Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, March 15, 2018

In re Welch: SOS Denied Because Alabama Robbery and First Degree Assault Satisfy the Elements Clause

In In re Welch, No. 18-10592 (Mar. 15, 2018) (Ed Carnes, William Pryor, Hull) (per curiam), the Court denied a pro se application for leave to file a successive Johnson 2255 motion to vacate his ACCA sentence of life.

In denying the application, the Court did not consider whether the successive 2255 motion would be timely.  Instead, it denied the application because the petitioner would still have three violent felonies under the elements clause.  First, it held that his conviction for Alabama first degree robbery satisfied the elements clause, because it required force with the intent to overcome physical resistance.  For support, the Court cited its decision in Fritts holding that Florida robbery satisfied the elements clause.

Second, it held that his two convictions for Alabama first degree assault also satisfied the elements clause.  Because the statute was divisible, the Court applied the modified categorical approach, which the Court noted permitted consideration of undisputed PSI facts.  The indictments, plea colloquy, and undisputed PSI facts reflected that his assault convictions were for intentionally causing serious physical injury by means of a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument.  And the Court concluded that the "serious physical injury" element necessarily satisfied the elements clause under Curtis Johnson.

Vergara: Forensic Cell Phone Searches at the Border Do not Require Warrants or Probable Cause

In United States v. Vergara, No. 16-15059 (Mar. 15, 2018) (William Pryor, Jill Pryor, Clevenger), the Court upheld child pornography convictions following the warrantless manual and forensic search of the defendant's cell phones at the border.

The Court held that border searches do not require either a warrant or probable cause, but rather are subject to review for reasonableness.  The Court rejected the defendant's argument that the Supreme Court's decision in Riley v. California required a warrant for the forensic search, reasoning that Riley was limited only to searches incident to arrest and did not apply to border searches.  At the border, the highest possible standard for a search is reasonable suspicion, and the defendant did not challenge the district court's conclusion that reasonable suspicion existed for the search of his phones.  So the Court did not address whether reasonable suspicion was required or whether reasonable suspicion in fact existed.

Judge Jill Pryor dissented, disagreeing with the majority's dismissal of the significant privacy interests implicated by cell phone searches.  She acknowledged that Riley did not involve a border search, and the issue was one of first impression post-Riley.  But, in light of Riley, her weighing of the government's heightened interest at the border with the defendant's privacy interests led her to conclude that a forensic search of a cell phone at the border required a warrant supported by probable cause.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Nelson: No Deprivation of Counsel By Precluding Conferral on Ongoing Defendant Testimony

In United States v. Nelson, No. 16-12453 (Newsom, Marcus, Moore), the Court upheld the defendant's mail and wire-fraud convictions.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the district court violated his Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel.  The district court recessed the trial for the evening while the defendant's testimony was ongoing.  Defense counsel asked the court if he was permitted to speak to the client during the recess "about matters other than his [ongoing] testimony."  The court responded affirmatively, telling counsel that he could speak to the client about anything other than his testimony.  Given that defense counsel had himself invited that limitation, there was no objection about it.  And, more importantly, there was no indication that the defendant or defense counsel actually wanted to confer about the defendant's testimony.  For that reason, and relying on the Court's en banc decision in Crutchfield, the Court concluded that there was no Sixth Amendment "deprivation" at all.  As a result, the Court declined to resolve issues about how structural error, plain error, and invited error might apply in this context.