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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Plaintiff, on behalf of her son, sued District Attorney, Sheriffs, and Clay County under Section 1983 alleging that Defendants violated her son’s Fourteenth Amendment due process rights by unlawfully detaining him for years. The complaint also contends that, at one point, the Sheriff held Defendant down and forced him to take unwanted medication. As to Clay County, Plaintiff argued that Sheriffs were final policymakers, making the county liable under Monell. Defendants sought summary judgment; Plaintiff responded with a motion for partial summary judgment.   After summary judgment, the following claims remained: the detention claim against the Sheriffs and Clay County; the forced medication claim against Clay County alone. The Sheriffs and Clay County appealed. The Fifth Circuit, in treating the petition for rehearing en banc as a petition for panel rehearing, granted the petition for panel rehearing. The court 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 explained that this is not a case about jailers following court orders that turned out to be unconstitutional. These Sheriffs held Plaintiff’s son in violation of a court order that followed Jackson’s commit-or-release rule. The court wrote that it cannot be that the initial detention order in a case overrides subsequent release orders and allows jailers to indefinitely hold defendants without consequence. Thus, taking the evidence in Plaintiff’s favor, the Sheriffs violated Plaintiff’s due process right by detaining him for six years in violation of the commit-or-release rule and qualified immunity thus does not protect the Sheriffs. View "Harris v. Clay County, MS" on Justia Law

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The issue before the en banc court was whether the current version of Miss. Const. art. 12, Section 241 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. This provision was upheld in Cotton v. Fordice, 157 F.3d 388 (5th Cir. 1998), which was binding on the district court and the panel decision here, but the court voted to reconsider Cotton en banc.   Plaintiffs are black men in Mississippi who were convicted, respectively, of forgery and embezzlement. Both are disenfranchised under current Mississippi law because of their convictions. They filed suit against the Mississippi Secretary of State under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to restore the voting rights of convicted felons in Mississippi. They contend that the crimes that “remain” in Section 241 from the 1890 Constitution are still tainted by the racial animus with which they were originally enacted.   The Fifth Circuit reaffirmed that the current version of Section 241 superseded the previous provisions and removed the discriminatory taint associated with the provision adopted in 1890. Cotton, 157 F.3d at 391–92. Further, the court held that Plaintiffs failed to establish the 1968 reenactment of Section 241 was motivated by racism. The court explained that contrary to Plaintiffs’ principal assertion, the critical issue here is not the intent behind Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution, but whether the reenactment of Section 241 in 1968 was free of intentional racial discrimination. Accordingly, as a matter of law, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that Section 241 as it currently stands was motivated by discriminatory intent or that any other approach to demonstrating the provision’s unconstitutionality is viable. View "Harness v. Watson" on Justia Law

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State troopers arrested Defendant after finding drugs in his car during a traffic stop. Morton also had three cell phones in the car. A state judge later signed warrants authorizing searches of the phones for evidence of drug crime. The warrants allowed law enforcement to look at photos on the phones. When doing so, troopers discovered photos that appeared to be child pornography. This discovery led to a second set of search warrants. The ensuing forensic examination of the phones revealed almost 20,000 images of child pornography. This federal prosecution for receipt of child pornography followed. Defendant argues the evidence discovered during those searches should be suppressed. Defendant principally tries to defeat good faith by invoking the third exception, which involves what are commonly known as “bare bones” affidavits.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The court held that law enforcement is usually entitled to rely on warrants and none of the exceptions that undermine good-faith reliance on a judge’s authorization applies. The court wrote that the affidavits used to search Defendant’s phones are not of this genre. Each is over three pages and fully details the facts surrounding Defendant’s arrest and the discovery of drugs and his phones. They explain where the marijuana and glass pipe was discovered, the number (16) and location of the ecstasy pills, and the affiant’s knowledge that cellphones are used for receipt and delivery of illegal narcotics. The court explained that it decides only that the officers acted in good faith when relying on the judge’s decision to issue the warrants. View "USA v. Morton" on Justia Law

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This case involves three constitutional challenges to New Orleans’s regulation of short-term rentals (“STRs”)—the City’s term for the type of lodging offered on platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo. The district court granted summary judgment to the City on two of those challenges but held that the third was “viable.” Both sides appealed.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed in part, vacated in part, and dismissed the City’s cross-appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Plaintiffs appealed the summary judgment on the dormant Commerce Clause claim and the Takings Clause claim. The City cross-appealed the “holding”—its term, not ours—that the prior-restraint claim is “viable.”   The court explained that first, the original licensing regime was explicit: An STR license is “a privilege, not a right.” Second, Plaintiffs’ interests in their licenses were not so longstanding that they can plausibly claim custom had elevated them to property interests. Together, those two factors yield one conclusion: Plaintiffs didn’t have property interests in the renewal of their licenses.  Next, the court agreed that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the City on their challenge to the residency requirement. The court explained that the district court should have asked whether the City had reasonable nondiscriminatory alternatives to achieve its policy goals. View "Hignell-Stark v. City of New Orleans" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff was fired from his position as the Chief of Investigation of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman (Parchman) about three months after he testified at a probable cause hearing on behalf of one of his investigators. Rogers sued the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC), then-MDOC Commissioner, and MDOC’s Corrections Investigations Division Director, under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, alleging a First Amendment retaliation claim. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants based on sovereign and qualified immunity. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.   The court explained that to defeat qualified immunity, Plaintiff must show that the defendants violated a right that was not just arguable, but “beyond debate.” And he fails to “point to controlling authority—or a robust consensus of persuasive authority that either answers the question Lane left open regarding sworn testimony given by a public employee within his ordinary job duties, or clearly establishes that Plaintiff’s testimony was outside his ordinary job duties as a law enforcement officer (or was otherwise protected speech). Nor does Plainitff point to record evidence demonstrating that his testimony was undisputedly outside the scope of his ordinary job responsibilities, as was his burden to do. View "Rogers v. Hall" on Justia Law

