Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, February 15, 2019

Caniff: Private Text Messages Seeking Sexually Explicit Photos from a Minor Constitutes "Making" a "Notice" under 2251(d)

In United States v. Caniff, No. 17-12410 (Feb. 15, 2019) (Ebel (10th), Marcus, Newsom), the Court affirmed the defendant's child sex convictions.

First, and primarily, the Court held that, as a matter of statutory construction, requesting that a minor send sexually explicit photos can support a conviction for "making" a "notice" seeking child pornography, in violation of 2251(d)(1)(A).   The Court rejected the defendant's argument that a "notice" must be sent to the general public or at least a group of people.  Because a public component was not required, the defendant's private text messages with the minor sufficed.

Second, the Court found sufficient evidence that the defendant believed that the victim was a minor.  The victim told the defendant several times that she was 13, was not old enough to drive, and was sexually inexperienced. 

Third, the Court found no abuse of discretion in permitting an officer to testify about the contents of the defendant's cell phone.  The Court rejected the defendant's argument that the officer opined on the ultimate issue, in violation of Rule 704(b), because the officer was not testifying as an expert witness, and lay witnesses may draw on their professional experiences.  In addition, the officer did not expressly opine on the defendant's mental state about the age of the victim, only whether he generally found evidence of illegal activity on the phone.  And any error was harmless in any event because it was the defense, not the government, who first asked the detective the question.

Judge Newsom concurred in part and dissented in part. After discussing his favorite movie and opining that the defendant's conduct was "devlish," he reluctantly opined that the majority's reading of 2251(d) was incorrect and did not reach the defendant's conduct.  As a matter of common language, sending a request via text message was not "making" a "notice."  He found that the word "notice," as used in that particular statutory context, would not be understood by the average American to cover a private text message.  And he rejected the majority's purposive approach, as the defendant's conduct was covered by other statutes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Valois: Upholding Title 46 Convictions and Sentences over Numerous Challenges

In United States v. Valois, et al., No. 17-13535 (Feb. 12, 2019) (Hull, Jordan, Grant), the Court affirmed the defendant's MDLEA convictions over numerous challenges.

First, the Court rejected the defendants' constitutional challenges to the MDLEA as foreclosed by circuit precedent.  Specifically, it rejected their arguments that Congress lacked authority to define and punish felonies on the high seas where there is no connection to the U.S.; that due process prohibited the prosecution of foreign nationals without a nexus to the U.S.; that the MDLEA violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendments by removing jurisdictional facts from the province of the jury; and admission of the Secretary of State certificate to establish jurisdiction violates the Confrontation Clause.

Second, the Court found no abuse of discretion in the denial of the defendants' motion for a mistrial based on the prosecutor's reference in closing arguments to a separate drug seizure.  The reference was not evidence and so did not violate Rule 404(b), and it was the defendant who interjected the prior seizure.  The prosecutor understandably sought to refute the defendant's reliance on that prior seizure.  And the defendants had not shown that the comment was prejudicial given the court's curative instruction to the jury.

Third, the Court rejected the defendants' argument that their Sixth Amendment rights were violated because their attorneys represented defendants involved in the separate drug seizure, and thus had a conflict of interest.  At the time counsel was appointed, there was no known connection between the two seizures; because a connection first arose during the trial, the court was not required to hold a conflict-waiver hearing before the trial began, and the court did hold such a hearing before sentencing.  Moreover, the defendants did not show that their attorneys had any actual conflict because they in fact tried to shift the blame on to the defendants involved in the other seizure.  The Court noted that, in the future, when two boat cases with cocaine are interdicted close in time and geography, and two indictments are filed on the same day, the magistrate judge should consider appointing separate counsel for each defendant because a conflict could have arisen had a defendant one on boat testified against a defendant on the other boat.

Fourth, and relying on prior precedent, the Court held that the defendants were statutorily ineligible for safety-valve relief, and this ineligibility did not violate equal protection.  The Court also suggested, without formally deciding, that the safety valve did not violate the right against self-incrimination by requiring defendants to provide the government with all the information they had, relying on circuit precedent rejecting a similar challenge to the acceptance of responsibility guideline.

Lastly, the Court upheld the denial of a minor-role reduction. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Munksgard: Sufficient Evidence Existed of FDIC-Insured Status

In United States v. Munksgard, No. 16-17654 (Jan. 30, 2019) (Tjoflat, Marcus, Newsom), the Court affirmed the defendant's bank fraud and aggravated identity theft convictions.

