Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, March 25, 2005

Byrd: Defendant can't testify after govt rebuttal

In U.S. v. Byrd, No. 04-12188 (March 25, 2005), the Court (Carnes, Hull, Wilson), affirmed convictions for armed bank robbery, use of a firearm during the commission of a bank robbery, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2113(a), (d), 924(c) & 922(g).
The Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it refused to allow the defendant to testify after the close of the government’s rebuttal case, and the defendant voluntarily waived his right to testify in his defense (but later changed his mind and wanted to testify. The Court agreed with other Circuits to have considered the issue, and noted that "reasonable rules" must govern trial proceedings. The Court recognized that Byrd asked to testify before closing arguments, and that his testimony was of "inherent significance." However, allowing Byrd to testify could have prejudiced the prosecution, because he should not have been able to take the stand and "say whatever he wanted to without much fear of anybody being around to rebut it." Moreover, having heard the rebuttal witnesses, Byrd could manufacture explanations, "smoothing over to some extent the discrepancies between the testimony of his alibi witnesses and the government’s rebuttal witness."
Finally, the only explanation Byrd gave was that he changed his mind. This was not a valid reason for not testifying at the proper time.
The Court summarily rejected Byrd’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, noting, among other things: "The robber took $4,680 from the bank, and the police found $4,650 in a box under Byrd’s bed."

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Peters: Sale of firearm to convicted felon

In U.S. v. Peters, No. 04-11658 (March 24, 2005), the Court (Marcus, Fay, Siler b.d.) affirmed a convcition for sale of a firearm and ammunition to a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(d)(1).
The Court rejected a sufficiency of the evidence challenge. The Court found that, based on the exchanges between the seller and a confidential informant, the seller was told by the buyer of the firearms that the buyer was a convicted felon. This constituted sufficient evidence from which a jury could find that Peters had reasonable cause to believe that his buyer had a prior felony conviction.
The Court also rejected a Commerce Clause challenge to the federal statute which criminalizes the sale of a firearm to a convicted felon. The Court noted that the sale of a firearm is "economic activity," and therefore fell within Congress’ Commerce Clause power. Further, just as the Court had held that a felon’s possession of a firearm can be made a federal crime, likewise the sale of a firearm to a convicted felon can be a federal crime.

Adams: 10-year window of prior criminal conviction

In U.S. v. Adams, No. 03-15111 (March 23, 2005), the Court (Marcus, Fay, Siler b.d.) held that a prior conviction was within the 10-year window of USSG § 4A1.2(e)(2) for purposes of assessing a criminal history point, even though the prior conviction was based on an offense which occurred more than 10 years before the commencement of the offense of conviction. The Court noted that the Guidelines provide that the 10 year window goes back to the date of sentencing, not the date of the offense. Further, it did not matter that the sentencing was postponed because of a court backlog. The plain language of the Guideline did not recognize such an exception.

Lyons: possessing 4 bullets gets 235 month sentence

In U.S. v. Lyons, No. 03-15073 (March 23, 2005), the Court affirmed the conviction and sentence of a defendant convicted of possession of four Remington .22 caliber bullets, in violation of 18 U.S.C. sections §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(e), and sentenced to 235 months’ incarceration as an armed career offender pursuant to USSG § 4B1.4(b).
The Court rejected the argument that there was no probable cause for the search of Lyons which uncovered the four bullets, because he searched for his "disorderly conduct," and was ultimately acquitted of this charge. The Court noted that the acquittal does not affect the inquiry into whether the police had probable cause to arrest. Here, under the circumstances – Lyons’ unruly conduct while the police were trying to control an unruly Ft. Myers crowd – the police had probable cause to arrest him for disorderly conduct in violation of Fla. Stat. § 877.03.
The Court also rejected the argument that Lyons should have been to introduce evidence of his acquittal for disorderly conduct in order to show the bias of the police officer who testified against him at the federal trial on ammunition possession. The Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in holding this evidence "irrelevant."
Finally, the Court rejected the claim that the 235-month sentence violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court noted that Lyons’ recidivism justified his classification as an armed career criminal, and the corresponding level VI criminal history category and heightened offense level. "The length of his sentence was the result of his extensive criminal history and it is well-settled that a longer sentence may be imposed on a recidivist, based on his criminal history, even if the offense of conviction is relatively minor in nature."

