Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tome: One-year internet ban affirmed

In U.S. v. Tome, No. 09-16486 (July 27, 2010), on review of a revocation of supervised release, the Court upheld the imposition of a 24-month sentence and a one-year internet ban as a condition of additional supervised release.

The defendant, after admitting to possession of computer disks containing over 100,000 images of child pornography and being convicted of possessing child pornography, was released on supervised release. While on supervised release, Tome violated his conditions by, inter alia, sending a letter to an inmate graphically describing having sex with children, falsely denying internet usage, and associating with persons convicted of child pornography offenses. In addition, the probation officer stated that during his sex offender treatment sessions Tome was “lacking in motivation, defensive and arrogant.” The Court found that the district court acted within its discretion in imposing the maximum 24-month term, and in prohibiting Tome from using the internet for one year. The Court noted that Tome had not established that his “odd jobs” required internet usage.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hall: Teenager's Confession Not Coerced

In Hall v. Thomas, No. 09-12729 (July 20, 2010), the Court denied habeas relief to an Alabama inmate sentenced to life imprisonment for robbery and kidnaping.

The Court found that Hall, a juvenile, gave a voluntary confession. The Court recognized that Hall’s father was not present when his son was questioned by police, and that Hall claimed his confession was coerced, but noted that Hall’s audiotaped statement showed that he waived his Miranda rights, and indicated no coercion.

The Court also rejected ineffective assistance of counsel claims, pointing out that Hall suffered no prejudice because of the evidence against him, which included his confession.

Belfast: Charles Taylor's son convictions affirmed

In U.S. v. Belfast, No. 09-10461 (July 15, 2010), in an 87-page opinion, the Court affirmed the torture convictions and 1,164-month sentence of the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor.

The Court rejected the argument that the torture statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2340A, was unconstitutional because its definition of torture swept more broadly than the Convention Against Torture, which authorized the enactment of the statute. The Court noted that the Judiciary is deferential to other Branches on such issues, and found the differences between the definitions immaterial.

The Court also rejected the argument that § 2340A could not apply extraterritorially to acts in Liberia. The Court pointed out that Belfast was a United States citizen, that Congress has the power to regulate the extraterritorial acts of citizens, and that the statute was intended to apply extraterritorially. The Court also found that 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) could apply extraterritorially, because this is an ancillary statute that relies on a separate substantive crime, here the substantive crime of torture.

Turning to evidentiary issues, the Court rejected the argument that a torture victim’s statements were hearsay, finding them admissible both as prior consistent statements offered to rebut a claim of fabrication, or as excited utterances.

The Court found no error in the admission of unredacted medical records containing statements that the victims suffered “abuse” or “torture,” noting that these were statements of “causation” that did not assign fault for the abuse or torture.

The Court found no error in the admission of rap lyrics found in a notebook in the defendant’s suitcase, noting that they were adequately authenticated, and probative of the defendant’s commission of atrocities.

The Court rejected the argument that the government should have been compelled to produce then-classified Justice Department “Torture Memos.” The Court found these documents “irrelevant” to the defense, since the acts charged in the case were not similar to those described in the Torture Memos.

Turning to the sentence, the Court found that the kidnaping and murder enhancements were supported by the evidence, and that the district court was authorized to consider this evidence.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Snipes: Tax Evasion Convictions and Sentence Affirmed

In U.S. v. Snipes, No. 08-12402 (July 16, 2010), the Court affirmed tax evasion convictions and a three-year sentence.

The district court’s denied a venue transfer motion pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3237(b), because the motion was filed after this statute’s 20-day deadline. The Court rejected the argument that Fed. R. Crim. P. 12(c), which authorizes district courts to set deadlines for pretrial motions, supersedes § 3237(b)’s deadline.

The Court rejected the argument that the district court should have held a hearing to decide whether venue was proper. The Court noted that venue is an element of a charge, which must be decided by a jury, not a district court. The Court rejected the argument that constitutional rights were at stake in the venue question, and therefore should be resolved pre-trial, pointing out that, unlike exclusionary rule rights, the Sixth Amendment right to have venue proven as an element of the offense “is safeguarded by integrating it into the trial.”

