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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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At issue is whether Defendant was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment when an officer, with emergency lights engaged, pulled behind Wright’s parked vehicle, and he did not attempt to flee or terminate the encounter but failed to comply fully with the officer’s commands. The district court, at the end of an evidentiary hearing, however, denied Defendant’s motion to suppress, concluding erroneously that the Terry stop was initiated instead at a later point in the encounter.   The Fifth Circuit, while retaining jurisdiction over the appeal, remanded to the district court for it, based on the record developed at the suppression hearing, to prepare expeditiously written findings of fact and conclusions of law on whether the seizure at the earlier point in time was in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court explained that Defendant not complying fully with some of the Officer’s commands was improper, to say the least, but his behavior does not show defiance of the Officer’s authority. Defendant sufficiently submitted to the show of authority because he objectively appeared to believe he was not free to leave, and he did not attempt to flee, nor terminate the encounter. The court further explained that because the district court’s findings and conclusions turn instead on events occurring after the Terry stop, the court is unable to deduce from them whether the district court concluded the totality of the circumstances prior to the Officer’s pulling behind Wright’s vehicle provided reasonable suspicion justifying the stop. View "USA v. Wright" on Justia Law

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Movant, a Texas prisoner, moved for authorization to file a second or successive 28 U.S.C. Section 2254 application with respect to his conviction for two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and one count of evading arrest and detention in a motor vehicle. He is one of many Texas prisoners who, after previously filing state habeas applications, have since learned that Weldon Ralph Petty, the state prosecutor who opposed their state habeas applications, was also employed by one or more district judges to prepare findings of fact and conclusions of law in those same habeas cases.   The Fifth Circuit denied the motion for authorization to file a second or successive Section 2254. The court explained that to the extent that Movant attempts to present a claim of actual innocence, the Court “does not recognize freestanding claims of actual innocence on federal habeas review.” Likewise, he may not rely on an assertion of actual innocence to serve as a gateway to overcoming the bar to the successive filing. Additionally, infirmities in state postconviction proceedings are not grounds for relief under Section 2254.9 Thus, none of Movant’s proposed challenges state a claim that is cognizable on federal habeas review View "In Re: Isaias Palacios" on Justia Law

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Defendant sold drugs to police informants. Police searched his residence, where they found both cocaine and a gun. Subsequently, Defendant pleaded guilty to three drug distribution counts and to one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The district court denied his motion for compassionate release under Section 3582(c)(1). Defendant again timely appealed.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court wrote that Defendant’s claims are the province of direct appeal or a Section 2255 motion, not a compassionate release motion. Specifically, he argues that his sentence exceeded the statutory maximum and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. These are quintessential arguments for challenging the fact or duration of a prisoner’s confinement under Chapter 153. Further, Defendant admits in his Section 3582(c)(1) motion that he moved for compassionate release because he worried that he could not win relief under Section 2255. The habeas channeling rule, however, prevents a prisoner from so easily steering around Chapter 153’s strictures. The court, therefore, held that a prisoner cannot use Section 3582(c) to challenge the legality or the duration of his sentence; such arguments can, and hence must be raised under Chapter 153. Thus, because Defendant’s claims would have been cognizable under Section 2255, they are not cognizable under Section 3582(c). View "USA v. Escajeda" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant appealed her conviction for possession and smuggling of controlled substances. Defendant asserts that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of a prior drug smuggling offense under Rule 404(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Defendant argued that evidence of her prior crime is irrelevant because it is too dissimilar to the subsequent trafficking crime. Defendant further argued that the prejudicial effect of the extrinsic evidence far outweighs its probative value, thus failing Rule 403’s balancing test and Beechum’s second step.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion either in finding that the prior criminal act was relevant to Defendant’s knowledge in the instant drug trafficking case or in finding that the prejudicial effect of the evidence did not substantially outweigh its probative value. The government’s closing argument offered the extrinsic evidence not to mislead the jury into convicting her for a previous offense, but to show absence of mistake, which Rule 404(b) specifically allows. The district court also mitigated any misuse by providing a limiting instruction cautioning the jury that Defendant was “not on trial for any other act, conduct or offense not alleged in the indictment.” View "USA v. Valenzuela" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant pled guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to conspiracy to distribute over 500 grams of methamphetamine. He appealed, challenging his sentencing enhancement as lacking adequate record support. On appealed he argued that the district court erred in imposing without a sufficient factual basis a two-level sentencing enhancement under U.S.S.G. Section 3C1.2 for recklessly creating a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury to another person while fleeing from a law enforcement officer.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that as Defendant neither objected to the Pre-Sentence Report (PSR) nor presented rebuttal evidence regarding the PSR’s statements, including those describing the disposal of the drugs, the district court properly relied upon the PSR. The court held that in this case, the record, supports at least a plausible basis for this enhancement. Again, the Factual Basis and the PSR both make clear that Defendant “lost several ounces because he threw it out during the car chase.” Absent specific evidence that Defendant took steps to ensure that the discarded drugs could not be consumed and pose a danger to others, his spoliation during a police chase, alone, plausibly “create[d] a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury to another person recklessly created a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury to another person in the course of fleeing from a law enforcement officer.” View "USA v. Melendez" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant challenged the district court's denial of his request for an adjustment to a restitution order. Defendant claimed that the $1,400 stimulus payment he received under the American Rescue Plan was exempt from levy and that any payment would violate the Taking Clause.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of Defendant's request to adjust his restitution order. In so holding, the court held that the stimulus payment does not meet any exception and that he was required to apply the complete payment towards any restitution he owed. View "USA v. Stark" on Justia Law