Dowling: Booker waiver -- and no plain error

In U.S. v. Dowling, No. 04-10464 (March 23, 2005), the Court (Anderson, Pryor & Hill) affirmed a conviction and 240-month sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
The Court rejected a sufficiency of the evidence challenge, noting that there was "more than sufficient evidence" to support the jury’s verdict.
Turning to the challenge to the sentence, the Court found that no Booker error was preserved in the district court, because counsel did not preserve a "constitutional objection." The Court noted that counsel had noted that the jury’s special verdict only convicted the defendant of a 500 gram cocaine conspiracy. Counsel objected at sentencing that the jury verdict "under the unique facts and circumstances of this case, must be respected." The Court noted that the "unique facts and circumstances" had to do with the defendant’s statute of limitations defense, and that there was no reference to the Sixth Amendment, or citation to Apprendi, or challenge to the judge’s fact-finding authority. The Court noted that Fed. R. Crim. P. 51(b) requires a party to inform the judge not only of the action it wishes but the "grounds therefor."
Reviewing the issue for "plain error," the Court noted that "nothing in the record indicates that the judge might have imposed a different sentence in the new advisory regime." The Court recognized that the district judge expressed "some concern and an intellectual difficulty" with applying one Guideline enhancement – a cross-reference enhancement for murder – but pointed out that this enhancement made no difference in Dowling’s case, because the drug quantity and other enhancements would already have justified a sentence above the 120-month statutory maximum that was imposed. [Note : In Dowling, even though defense counsel at sentencing objected that a longer sentence shouldn’t be imposed because the jury’s special verdict on drug quantity "must be respected," the 11th Circuit found that the error in imposing sentence above the special verdict quantity wasn’t preserved, because counsel didn’t say something like "based on the Sixth Amendment," or "based on Apprendi." Yet, at the time of sentencing (pre-Booker, indeed, pre-Blakely) neither the Sixth Amendment nor Apprendi applied to Guideline enhancements. So the district judge would have been powerless to agree with a "Sixth Amendment" or "Apprendi" objection, even if it had been raised with the greatest clarity. One wonders if Dowling isn’t elevating form over substance. ]

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Mesa: Handcuff detention ok

In Muehler v. Mena, No. 03-1423 (March 22, 2005), the Supreme Court held that the detention in handcuffs of an occupant of premises which were being search for weapons and evidence of gang membership did not violate the Fourth Amendment and therefore could not give rise to a suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
The Court noted that under Michigan v. Summers, police has the authority to detain occupants of premises while a proper search is being conducted. The use of force in the form of handcuffs to detain Mena was reasonable here because the governmental interest in minimizing the risk of harm to both officers and occupants, at its maximum when a warrant authorizes a search for weapons and a wanted gang member resides on the premises, outweighs the marginal intrusion.
The Court also found no Fourth Amendment violation in the questioning of Mesa about her immigration status. Mere police questioning does not constitute a "seizure."
The Court remanded the case for consideration of Mesa’s argument that the length of her detention violated the Fourth Amendment.

Brown v. Payton

In Brown v. Payton, No. 03-1029 (March 22, 2005), the Supreme Court held that, under the deferential AEDPA standard for federal review of state decisions, the California Supreme Court did not render a decision contrary to, or unreasonably applying, federal law, when it declined to find a constitutional violation in the prosecutor’s incorrect statement in closing argument in the death phase of the trial that a jury could not take account in mitigation of anything that happened after the crime, i.e, the defendant’s post-offense rehabilitation. The trial court gave a standard § (k) instruction that "any other" extenuating factor could be considered.
The Court noted that in Boyde v. California, it had upheld the § k instruction, and that the California Supreme Court had relied on Boyde in affirming the defendant’s sentence. The found that the California Supreme Court had applied Boyde to a different set of facts and could not therefore, under AEDPA, be found to be contrary to established federal law.

