harm. It involves a mens rea of deliberate indifference, not the intentional infliction of harm. Instead, it is an example of a public official’s ordering private actors to engage in the conduct. The law has long recognized that state action exists when a state actor commands others to commit acts as much as when the state actor commits those act. Further, the court left it to the district court to determine complaint has alleged a violation of clearly established due process law. View "Watts v. Northside Indep Sch Dist, et al" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff was an engineer for the City of Pharr, Texas. When his supervisors asked him to sign a document he did not believe was true, Plaintiff refused. Ultimately, he was terminated and filed this case against the city and two of Plaintiff's supervisors.Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming he was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court held a hearing and denied Defendant's motion. Two days later, the court entered a minute order; however, no written order was attached. Exactly 412 days later, Defendant appealed the denial of his motion for summary judgment, claiming that the court's oral ruling was not appealable and that he is technically appealing the court's refusal to rile on his motion.The Fifth Circuit rejected Defendant's reasoning. A bench ruling can be effective without a written order and triggers appeal deadlines if it is final. Here, the court's order was final. While the district court's ruling did not comply with Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 58, an alternate interpretation would give Defendant infinite time to appeal. View "Ueckert v. Guerra" on Justia Law

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On December 14, 2021, the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion in this case, upholding the district court's rejection of Plaintiff's challenge to an ATF rule determining that bump stocks are "machineguns" for purposes of the National Firearms Act (NFA) and the federal statutory bar on the possession or sale of new machine guns.However, after a majority of the eligible circuit judges voted in favor of hearing the case en banc, the court vacated its prior opinion so the entire court could hear the case. View "Cargill v. Garland" on Justia Law