The Court affirmed the district court’s refusal to instruct the jury regarding Snipes “good faith reliance on the Fifth Amendment.” The Court noted that the district court gave adequate instructions regarding good faith, and pointed out that the Fifth Amendment reliance was not related to the counts of which Snipes stood convicted.

Turning to sentencing, the Court rejected the argument that USSG § 2T1.1 is invalid because a misdemeanor is a less serious offense. The Court noted that the Guidelines provide graduated tax evasion penalties, depending on the amount of the tax loss, recognizing that major tax evasions are “more serious.”

The Court also rejected the argument that § 2T1.1 was invalid because it was not the product of empirical research. The Court noted that the lack of a empirical research, while a “factor” that can justify a district court’s departure from the Guidelines, does not require wholesale invalidation of a Guideline. Further, § 2T1.1 was created after empirical analysis of sentences for white-collar crimes.

The Court upheld an obstruction of justice Guideline enhancement. The Court found sufficient evidence that Snipes threateningly instructed an employee not to respond to a grand jury subpoena.

Finally, the Court upheld the 36-month sentence’s reasonableness.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Allen: Defendant Can Blame Counsel for His Own Litigation Decision

In Allen v. Sec. Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 09-13217 (July 14, 2010), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for a 1991 murder.

The Court rejected Allen’s argument that the Florida state courts incorrectly failed to consider the errors in his trial cumulatively. The Court noted that the cumulative error issue was briefed in the Florida courts, and Florida law requires courts to consider the cumulative impact of errors.

The Court also rejected Allen’s argument that counsel was ineffective in failing to put on mitigating evidence at the penalty phase of his trial. The Court pointed out that Allen specifically instructed counsel not to present mitigating evidence. “Allen . . . does not have the right to escape the consequences of his own decision not to present any mitigating circumstances evidence by shifting the blame for it to someone else.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Walker: No Clearly Established Crawford Rights In Civil Commitments

In Walker v. Hadi, No. 09-15701 (June 4, 2010), the Court held that, in a habeas proceeding challenging a Florida civil commitment order classifying Walker as a sexually violent predator, Walker could not show error based on the violation of his right to cross- examine witnesses, under Crawford v. Washington, because it is not “clearly established” that Crawford rights exist in civil commitment proceedings.

The Court noted that AEDPA bars relief for habeas petitioners unless they can show an unreasonable application of “clearly established” law as determined by the Supreme Court. However, to date the Supreme Court has not addressed whether Crawford protections, which exist in criminal proceedings, also exist in civil commitment proceedings. Thus, the state court which denied Walker Crawford protections did not violate “clearly established” law.

Fontenot: Government Need Only Prove Federal Investigative Jurisdiction

In U.S. v. Fontenot, No. 08-12266 (July 13, 2010), the Court, on plain error review, held that it was not erroneous, in a prosecution for making a false entry in a document with the intent to impede an investigation within the jurisdiction of a United States agency, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519, to instruct the jury that the government is not required to prove that the defendant knew that his conduct would obstruct a federal investigation.

Fontenot was a corrections officer who falsified information in a report regarding an assault on an inmate.

The Court noted that there can be no “plain” error if there is no precedent from the Supreme Court or the Eleventh Circuit resolving the issue. Here, no such precedent addressed the issue whether the government is required that the defendant knew that his conduct would obstruct a federal investigation. Thus, Fontenot could not show that any error was “plain.” The Court noted legislative history for § 1519 which indicated that the government is only required to prove that the investigation in question fell within federal jurisdiction.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Thompson: Manifest Injustice Standard applies to nonpreserved sufficiency challenge

In U.S. v. Thompson, No. 08-13658 (July 8, 2010), the Court rejected sufficiency of the evidence challenges to multiple convictions of robberies and for using firearms in the course of those offenses.

The Court noted that because, as to certain counts, the defendant failed to move at the close of the government’s case for judgments of acquittal, on appeal the challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the convictions on those counts was not reviewed de novo, but only for “manifest miscarriage of justice.”

The Court found that the evidence was sufficient, citing the testimony of witnesses who identified the defendant, his gun, and his getaway vehicle.