As to the bank fraud conviction, the defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence because the government failed to prove that he knew that the bank was FDIC-insured at the time he submitted fraudulent loan applications.   The Court recounted its history of annoyance at the government in previous cases for doing a poor job at proving a bank's insured status.  The Court emphasized that contemporaneous evidence of insurance was best, that prior and subsequent insurance was second best, but that prior or subsequent insurance can be adequate.  In this case, the government submitted sufficient, though hardly overwhelming, evidence because it introduced a certificate of FDIC insurance at the time the bank was chartered, the bank vice president testified that the bank was subsequently insured at the time of trial, and his testimony indicated that the insurance had not lapsed at the relevant time.

As to the aggravated ID theft conviction, the Court concluded that, when the defendant signed another person's name to the fraudulent contract submitted in support of the loan application, he "used" a "means of identification" within the meaning of 1028A.  Emphasizing the plain statutory language and context, the Court rejected the defendant's argument that, because he only signed another person's name without attempting to impersonate that person or harming him, he did not "use" that identification.

Judge Tjoflat dissented.  In a lengthy opinion, he explained that he would have vacated the bank fraud conviction for insufficient evidence of FDIC-insurance status.  He concluded: "The majority goes to great lengths to bail the government out.  Nothing in our precedent compels this, and the Constitution doesn't allow it."

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Brewster: Habeas Relief Warranted Where Court Exerted Coercive Pressure on Holdout Juror and Counsel Failed to Object

In Brewster v. Att'y Gen, Ala., No. 16-16350 (Jan. 22, 2019) (Ed Carnes, Branch, Fay), the Court reversed the denial of a state-prisoner habeas petition alleging ineffective assistance of counsel.

Over the period of two days of deliberation, the jury repeatedly told the court that they were deadlocked, sending six notes to that effect.  Although federal courts are prohibited from inquiring about the breakdown, the Alabama jury here disclosed how they were divided three times: first 9-3 in favor of conviction, then 11-1 in favor of conviction, and then that one juror was continuing to hold out.  The court gave a formal Allen charge, two additional admonitions to continue deliberating, and then another long instruction emphasizing that the jurors had taken an oath to follow the law and that they must take that oath seriously.  Then, when informed that the holdout juror was doing crossword puzzles, the judge ordered all reading materials removed from the jury room.  Shortly thereafter, the jury returned a guilty verdict.

Applying de novo review (rather than the normal AEDPA deference), the Court found that, under those circumstances, trial counsel was ineffective for failing to once object or move for a mistrial.  There was no rational or strategic basis for refusing to do so.  Quoting Macbeth: "It doesn't take the 'pricking of my thumbs' to know that 'something wickd this way comes' for a defendant when a jury goes from 9 to 3 for conviction to 11 to 1 for conviction and the lone holdout faces the coercive circumstances that this one did."  Or, put another way: "It doesn't take a Clarence Darrow to realize that if a jury has gone from 9 to 3 in favor of conviction to 11 to 1 for it, and is complaining about the lone holdout's behavior and her refusal to go along with the others, that jury is not headed toward an acquittal."  And, the Court concluded, that deficient performance was prejudicial because, due to the court's coercion exerted on the holdout juror, the defendant was legally entitled to a mistrial under both state and federal law.  A lthough "the holdout juror was not threatened with branding or exsanguination, and the jury was not hauled around in a court," which "would have passed muster in seventeenth-century England," it did not not in "twenty-first century Alabama."

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Campbell: Officer Unlawfully Prolonged Traffic Stop but the Good Faith Exception Applied

In United States v. Campbell, No. 16-10128 (Jan. 8, 2019) (Tjoflat, Martin, Murphy (E.D. Mich.)), the Court affirmed the denial of a motion to suppress.

The Court first concluded that the highway patrolman had reasonable suspicion to stop a motorist based on a rapidly blinking turn signal.  The Court relied on Georgia law, which not only required that the turn signal clearly indicate an intention to change lanes but that it be in good working condition.  Because a rapdily blinking signal indicated that something was not in good working condition, it gave the officer reasonable suspicion to believe that the car was in violation of the traffic code.

However, the Court found that the officer unlawfully prolonged the stop by asking questions unrelated to the stop.  Relying on the Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Rodriguez v. United States, the Court found that an officer unlawfully prolongs a stop where, without reasonable suspicion, he diverts from the stop's purpose and adds time to the stop in order to investigate other crimes.   That standard, the Court found, abrogated the Eleventh Circuit's earlier precedents, which had employed a general reasonableness standard.  Applying the correct standard, the Court concluded that the officer in this case unlawfully prolonged the stop -- not by asking about the driver's travel plans (which was related to the reason for the stop), but by asking whether he had contraband in the car, which added 25 seconds to the stop.