Garcia: Convictions affirmed; somes sentences vacated

In U.S. v. Garcia, No. 03-10350 (March 22, 2005), the Court (Edmondson, Wilson, Restani b.d.) affirmed convictions for conspiracy to manufacture marijuana plants, and for maintaining a place for the purpose of manufacturing marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 & 856(a)(1).
The Court rejected sufficiency of the evidence challenges. The Court noted that credibility determinations regarding the testifying co-conspirators were the exclusive province of the jury. The Court further found other evidence sufficient evidence.
The Court also rejected one defendant’s argument that evidence should not have been admitted because it pertained to the other defendants, not to him. The Court noted that the evidence was clearly relevant to the co-defendants, that the jury was instructed to consider each charge separately, and that the jury was able to do so because it acquitted on some counts.
The Court further rejected the argument that prejudicial argument of co-counsel during closing should have been the basis for a mistrial. The Court noted that the jury was instructed that the arguments of counsel were not evidence. Further, considering all the evidence, the comments did not prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment.
The Court also rejected the argument that an "accessory after the fact" jury instruction should have been given, because one defendant’s conduct consisted only in dismantling a grow house. The Court noted this did not prejudice the defense, which was free to argue, and did argue, that dismantling a grow house does not prove manufacture of marijuana or maintenance of a grow house.
The Court noted the district court refused to consider granting a defendant a "safety-valve’ sentence reduction below the mandatory minimum solely because the defendant had not been completely debriefed prior to sentencing, and even though the defendant asked for a continuance of the sentencing in order to be able to be debriefed and qualify for safety valve. The Court rejected the government’s argument that U.S. v. Brownlee, 204 F.3d 1302 (11th Cir. 2000) established a jurisdictional rule that precludes consideration of safety-valve if the proffer is presented after the commencement of the sentencing hearing. The Court found the language in Brownlee to be dicta. Further, the defendant’s failure to be fully debriefed "was due to a misunderstanding." In these circumstances, the district court had discretion to continue the sentencing to allow a debriefing, and the case was remanded for the district court to consider the safety valve request.
Finally, the Court recognized that the sentencing enhancement based on the number of marijuana plants violated Booker, because the jury specifically found in a special interrogatory verdict that a defendant was not responsible for more than 100 plants, but the judge at sentencing nonetheless fond this number by a preponderance of the evidence. This sentence was therefore vacated and remanded for resentencing.

Smith: Plain Maxwell Commerce Clause Error

In U.S. v. Smith, No. 03-13639 (March 18, 2005), the Court (Tjoflat, Roney, Hill) reversed the conviction of a defendant convicted of producing child pornography, and possessing child pornography, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2251(a) & 2252A(a)(5)(B) on the ground that, as applied, the statutes exceeded Congress’ Commerce Clause power.
The Court noted that the only connection to interstate commerce was the fact that the paper on which the photos were printed was received from out of state. Citing U.S. v. Maxwell, 386 F.3d 1042 (11th Cir. 2004) (vacating child pornography conviction where the only interstate commerce nexus was the fact that the disks on which the images were stored had traveled, when blank, in interstate commerce), the Court held that the defendant’s conviction was "plain error."
The Court recognized that, notwithstanding Maxwell, the defendant would have waived the Commerce Clause issue if he had failed to raise it in his initial brief, under U.S. v. Levy, but, liberally construing an initial brief which never mentioned Commerce Clause caselaw but made a Commerce Clause argument, the Court held that the issue was not waived. Plain error applied because the issue was waived in the district court, because trial counsel merely argued that the statute should not be interpreted to extend to Smith’s conduct, not that the statute was unconstitutional as applied to Smith’s conduct.
Applying the Maxwell Commerce Clause analysis, the Court found that there was nothing "commercial or economic" about Smith’s conduct of taking pornographic photos of minors, an activity the Court found distinct from the wheat production at issue in Wiockard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942). The Court rejected the argument that the statute’s "jurisdictional hook" sufficed to satisfy the Commerce Clause, noting that the hook, which required a showing that materials had been shipped in interstate commerce, encompassed every case imaginable.
Applying "plain error" analysis, the Court found that the error in convicting Smith met all four of the "plain error" criteria, noting that it would harm the public reputation of the criminal justice system to brush aside the limits the Constitution places on the Federal Government.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Diaz habeas petition denied