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Defendant was stopped by Border Patrol near Laredo, Texas, while smuggling 84 illegal aliens in a trailer. A jury convicted him for trafficking aliens. On appeal, Defendant argued the jury had insufficient evidence.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that Defendant argued that the Government failed to prove that he knew illegal aliens were in his truck, that he agreed with anyone to transport illegal aliens, or that he sought to further their unlawful presence in the United States. But viewing the evidence presented at trial in the light most favorable to the verdict—and drawing all reasonable inferences in support of the verdict— Defendant doesn’t come close to meeting the doubly deferential plain-error sufficiency burden.   Further at Defendant’s trial, the Government presented a mountain of evidence indicating that Yusuf knew he was hauling illegal aliens. Defendant was the sole driver and occupant of the truck in the trailer of which 84 illegal aliens were discovered; that alone is probative of knowledge. The jury also heard abundant evidence that Defendant’s story lacked credibility. View "USA v. Yusuf" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant appealed his jury trial conviction for possession of a firearm as a convicted felon. He argued that the evidence was insufficient to prove he possessed a firearm. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that although the Government presented no direct evidence of possession, a reasonable jury could conclude that Freeman possessed the firearm. The jury saw videos of Defendant running from the police—first in his car and then on foot. And it heard testimony that suspects who run often have narcotics or weapons in their possession. The Government also presented evidence that police recovered the gun in a field about twenty feet from Defendant’s flight path. The jury heard testimony that a grown man could easily have thrown the two- or three-pound gun this distance. View "USA v. Freeman" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant appealed his 45-year sentence for attempting to produce child pornography. The district court enhanced his sentence based on Defendant’s prior aggravated sexual assault of a child under Texas law. Defendant contested the enhancement because, while the Texas crime can be committed against minors up to 16 years old, he claims the federal predicate offense only includes victims younger than 16. Defendant’s basic argument is this: because the Texas statute applies to 16-year-old victims, it criminalizes more conduct than Section 2251(e), which he claims applies only to 15- year-old victims.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that the federal enhancement statute at issue, 18 U.S.C. Section 2251(e), specifically allows increased sentences for state sex crimes against minors up to 17 years old. See 18 U.S.C. Section 2256(1). The court rejected Defendant’s argument explaining Section 2251(e) is located in Chapter 110 of Title 18. “For the purposes of [Chapter 110],” the term “‘minor’ means any person under the age of eighteen years.” Section 2256(1). So, it is not true that the Texas statute “sweeps more broadly” than Section 2251(e). To the contrary, it sweeps more narrowly. The Texas crime applies to victims who are 16 years old and younger, whereas the predicate federal offense extends to 17-year-old victims. Consequently, Defendant’s Texas conviction for aggravated sexual assault of a child qualifies as an enhancing offense under Section 2251(e). View "USA v. Grzywinski" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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An individual and an advocacy group seek to appeal from the denial of a motion to quash two grand jury subpoenas and an order compelling compliance with one of them. There is no jurisdiction for appeals challenging a grand jury subpoena for production of documents unless (1) the appellant has been held in contempt, or (2) a client-intervenor asserts that documents in the possession of a subpoenaed, disinterested third party are protected by attorney-client privilege.   The Fifth Circuit dismissed the appeal explaining that neither exception applied. The court explained that the subpoenaed documents are in the hands of Appellants. They are interested third parties in that they are being investigated for witness tampering. They have a direct and personal interest in suppressing the documents that could potentially corroborate the witness tampering accusation. Consequently, Appellants obviously have “a sufficient stake in the proceeding to risk contempt by refusing compliance.” Accordingly, the court wrote it lacks jurisdiction over the appeal, and Appellants must either comply with the subpoena or be held in contempt to seek the court’s review. View "In re: Grand Jury Subpoena" on Justia Law