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A grand jury charged Defendant and co-Defendant with three offenses: conspiracy to deal methamphetamine; possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine; and conspiracy to deal marijuana. Defendant filed a motion seeking an acquittal or, in the alternative, a new trial. The district court granted the second request, however, the order did not divulge the grounds for the new trial. The government had timely appealed the new trial grant. A divided panel of the Fifth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting a new trial.   The Fifth Circuit reversed the order granting a new trial, reinstated as to Count Two and the jury’s verdict on that count (possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine). The court further remanded for sentencing on that conviction. The court explained this is not one of the “exceptional cases” in which a judge had the discretion to vacate the jury’s verdict by ordering a new trial. Far from being a case in which the evidence weighs heavily against the verdict, the great weight of the evidence supports this one. The court wrote, that the district court set aside the verdict because, in its view, little evidence showed that Defendant knowingly possessed an illegal substance. But a trinity of evidence supported the knowledge element. The court explained that it is true that the “district judge, unlike us, was there throughout the trial.” But because the jury’s verdict was not against the great weight of evidence, it was an abuse of discretion to erase it. View "USA v. Crittenden" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted of illegally possessing an unregistered firearm, specifically a “destructive device,” under the National Firearms Act (“NFA”). Appealing his conviction, Defendant argues that the NFA is unconstitutionally vague as applied to his case and that the evidence is insufficient to support conviction.   The determinative issue on appeal was whether an explosive-containing device falls within the NFA when it is susceptible of both innocent and destructive uses and not clearly designed as a weapon. The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment of conviction. The court explained that in this case, the government’s only evidence challenging Defendant’s testimony that his bamboo stick device was used to scare beavers and destroy their dams (and wasn’t very good even at that) was the conclusion testimony of an ATF expert. Thus, the court wrote, in light of the government’s wholly conclusory case that the bamboo device was designed as a weapon or that it had no benign or social value, the conviction cannot stand. The evidence was insufficient to prove that the bamboo stick was an illegal explosive device “designed” as a weapon. View "USA v. Harbarger" on Justia Law

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As the result of a longstanding desegregation decree, Plaintiff’s high school was consolidated with another school before her senior year. This reshuffled the class rankings, and Plaintiff ended up third. She sued school officials, alleging she had been denied due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court correctly dismissed her claims. Plaintiff alleges only a property interest.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, finding that Plaintiff has no such property interest in her class ranking or in the points awarded for her courses. The court explained that under precedent students lack “any protected interest in the separate components of the educational process.” It follows that students lack due process interests in their class rank or in the quality points assigned to their courses. Further, the court wrote that Plaintiff has no cognizable property interest in the components of her public education. Under the court’s precedent, this lack of a property interest dooms her substantive due process claim by definition. View "James v. Cleveland School Dist" on Justia Law

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Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (“NYK”), incorporated and headquartered in Japan, is a major global logistics company that transports cargo by air and sea. On June 17, 2017, the ACX Crystal, a 730-foot container ship chartered by NYK, collided with the destroyer USS Fitzgerald in Japanese territorial waters. Personal representatives of the seven sailors killed sued NYK in federal court, asserting wrongful death and survival claims under the Death on the High Seas Act.  In both cases, the plaintiffs alleged that NYK, a foreign corporation, is amenable to federal court jurisdiction under Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(k)(2) based on its “substantial, systematic and continuous contacts with the United States as a whole. The district court granted NYK’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(2).   The Fifth Circuit affirmed, rejecting Plaintiffs’ invitation to craft an atextual, novel, and unprecedented Fifth Amendment personal jurisdiction standard. The court explained that under the Supreme Court’s reigning test for personal jurisdiction, the district court did not err in absolving NYK from appearing in federal court. The court wrote that general jurisdiction over NYK does not comport with its Fifth Amendment due process rights. NYK is incorporated and headquartered in Japan. As a result, exercising general jurisdiction over NYK would require that its contacts with the United States “be so substantial and of such a nature to render [it] at home” in the United States. Here, NYK’s contacts with the United States comprise only a minor portion of its worldwide contacts. View "Douglass v. Nippon Yusen Kabushiki" on Justia Law

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In exchange for Defendant’s guilty plea on the superseding indictment’s principal drug-dealing charge (“Count 1”), the Government dismissed all other charges. The parties stipulated to a recommended prison sentence of 240 months. The district court followed the parties’ sentencing recommendation and dismissed all remaining counts in the superseding indictment “on the motion of the United States. Some months later, the Government discovered the procedural snag at the heart of this case: the superseding indictment to which Defendant pleaded guilty had been returned by a grand jury whose term had expired. At a plea hearing in which Defendant indicated satisfaction with his trial counsel’s performance and familiarity with the “grand jury mess-up[]” that had occurred in his initial case, Defendant pleaded guilty in accordance with the new plea agreement. The district court then imposed the 144-month sentence the parties agreed to and noted for the record the key terms of the provision quoted above.   Without conducting a hearing, the district court accepted a magistrate’s recommendation that Defendant’s Section 2255 motion be denied. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that the expired grand jury’s untimely superseding indictment in Defendant’s first criminal case was null and void when jeopardy would have otherwise attached at Defendant’s jury trial and, accordingly, could not have placed Defendant in actual legal jeopardy within the meaning of the Double Jeopardy Clause. Because the failure of Defendant’s trial counsel to advise Defendant of a meritless double jeopardy argument was neither deficient nor prejudicial, the district court was correct to deny Defendant’s habeas corpus petition. View "USA v. Slape" on Justia Law