Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Monday, July 21, 2014

DeBruce: Complete omission of mitigating evidence was prejudicial to Alabama death row inmate

In DeBruce v. Comm., Ala. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 11-11535 (July 15, 2014), the Court (2-1) (Tjoflat, J., dissenting) granted habeas relief to an Alabama inmate sentenced to death for a 1991 murder. The Court found that DeBruce’s trial counsel at the penalty phase of his case was constitutionally ineffective in limiting his mitigation investigation to speaking with DeBruce and his mother and not to further investigate DeBruce’s mental health and background. The Court noted that counsel did not have a strategic reason for not doing the mitigation work, and explained that he got into the case “too late” to do so. The Court noted that DeBruce’s competence to stand trial was not a basis for a strategic decision to forego pursuit of mitigation evidence at the penalty phase. Trial counsel also failed to pursue the inconsistencies between DeBruce’s mother’s account of his being a successful student and information that he had in fact dropped out of school in the seventh grade. The Court found that the failure to investigate prejudiced DeBruce, because the sentencing jury heard nothing of the daily beatings DeBruce suffered at the hands of his older sister, his resistance to joining gangs despite their assaults and intimidation, the pervasive violence in his neighborhood, or his struggles in school and his low-average intelligence. The “complete omission” of this type of evidence was prejudicial.

Jeanty: Alleyne not basis for 2241 habeas relief

In Jeanty v. Warden, FCI-Miami, No. 13-14931 (July 15, 2014), the Court held that a federal habeas petitioner under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 could not rely on Alleyne v. U.S. to attack the district court’s failure to submit to a jury the question of whether he had a prior conviction that qualified him for a mandatory minimum sentence. The Court explained that the Supreme Court had not made Alleyne apply retroactively on collateral review. Further, the ten-year sentence fell below the statutory 40-year maximum for Jeanty’s drug trafficking crime. Finally, the Alleyne Court took pains to point out that its holding did not upset its previous ruling in Almendarez-Torres that the fact of a prior conviction is not an element that must be found by a jury.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Rodriguez: Conjugal visits not material

In Rodriguez v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 11-13273 (June 30, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for three 1984 murders. The Court rejected Rodriguez’ claim that detectives testified falsely about conjugal visits that a cooperating State witness was allowed. The Court agreed with the Florida courts that this evidence “lacked materiality.” The Court also noted the defense’s “withering cross-examination” of this witness. The Court also rejected a claimed Brady violation involving the withhold of two letters that would have cast doubt on a prosecution witness. The Court concluded that the letters were “not material.”

Friday, June 27, 2014

Lambrix: Not error to decline to appoint habeas counsel for futile claim

In Lambrix v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 13-11917 (June 26, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of appointment of counsel to a Florida death row inmate whose prior habeas petitions had been denied, and rejected his argument that his latest petition was not futile under Martinez v. Ryan. The Court noted that Martinez held that there was no procedural default when there was cause for a habeas petitioner’s prior failure to raise an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Lambrix, however, did not fail to previously raise an ineffective assistance of counsel claim – he did so, unsuccessfully. For this (and other reasons) his current claim was futile, and the district court did not err in declining to appoint counsel to pursue a futile claim.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Malone: Alleyne error is harmless

