Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions
Friday, May 20, 2016
Parks: Failure to give reason for non-guideline sentence subject to de novo, not plain error, review
In U.S. v. Parks, No. 15-11618 (May 20, 2016), the Court held that, for a defendant sentenced, for violations of supervised release, to 60 months’ incarceration, above the guideline range of 21-27 months, the claim that the district court failed to consider the § 3553(a) factors was reviewable only for “plain error,” but the claim that the district court failed to give a “specific reason” for the non-guideline sentence, as required by § 3553(c)(2), was reviewable de novo – even though the defendant did not raise this objection in the district court. The Court reasoned that because § 3553(c)(2) “affirmatively requires the district court to provide a specific reason for a non-guideline sentence,” a contemporaneous objection is not needed; the silent record exposes the error. A district court’s reasons must be sufficiently specific so that an appellate court can engage in meaningful review. If a court does not give reasons, the case must be remanded for resentencing. The Court therefore vacated Parks’ sentence and remanded for resentencing.
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
In U.S. v. Iguaran, No. 15-13659 (May 12, 2016), the Court, on plain error review, held that the government failed to establish subject matter jurisdiction to support its conviction for conspiring to distribute cocaine while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. In his plea agreement, Iguaran agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to possess cocaine “with individuals who were on board a vessel that was subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.” The government argued that this statement, without more, constituted an admission of jurisdiction. The Court rejected this argument because parties may not stipulate jurisdiction. Parties can stipulate to facts that bear on jurisdiction, but Iguaran did not do so here. A co-defendant agreed to facts bearing on jurisdiction, for example, that no defendant when apprehended “made a claim of nationality,” but this co-defendant’s admission in another case was irrelevant to Iguara’s case. The Court therefore remanded the case, giving the government an opportunity to prove that subject matter jurisdiction exists.
In Daniel v. Commissioner, Ala. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 14-12558 (May 16, 2016), the Court reversed the denial of habeas relief to an Alabama inmate sentenced to death for 2001 murders. The Court found that at the penalty phase of Daniel’s Alabama trial, counsel was ineffective in failing to conduct meaningful mitigation investigations into Daniel’s cognitive impairments, or to investigate the nature of Daniel’s prior conviction. The Court found that the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals adjudication of these issues was contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. Daniel’s claim was therefore reviewable de novo. The Court remanded the case to the district court to reconsider Daniel’s discovery motion regarding his former lawyer’s records, for an evidentiary hearing, and to consider Daniel’s ineffectiveness claim de novo.
Monday, May 16, 2016
In U.S. v. Rutgerson, No. 14-15536 (May 12, 2016), the Court affirmed a conviction for attempting to persuade, induce, entice or coerce a minor into engaging in prostitution, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b). After exchanging emails with a Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, police detective posing as a 15-year old named “Amberly,” Rutgerson was arrested as he arrived at a hotel at which “Amberly” had agreed to have sex in exchange for his payment of $300. The Court rejected Rutgerson’s argument that this was simply a “market transaction.” The court held that Amberly’s agreement to have sex in exchange for money sufficed to show that Rutgerson attempted to persuade or induce Amberly to engage in sex with him. The Court also rejected Rutgerson’s claim that the evidence showed that he was entrapped. The Court noted that Rutgerson “never expressed any hesitation about having sex with a minor.” The Court found no error in the district court’s refusal to give a theory of defense instruction, holding that the district court’s instruction correctly “tracked the statutory language,” and that the proposed instruction was a substantive instruction on the statute, not a theory of defense instruction. The proposed instruction was incorrect because it failed to account for the fact that Rutgerson was charged with an “attempt,” and therefore should have admitted of the possibility that he could be guilty even if had tried unsuccessfully to entice Amberly into engaging in sex. Finally, the Court agreed with Rutgerson that it was error for the district court to exclude the proffered testimony of a police detective that Rutgerson had never visited any websites dedicated to sex with minors. This evidence was relevant to rebut the government’s charge that Rutgerson was predisposed toward attempting to induce an underage prostitute to have sex with him. However, the error was harmless, because essentially the same evidence was elicited from another witness, and Rutgerson was able to emphasize this evidence during closing defense argument.