In Diaz v. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 04-12795 (March 14, 2005), the Court (Edmondson, Marcus, Pryor) denied habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for a 1979 murder. The Court rejected a number of claims of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. As to each claim, the Court noted the deferential AEDPA standard that applied, and concluded that no ineffective assistance occurred because the claim Diaz pressed would clearly have failed if raised on direct appeal in the Florida courts.
The Court also rejected the claim that shackling Diaz during the trial, employing extra security, and ordering that all potential jurors be searched deprived him of a fair trial. The Court noted that Diaz’ violent history warranted the security measures.
The Court also rejected the argument that Diaz’ counsel was ineffective during the sentencing phase, concluding that counsel made an adequate investigation, and made conscious tactical decisions at sentencing.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Frye: Booker challenge waived in appeal waiver

In U.S. v. Frye, No. 03-16377 (March 11, 2005), the Court vacated in part its prior published opinion in Frye dated February 10, 2005. The Court deleted the portion of its prior opinion which had rejected Frye’s Blakely challenge to his sentence on the ground that the sentencing court could have inferred the facts supporting the sentence from the facts admitted at Frye’s guilty plea. [Note: As Richard Klugh noted in an earlier email, this portion of the original Frye opinion had become problematic in light of the Supreme Court’s recent indication in Shepherd v. U.S. that a sentencing court does not enjoy unlimited power to draw inferences about the factual basis for a conviction]. In its place, the Court inserted a discussion holding that the defendant’s waiver of his right of appeal encompassed a waiver of his right to challenge his sentence on Booker grounds. This waiver foreclosed Frye’s challenge to his sentence.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Lebovitz: Affirming Enhancements for Attempt Sex w/ Minor

In U.S. v. Lebovitz, No. 04-10185 (March 4, 2005), the Court (Anderson, Roney, Carnes) the Court affirmed a 110-month sentence for a defendant convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 2423(b) by crossing state lines with the intent to have sex with a minor.
The Court rejected the argument that USSG § 2A3.1 was not the appropriate guideline for setting Lebovitz’ offense level. The Court pointed out that § 2A3.2 expressly states that § 2A3.1 should be applied if the offense involved attempted criminal sex abuse. Here, the defendant had attempted to have sex with a minor by stating his intent to do so in writing, and by crossing state lines with jewelry and condoms to meet with an eleven-year old (no meeting occurred: the defendant was caught in a police sting).
The Court rejected the argument that a four-level enhancement under § 2A3.1(b)(2)(A), for attempted sex with a minor under the age of 12, should not have been imposed because the minor in this case was fictitious. The Court noted that it had upheld convictions based on the low age of the fictitous minor victim, and held that Guideline sentence enhancements could also qualify on this basis. Intent, rather than actual harm, is the relevant basis for the enhancement, the Court explained.
The Court rejected the defendant’s contention that it was impermissible double counting to increase his sentence for possessing ten or more pornographic items and also for use of a computer to obtain the items. The Court noted that the two guidelines serve different purposes: one is aimed at well-established connection between possession of illegal pornographic items and child molesting. The other aims to punish the use of a computer, a device which greatly facilitates the viewing of child pornography. These are two different kinds of harms.
The Court also rejected the argument that it was impermissible double counting to increase the sentence based on possessing 300 to 600 child pornography items when the sentence had already been enhanced for possessing more than 10 items. The Court noted that the enhancement for possessing more than 300 items was adopted after the enhancement for possessing more than 10 items. The Court found no implied repeal of the more than 10 item enhancement when the more than 300 item enhancement was adopted. To the contrary, Congress meant to increase the punishment for possessors of large numbers of images. No double counting therefore occurred.

Booker issue waived when not raised in initial brief

In U.S. v. Dockery, No. 03-16388 (Mar. 3, 2005), the Court (Birch, Dubina, Marcus), on remand from the United States Supreme Court for further consideration in light of Booker, applying U,S. v. Ardley, 242 F.3d 989 (11th Cir. 2001) held that it need not consider the Booker case because the defendant had failed to raise the issue in his initial brief. The Court therefore reaffirmed its earlier affirmance of the defendant’s sentence.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

No Booker error when Guideline max was imposed

In U.S. v. Curtis, No. 02-16224 (11th Cir. Feb. 28, 2005), the Court modified a footnote in its prior opinion, 380 F.3d 1308 finding no plain error in an alleged Blakely violation at sentencing. The Court stated that Curtis could not satisfy the third prong of its plain error analysis announced in Rodriguez. The Court noted that Curtis had been sentenced at the high end of the Guideline range. This action was inconsistent with any suggestion that the sentencing judge might have imposed a lower sentence had the Guidelines been advisory.