Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Garcia-Martinez: Florida Second Degree Burglary is not a Violent Felony

In U.S. v. Garcia-Martinez, No. 14-15725 (Jan. 11, 2017), the Court held that a prior conviction for second-degree burglary of a dwelling in violation of Fla. Stat. § 810.02(3) does not count as a violent felong for purposes of USSG 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii). Noting a Circuit conflict on the meaning of a “dwelling,” and siding with the majority view, the Court held that a generic dwelling is a space intended for use as “a human habitation.” Florida, however, includes the “curtilage” of a space within its definition of a “dwelling.” This takes Florida’s definition outside the generic definition. Further, the dwelling and the curtilage are not alternative elements of a burglary, just different means of committing the offense. Thus, the locational element is indivisible. The Court therefore vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Rushin: Defense precluded from asking cooperating witnesses about specific future sentences

In U.S. v. Rushin, No. 14-15622 (Dec. 21, 2016), the Court affirmed the convictions and sentences of prison guards charged with abusing prisoners and covering up the incidents. The Court declined to address whether the district court erroneously limited one defendant’s counsel CJA voucher, finding that no appellate jurisdiction existed because the notice of appeal did not indicate that counsel intended to participate as an appellant. The Court rejected the defendants’ challenge to the district court’s ruling that during cross-examination of the government’s cooperating witnesses who had pled guilty, the defense could not inquire regarding the specific sentences these cooperating witnesses might have received, absent their cooperation. The Court noted that the defendants were permitted to ask whether the cooperating witnesses would have faced a more severe penalty, or expected a lesser sentence. However, “the precise number of years the cooperating witnesses may have faced provides little, if any, value above those questions defense counsel were permitted to ask.” Moreover, “due to the fact that the sentence range applicable to these witnesses would reveal the sentence range for defendants, the proposed additional examination could invite jury nullification. The risk of jury nullification is accentuated by the fact that defendants were guards and the victims prisoners.” The Court also rejected the defendants’ claim that the district court unduly limited their defense when it precluded them from introducing evidence of “unrelated inmate violence.” The Court explained that unrelated inmate violence did not make the defendants’ assaults more or less likely or more or less justified. Moreover, jury nullification appeared to be the reason for introducing this evidence – an improper basis. Turning to sentencing, the Court rejected the argument that the district court unduly relied on the conduct underlying the civil rights violations, for which the defendants were acquitted, to punish them for obstruction of justice. A district court may rely on acquitted conduct at sentencing. [Jordan, J., concurring, stated that in certain cases it could be a Confrontation Clause error to preclude the defense from asking a cooperating witness about the mandatory minimum sentence he would otherwise be facing.]

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Green: Harmless Rule 404b errors

In U.S. v. Green, No. 14-12830 (Nov. 30, 2016), the Court affirmed the conviction and sentence of 262 months for a defendant charged with being a felon-in-possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The Court rejected Green’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence: Green was hiding in the same room in which the firearm was discovered, had been living at this residence, and had admitted to the arresting officer that the firearm was his. The Court also rejected the argument that Green’s admission was uncorroborated and therefore should not have been considered, finding that there was circumstantial evidence of constructive possession. The Court agreed with Green that the district court should have redacted the indictment’s reference to prior “crimes” in the plural, given that Green had stipulated to having a single prior conviction. The Court recognized that communicating to the jury that a defendant could have “dozens of convictions” increases the risk of unfair prejudice. However, the error was harmless in light of the significant circumstantial evidence. The ammunition possession conviction that the government relied on for purposes of Rule 404(b) had been entered after Green pled nolo contendere to the charge. Citing Federal Rule of Evidence 803(22), which precludes the use of a nolo plea to prove the truth the matter asserted in a judgment of conviction, the Court concluded that the admission of Green’s prior conviction was insufficient to prove that Green actually committed the prior act at issue. However, again, the error was harmless in light of the “ample” evidence “independent of the Rule 404(b) conviction,” supporting guilt. Moreover, the nolo conviction was “not emphasized during trial or closing argument,” as the district court gave a cautionary Rule 404(b) instruction, and the prosecutor in closing told the jury that the 404(b) conviction was only admitted for the “very limited purpose” of showing whether Green had the “intent” to possess the items at issue. Turning to the sentence, the Court found no error in sentencing Green under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), based on prior Florida battery convictions. The Court noted that the Supreme Court left open the possibility of relying on Shepard documents to determine whether a prior battery conviction qualified as a “crime of violence.” Here, these documents (the agreed factual basis for Green’s nolo plea) indicated that Green “struck” another against his will. Specifically, that the victim said that Green “hit him in the face.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Cobb: Affirming 324-month sentence for fraudulent tax return filings

In U.S. v. Cobb, No. 15-12817 (Nov. 30, 2016), the Court affirmed the 324-month sentence of a defendant convicted of mail and wire fraud conspiracy, aggravated identity theft, and firearm possession, in a scheme involving using stolen identities to file hundreds of fraudulent tax returns. The Court rejected Cobb’s challenge to the $2.5 million loss amount to support an 18-level sentence enhancement, and the determination that the offense involved more than 250 victims, finding that the government presented sufficient evidence to support these calculations. The Court also rejected the challenge to the $1.8 million restitution award, finding that this was the amount of money the Internal Revenue Service paid out. The Court found that Cobb waived a challenge to the sentence enhancement for use of an unauthorized access device, and a challenge to the finding that a prior serious drug offense qualified him for an enhanced sentence, finding that he withdrew his objections to these enhancements at the sentencing hearing.