The Court nonetheless affirmed by applying the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule, because the officer's conduct was permissible under Eleventh Circuit precedent at the time of the stop.  Although the government did not raise the good faith exception on appeal, the parties addressed the issue in the district court, waiver was a prudential doctrine, and ignoring the exception here would be a miscarriage of justice by suppressing the truth for no reason other than to teach the government's counsel a lesson.

Judge Martin concurred in part and dissented in part, disagreeing with the majority's decision to apply the good faith exception despite the government's failure to raise it.  She would "not put this Court in the business of resusciating arguments the government was made aware of, then clearly abandoned.  In my experience, this Court rarely extends the same courtesy to the criminal defendants and pro se litigants who come before us."

Solomon: Successive 2255 Challenging 924(c) Conviction Based on Johnson Fails to Satisfy Gatekeeping Criteria

In Solomon v. United States, No. 17-14830 (Jan. 8, 2019) (William Pryor, Grant, Hull) (per curiam), the Court affirmed the denial of a successive 2255 motion to vacate a 924(c) conviction in light of Johnson.

The Court held that, in light of its en banc decision in Ovalles II and its subsequent decision in In re Garrett, the successive 2255 motion did not satisfy the gatekeeping requirements of 2255(h).  Because neither Johnson nor Dimaya invalidated the residual clause in 924(c)(3)(B), there was no rule of constitutional law supporting the claim.  Moreover, any challenge to the district court's use of the categorical approach (as opposed to a fact-based approach) would also not satisfy 2255(h), because that claim would be statutory rather than constitutional in nature.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Barton: Rejecting Daubert Challenge to Expert Methodology for DNA Testing

In United States v. Barton, No. 17-10559 (Dec. 6, 2018) (Marcus, Newsom, Anderson), the Court affirmed the defendant's felon in possession conviction.

The sole issue on appeal was whether the district court abused its discretion under Daubert by admitting expert testimony concerning DNA evidence.  Focusing on the deferential standard of review, the Court rejected the defendant's arguments that the expert's methodology was unreliable because of the low quantity DNA mixture present and the absence of appropriate validation testing and interpretive thresholds for complex mixtures.  The Court found that the defendant's arguments went to weight rather than admissibility.  And, although the defendant identified newly-available scientific journals that bore on the reliability of the expert's methodology, the Court declined to consider them, because they were not included in the district court and were not a part of the record on appeal.  Where newly-discovered evidence undermines the validity of the conviction, the defendant may seek a new trial in the district court; but an appellate court may not consider that evidence for the first time on appeal and make factual findings.  Finally, the court held that the admission of the DNA evidence was harmless in any event because the other evidence of guilt was overwhelming.

Friday, November 16, 2018

St. Hubert: Hobbs Act Robbery and Attempted Hobbs Act Robbery are Crimes of Violence Under Both Clauses in 924(c)

In United States v. St.Hubert, No. 16-10874 (Nov. 15, 2018) (Hull, Marcus, Anderson), the Court sua sponte modified its earlier opinion in part and applied the recent en banc decision in Ovalles.

The Court reinstated without change its earlier analysis rejecting the government's argument that the defendant's guilty plea waived his argument that his convictions were not crimes of violence.  It also reinstated without change its holding that Hobbs Act robbery qualified as a crime of violence under the elements clause in 924(c)(3)(A). 

Applying Ovalles' conduct-based approach, the Court held that the defendant's Hobbs Act robbery conviction satisfied the residual clause in 924(c)(3)(B).  Reviewing the facts admitted at the plea hearing -- namely, brandishing a firearm and threatening to shoot store employees during a robbery -- the Court concluded that his offense involved a substantial risk that physical force may have been used against a person or property.

The Court also held that the defendant's attempted Hobbs Act robbery conviction was a crime of violence under both the elements clause and residual clause in 924(c).  As to the residual clause, the Court again reviewed the facts admitted at the plea hearing -- which involved brandishing a firearm, holding it against one employee's side while directing another to open the safe, but fleeing before he could take any money -- and concluded that this conduct involved a substantial risk that physical force might be used against a person or property.  Alternatively, the Court reiterated and slightly modified its holding that attempted Hobbs Act robbery satisfied the elements clause because it necessarily involves the attempted use of force or threatened force.