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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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In 1998, Brown was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. Before Brown’s anticipated 2011 release, the state obtained a civil commitment order under the Texas Sexually Violent Predator Act. The Act required civilly committed persons to “reside in a Texas residential facility under contract with" OVSOM or another approved location and to participate in OVSOM-provided “treatment and supervision.” While confined at Fort Worth, Brown was indicted for violating his commitment terms and confined at the Tarrant County Jail as a pre-trial detainee. Brown posted bond and was transferred to the Cold Springs Jail, pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding with OVSOM’s predecessor: Tarrant County (Sheriff Anderson) would provide “housing, meals, and other usual services” in the Work Release Program; OVSOM's predecessor had responsibility for “obtaining and paying for all programs" required for its clients. Brown, acquitted of violating his commitment terms, did not receive sex offender treatment at Cold Springs.Brown filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 complaint, based on the 20-day confinement without sex offender treatment. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of his claims against Tarrant County and Anderson. Anderson is entitled to qualified immunity and Brown states no claim against the county. At the time of the challenged conduct, there was a circuit split on whether sexually violent or dangerous offenders have a due process right to treatment. Anderson’s failure to provide Brown with sex offender treatment did not violate clearly established law. View "Brown v. Tarrant County" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed defendant's sentence imposed after he pleaded guilty to dealing methamphetamine, holding that the district court did not clearly err in calculating the drug quantity attributable to defendant. The court concluded that the district court did not clearly err in attributing to defendant twenty-four kilograms of meth from a text transaction. The court also concluded that the district court did not clearly err in its conversion of cash seized from defendant's residence and from a coconspirator's into a corresponding amount of meth. View "United States v. Lucio" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Herndon pleaded guilty in the Southern District of Florida to bank fraud with an agreed loss amount of over $3 million. Before sentencing, Herndon was diagnosed with cancer and underwent extensive medical treatment. In 2013, she was sentenced below the guidelines range of 78–97 months to 60 months' imprisonment, supervised release, and $3,008,437 in restitution. Because Herndon needed additional medical treatment, the district court agreed to allow her to voluntarily surrender one year later; Herndon was released to home confinement and obtained several extensions. Ultimately, a warrant was issued and Herndon was taken into custody in April 2015.Herndon learned that the Bureau of Prisons calculated her sentence from the date she had entered custody (April 2015), rather than the March 2013 date she had been sentenced, and calculated her anticipated release date as August 2019. Herndon filed an unsuccessful 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion in the Southern District of Florida asking the court to amend the judgment to reflect its oral pronouncement, which she asserted had awarded her credit for the time she would spend on home confinement. Herndon then filed a section 2241 motion in the Northern District of Texas. While her section petition was pending, Herndon was released in July 2019. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the petition as moot. Herndon had already received the sole relief sought in her petition: release from confinement. View "Herndon v. Upton" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed defendant's 120-month sentence for failing to register as a sex offender, holding that defendant's sentence is both procedurally and substantively reasonable. In regard to defendant's claims of procedural error, the court held that the district court did not err in considering a contested account contained in the PSR that was drawn from a police report, because this evidence bears sufficient indicia of reliability. Furthermore, the district court did not reversibly err by considering the opinion of a TDCJ psychologist that defendant's likelihood of reoffending was high. The court gave deference to the district court's application of the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors and concluded that defendant's sentence was not substantively unreasonable in light of his history of sexual violence and considerations for public safety. View "United States v. Parkerson" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the summary dismissal of defendant's pro se 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion, in which he challenged his sentence for revocation of supervised release that resulted in an 18-month prison sentence to run consecutively with his sentence for illegal reentry. Defendant claimed that he received ineffective assistance of counsel and that his due process rights were violated.The court held that a district court does not err in declining to offer sua sponte a section 2255 movant an opportunity to amend. In this case, defendant never moved for leave to amend, and United States v. Martinez, 181 F.3d 627 (5th Cir. 1999), does not establish a requirement to offer sua sponte a movant the opportunity to amend. Furthermore, defendant failed to state how he would cure his section 2255 motion if given the chance to amend. View "United States v. Hernandez-Zavala" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the written amount of restitution imposed after defendant pleaded guilty to one count of financial aid