Ammar: Speedy Trial Act violation

In U.S. v. Ammar, No. 13-12044 (Nov. 29, 2016), the Court vacated a defendant’s conviction because of a violation of the Speedy Trial Act, and remanded for the district court to consider whether the dismissal of the indictment should be with, or without, prejudice. On September 1, 2011, Ammar was indicted, with other defendants, in a case in which the government was contemplating seeking the death penalty. This indictment started the 70-day Speedy Trial Act deadline. However, over Ammar’s repeated objections, the district court set the case for trial one year later. The district court rejected Ammar’s motion to dismiss for a Speedy Trial Act violation on the ground that the trial date was “by agreement of everybody.” This finding was factually inaccurate, as Ammar had repeatedly objected to the length of the delay. Further, an agreement of the parties does not satisfy the required “ends of justice” finding to justify tolling the Act’s 70-day deadline. The Court rejected the argument that a district court need not utter “magic words” to toll the deadline, finding that, even if this were possible, here the district court explicitly declined to make ends-of-justice findings, relying instead, erroneously, on the “agreement of everybody.” The Court left it to the district court to apply the statutory factors and make the determination whether the indictment should be dismissed with or without prejudice.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Gundy: Georgia burglary qualifies as generic burglary

In U.S v. Gundy, No. 14-12113 (Nov. 23, 2016), the Court (2-1) held that a Georgia burglary conviction qualified as a “crime of violence” for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The Georgia statute defined burglary as unlawful entry “within the dwelling house of another or any building, vehicle, railroad car, watercraft, or other such structure designed for use as the dwelling of another . . .” The Court recognized that this definition swept more broadly than generic burglary, because it encompassed not only entry into buildings, but also into vehicles. However, based on Georgia caselaw, which requires an indictment to specify the location of an alleged burglary, the Court concluded that each of the locations were “locational elements,” not merely alternative means of committing burglary. As a result, the statute was “divisible.” Each location was a separate crime. Thus, the Court could examine the record of Gundy’s prior burglaries to determine whether Gundy’s prior burglaries qualified as generic burglaries. Because Gundy’s prior burglaries involved a “dwelling house” or a “business house,” they all qualified as generic burglaries for ACCA purposes. [Jill Pryor, J., dissenting, interpreted Georgia’s standard jury instructions’ reference to “building or dwelling” as referring to a single element, not as identifying separate crimes, and noted that, in burglary trials, Georgia juries are not required to agree on the type of dwelling at issue].

Error in verdict form merely clerical

In U.S. v. Davis, No. 15-10927 (Nov. 22, 2016), the Court rejected the argument that the trial court erred when it amended the judgments to change a count of conviction from “Robbery” in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), to possession of a firearm during a crime of violence in violation of § 924(c). The Court noted that the error in the initial judgment arose out of a mistake in the jury’s verdict form. However, the indictment, the parties’ closing arguments, the jury instructions, and the jury’s questions during deliberations indicate that it understood that the charge in this count was not “robbery,” but a § 924(c) firearm violation. Moreover, the overwhelming evidence in the case supported this conviction. The jury “inescapably” found that the defendants “used a gun.” The error in the verdict form was merely clerical.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Esprit: Florida burglary is not an ACCA "crime of violence"

In U.S. v. Esprit, No 14-13066 (Nov. 21, 2016), the Court held that, post-Johnson, Florida burglary in violation of Fla. Stat. § 810.02(1)(b)(1) is not a “crime of violence” for purposes of a sentence enhancement under the Armed Career Crimnal Act (ACCA). The Court determined that Fla. Stat. § 810.02(1)(b)(1) is an “indivisible” statute, because a jury is not required in its verdict to identify the means that were used to commit the burglary, whether by entering a building or entering a building’s “curtilage.” Unlawful entry of a building or its curtilage are possible alternative means of committing the offense of burglary, not alternative elements of the burglary offense. As a result, the “modified categorical approach,” which authorizes examining the facts underlying a conviction, does not apply. Consequently, since the Supreme Court in James held that the inclusion of “curtilage” in Florida’s burglary offense takes this offense outside the definition of generic burglary, which requires entry into, or remaining in, a building or other structure, Florida burglary did not qualify as a “crime of violence.” The Court therefore vacated Esprit’s sentence and remanded to the district court with instructions that he be resentenced without the ACCA enhancement.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Leon: No plain error constructive amendment

In U.S. v. Leon, No. 15-12578 (Nov. 16, 2016), the Court, on plain error review, rejected the argument that the district court constructively amended the indictment by allowing the defendant to be convicted of attempting to cause a bank not to file required currency transaction reports (CTRs) concerning currency transactions exceeding $10,000. The Court recognized that the word “structure” is contained in 31 U.S.C. § § 5423(a)(1), not in 5324(a)(3), the statute under which Leon was charged and convicted, and that the parties used the term “structuring” during trial. But both statutes are said to refer to a “structuring” transaction. As a result, there was no “plain error.” The Court also rejected a sufficiency of the evidence challenge.