Friday, May 13, 2016
In U.S. v. Clarke and Bobby Jo Jenkins, No. 13-15874 (May 11, 2016), the Court, overruling its prior decision in U.S. v. Orellanes, after obtaining an answer from the Florida Supreme Court to a certified question, held that a Florida guilty plea for a felony with adjudication withheld is not treated as a conviction for purposes of Fla. Stat. § 790.23(1)(a). “Florida’s highest court has plainly told us that our interpretation of Florida law . . . was wrong.” The Court therefore vacated Jenkins’s § 922(g) conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Thursday, May 05, 2016
In Clark v. Fla. Attorney General, No. 14-15022 (April 27, 2016), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for a 1990 murder. The Court rejected the argument that Clark received ineffective assistance of counsel in failing to present mitigating evidence. Counsel presented the same mitigating evidence earlier in a case in which the jury recommended a death sentence, and therefore had sound reason to decide against presenting the same evidence again. The Court also found that Clark did not show counsel’s failure to present mitigating evidence resulted in “prejudice.”
In U.S. v. Miller, No. 15-13555 (April 27, 2016), the Court rejected a defendant’s argument that his conviction for producing child pornography should be overturned, because the jury instruction did not require proof that producing child pornography was “one of his dominant motives,” therefore leaving open the possibility that he was convicted even though the photographs were a mere incident of his consensual romantic relationship with the minor. The government was not required to prove that making explicit photographs was Miller’s sole or primary purpose. It was enough that it was a purpose. The Court also rejected Miller’s argument that his sentence should not have been enhanced based on his prior conviction, because this prior offense did not require proof that the victim was a minor. The Court held that the statute did not require that the prior conviction involve a minor in order for the 25-year mandatory minimum to apply.
Tuesday, May 03, 2016
In U.S. v. Smith, No. 13-15476 (April 29, 2016), the Court held that the defendant – a prison guard charged with beating an inmate to death – validly waived his Garrity rights to not be coerced into surrendering his Fifth Amendment right to silence under threat of being fired or subjected to other sanctions. With regard to most of the statements Smith gave to prison officials investigating the incident, the Court concluded that the statements were not compelled. The Court emphasized that Smith did not testify at the evidentiary hearing, thus limiting proof that he subjectively believed he would be subject to sanctions if he failed to cooperate. Turning to a written waiver of Garrity rights that Smith signed during the investigation, the Court held, as a matter of first impression, that an employee can waive his Garrity rights. The Court noted that the waiver was voluntary. It was knowing, as it informed Smith of his waiver of compelled testimony. And, “critically,” there was no violation of Garrity prior to the waiver, because none of the federal investigators had access to any statements Smith made until after he signed the waiver.
In U.S. v. Barron-Soto, No. 13-14731 (April 26, 2016), the Court held that the “independent source doctrine” made the evidence obtained from cell phones admissible, even though the phones were searched without a warrant. The Court noted that the district court’s ruling that the warrantless search was valid, under the exigent circumstances doctrine, because of the possibility of a remote wipe, was erroneous in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Riley. However, the warrant affidavit did not contain any information learned from the warrantless search of the cell phones. Rather, the affidavit described the circumstances of the arrests for narcotics trafficking. This information supported probable cause for the a search warrant for the cell phones.
Friday, April 29, 2016
In Norris v. U.S., No. 15-1390 (April 25, 2016), the Court held that a § 2255 movant was entitled to an evidentiary hearing regarding whether the district judge who presided over his criminal trial, in which he was convicted of forcing women into prostitution, was actually biased against him. The Court noted that the judge (Judge Camp) was subsequently convicted of federal charges, and admitted to bipolar disorder. Further, there was evidence that he harbored racial bias against African-American men.” “Norris alleges something more than the personal biases or prejudices that are governed by the recusal statute; he identifies specific statements that Camp could not set aside his prejudice against him.”