In U.S. v. Malone, No. 12-15092 (June 26, 2014), the Court affirmed the sentence imposed on a defendant convicted of drug trafficking and failure to appear at trial. Toward the end of a lengthy jury trial in1990, Malone did not show up for trial. The trial continued in his absence, and the jury convicted Malone of a drug conspiracy. Twenty-two years later, in 2012, Malone was extradited from Ecuador, and brought for sentencing for his earlier drug trafficking conspiracy, and for a failure to appear charge – to which he pled guilty. The district court imposed a 240-month mandatory minimum sentence on the 1990 drug conspiracy conviction, based on its finding that the offense involved more than 5 kilos of cocaine and therefore triggered this mandatory minimum. The district court also imposed a consecutive 22-month sentence for Malone’s failure to appear at trial. Citing Alleyne, the Court agreed with Malone that, in light of the absence of jury findings regarding drug quantity at the 1990 trial, it was error for the district court to impose a sentence based on its own findings as to drug quantity. However, the error was harmless, because Malone had stipulated at the 1990 trial to a quantity greater than 5 kilograms. The Court rejected the argument that there was a conflict of interest in representation in light of defense’s counsel representation of a co-defendant at the trial in 1990. The Court noted Malone’s failure to demonstrate any alternative defense strategy that he could have pursued. The Court rejected as “invited error” Malone’s claim on appeal that, because his punishment for his failure to appear was already accounted for by a Guidelines sentence enhancement, he should not have been subject to a consecutive sentence for this failure. The Court noted that in the trial court Malone’s counsel stated that Malone was subject to “additional” punishment on account of the failure to appear. Finally, the Court rejected Malone’s complaint about an incomplete appellate record, pointing out that he was responsible, by having stayed on the run for 22 years, for the record being lost in that long interval.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Insignares: Habeas Petition after new judgment is not "second or successive"

In Insignares v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 12-12378 (June 23, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate convicted of attempted murder. The Court agreed with Insignares that because the State trial court entered a new sentence, and therefore a new judgment, after Insignares filed a first federal § 2254 habeas petition, his subsequent federal § 2254 habeas petition which challenged the new judgment was not “second or successive” for purposes of AEDPA limitations. Turning to the merits, the Court rejected Insignares’ ineffective assistance of counsel claim, finding the representation to be neither deficient, nor to have prejudiced his defense.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Ramirez-Gonzales: enticing a child for indecent purposes is "sexual abuse of a minor" for Guidelines purposes

In U.S. v. Ramirez-Gonzalez, No. 13-13703 (June 23, 2014), the Court rejected the argument that a defendant’s prior Georgia conviction for enticing of a child for indecent purposes did not qualify as “sexual abuse of a minor” for purposes of a 16-level enhancement under USSG § 2L1.2, for a defendant convicted of illegal re-entry into the United States. The Court explained that the Georgia offense fell within the definition of “sexual abuse of a minor” that includes “both physical and nonphysical misuse and maltreatment of a minor for the purposes of sexual gratification.” The Court rejected a substantive reasonableness challenge to the sentence, pointing out that the district court issued a considerable downward variance to negate the potential sentencing disparities that could have resulted from the 16-level enhancement on the facts of the case, and the resulting 52-month sentence was below the Guidelines range of 70-87 months, and well below the 20-year statutory maximum.

Doughtery: Flight in Colorado one week after Georgia robbery not "immediate"

In U.S. v. Dougherty, No. 12-16540 (June 20, 2014), the Court reversed the imposition of a six-level sentence enhancement for assaulting an officer during “immediate flight” from an offense, but otherwise affirmed the 428-month sentence on defendants who went on a Georgia crime spree, and fled to Colorado, where they fired on chasing police before being apprehended with cash from a bank robbery, and firearms and ammunition, in the trunk of their vehicle. The Court noted that USSG § 3A1.2 authorizes the imposition of a six-level enhancement if a defendant is accountable for the assault on a law enforcement officer during “an immediate flight” from an offense. Dougherty, however, assaulted an officer in Colorado one week after a bank robbery in Georgia. His assault therefore was no during an “immediate flight” from the robbery, and the six-level enhancement did not apply. The Court rejected the challenge to the imposition of a two-level sentence enhancement based on substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury during flight under § 3C1.2. The Court pointed out that this enhancement (unlike § 3A1.2) did not require immediacy. And each defendant could held accountable for this conduct: one defendant drove recklessly, another fired shots at pursuing police officers, and a third pointed a pistol at an officer. The Court rejected one defendant’s argument that his sentence should not have been enhanced under § 3C1.1 on account of his attempt to flee from jail in Colorado. The Court found the enhancement applicable because the escape occurred before trial or sentencing. Finally, the Court rejected substantive reasonableness challenges to the 428-months sentences, noting the “compelling” reasons given by the district court for its upward departure: the numbers of firearms involved, the number of civilians put at risk, and the defendants’ significant criminal history.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Houser: Affirming Health Care Fraud Conviction based on failure to provide nursing home services