fraud. Defendant asserts that, at sentencing, the district court orally pronounced restitution of $63,221, but the written judgment mandates $106,744. The court concluded that, although the oral pronouncement was ambiguous, it does not conflict with the written judgment. In this case, the district court stated several times that the "correct" or "net" amount owed in restitution was $106,744—the amount it imposed in its written judgment. The court acknowledged that the district court could have been clearer, but that the record confirms that the district court intended to order restitution in the amount of the written judgment. View "United States v. Tanner" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of defendant's request for compassionate release from prison on account of his underlying health issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. Defendant had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine.The court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that there were no extraordinary and compelling reasons to warrant compassionate release. The court acknowledged that defendant's chronic illnesses place him at a higher risk of severe symptoms should he contract COVID, but agreed with the district court that it is uncertain that defendant is at a significantly higher risk than is the general inmate population. In this case, defendant can point to no case in which a court, on account of the pandemic, has granted compassionate release to an otherwise healthy defendant with two, well-controlled, chronic medical conditions and who had completed less than half of his sentence. View "United States v. Thompson" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fifth Circuit affirmed defendant's convictions for bribery-related offenses carried out in connection with his duties as a judge on the 93rd Judicial District in Hidalgo County, Texas. The court held that the evidence was sufficient to support defendant's conviction for federal program bribery (Counts Two through Four) and conspiracy (Count One). The court also held that the evidence was sufficient to support defendant's conviction for using a phone in connection with the charged federal program bribery offenses in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1952(a)(3) (Counts Five through Seven). Finally, sufficient evidence supports defendant's conviction for obstruction of justice (Count 8).The court rejected defendant's contention that the district court incorrectly calculated "the benefit received" in return for the bribe payments under USSG 2C1.1(b)(2) and 2B1.1(b)(1), and affirmed the district court's application of a six-level sentencing increase to defendant's Guidelines offense level. View "United States v. Delgado" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The good faith exception to the Fourth Amendment's exclusionary rule does not allow officers to search the photographs on a defendant's cellphones for evidence of drug possession, when the affidavits supporting the search warrants were based only on evidence of personal drug possession and an officer's generalized allegations about the behavior of drug traffickers—not drug users.The Fifth Circuit held that the officers' affidavits do not provide probable cause to search the photographs stored on the defendant’s cellphones. Furthermore, the good faith exception does not apply because the officers' reliance on the defective warrants was objectively unreasonable. While respecting the "great deference" that the presiding judge is owed, the court further held that he did not have a substantial basis for his probable cause determination with regard to the photographs. Therefore, the digital images found in defendant's cellphones are inadmissible and the court vacated his conviction, remanding for further proceedings. View "United States v. Morton" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's imposition of a 460 month term of imprisonment based on defendant's conviction for first-degree murder under 18 U.S.C. 1111(b). While a person convicted of first-degree murder under section 1111(b) "shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life," a defendant who was under the age of eighteen at the time of the offense, such as defendant, cannot be sentenced to death or mandatory life imprisonment under Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479 (2012) (holding mandatory life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles), and Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 575 (2005) (holding the same for the death penalty.) In this case, the district court resolved the constitutional defect by severing section 1111(b)'s punishment provision for first-degree murder, determining that the statute-as-modified authorizes imprisonment "for any term of years or for life."The court rejected defendant's contention that the district court unconstitutionally fashioned a new punishment for first-degree murder committed by juveniles, violating the Due Process Clause's notice requirement and separation-of-powers doctrine. Rather, the court concluded that it is appropriate to sever as necessary, and that excising the mandatory minimum nature of the life sentence is all that is needed to satisfy the constitutional issue for juveniles under section 1111. In this case, the district court's remedy complies with Roper and Miller, functions independently, and is consistent with Congress's clear intent to criminalize "the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought." The court also rejected defendant's assertion that the district court violated the Due Process Clause and Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 by failing to specify his potential sentencing range at his plea hearing. The court explained that defendant's plea hearing demonstrates that the district court properly notified him of the consequences of a guilty plea, and therefore defendant's plea was knowing and voluntary. View "United States v. Bonilla-Romero" on Justia Law