In U.S. v. Houser, No. 12-14302 (June 19, 2014), the Court affirmed the conviction and sentence of a defendant charged with committing health care fraud by failing to provide required services at nursing homes. The Court found that it need not address whether the concept of “worthless services” is unconstitutionally vague when used to define health care fraud, because it was affirming the conviction based on “the nursing facilities’ complete failure to provide some necessary services.” The Court found that House “sought reimbursement from Medicare and Georgia Medicaid for required services – pharmaceutical, diagnostic, medical and dietary – that simply were not provided.” The Court rejected the argument that the government failed to show Houser’s “willfulness” in failing to pay payroll taxes. “Although Houser made frequent visits [to the IRS] the evidence reveals that those visits were an effort to stave off further investigation and prosecution, as opposed to an effort to correct an innocent mistake.” The Court similarly rejected Houser’s claim that his failure to file a federal tax return was not willful.

Vandergrift: Rehabilitation not valid basis for sentence on revocation of supervised release

In U.S. v. Vandergrift, No. 12-13154 (June 18, 2014), the Court affirmed a 24-month term imposed upon revocation of supervised release. Recognizing a Circuit split on the issue, the Court held that it was not plain error for the district court to rely on § 3553(a) factors like the seriousness of the offense when revoking supervised release, even though these factors are not included in the list of factors a district court should consider when deciding whether to revoke supervised release. The Court agreed with Vandergrift that the district court committed Tapia error when it considered rehabilitation as a basis for imposing a 24-month sentence. The Court noted that Tapia “prohibits any consideration of rehabilitation when determinng whether to impose or lengthen a sentence of imprisonment.” On plain error review, however, the Court found that this error did not affect Vandergrift’s substantial rights, because the sentencing court’s “primary considerations were for the safety of the public and deterring others from similar conduct.”

Boyd: Latest 2255 motion not second or successive

In Boyd v. U.S., No. 11-15643 (June 18, 2014), the Court (Tjoflat, J. & Moore & Schlesinger, b.d.), the Court reversed the dismissal of a federal inmate’s motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Boyd had filed several prior motions under § 2255, but the Court explained that his latest one was not “second or successive” and therefore limited by AEDPA, because they were filed after one of his prior state convictions was vacated, and therefore raised an argument he could not have raised before. In addition, two of Boyd’s prior § 2255 motions were not reviewed on the merits, but dismissed (erroneously) for being second or successive. These prior § 2255 motions therefore did not make the latest one second or successive.

Serrapio: Affirming modification of probation for defendant convicted of threatening to kill the President

In U.S. v. Serrapio, No. 12-14897 (June 18, 2014), the Court affirmed the constitutionality of a modification of conditions of probation imposed on a defendant convicted of having threatened to shoot the President of the United States. The district court originally imposed a sentence of probation that included four months home confinement with electronic monitoring. Serrapio did not violate the conditions of probation, but was quoted in a news article stating that his ordeal had been “pretty funny” and that the attendance at his rock band’s show benefitted because people came out to see the kid who threatened to kill the President. The district court thereupon modified the terms of probation to include 45 days in a halfway house, and a year of home confinement with electronic monitoring. On appeal, the Court held that the propriety of the new 45 days of halfway house condition was moot, because Serrapio had already served this term. Turning to the increase in the home confinement from four months to one year, the Court held that because Serrapio had not finished this term his appeal of this was not moot because theoretically he could ask for a refund of the cost of electronic monitoring. The Court held that the modification of probation was valid, because the statute authorized the modification. The modification did not violate Double Jeopardy, because Serrapio did not have a legitimate expectation of finality in the 4-month term, since the district court had the authority to modify it. The Court rejected the argument that the modification of probation violated Serrapio’s First Amendment rights because it was based on statements he had made. The Court noted that the statements suggested that Serrapio “did not really understand the gravity of his offense.”