Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Monday, August 29, 2011

Shaygan: Hyde Amendment Sanctions Reversed

In U.S. v. Shaygan, No. 09-12129 (Aug. 29, 2011) (2-1) (Edmondson, J., dissenting in part), the Court reversed an award of attorneys’ fees to an acquitted criminal defendant.

The Court noted that under the Hyde Amendment, an award of attorneys’ fees to a criminal defendant is only warranted when a prosecution is “vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith.” Rejecting the district court’s finding that the Superseding Indictment was filed as a result of a motion to suppress, and therefore in “bad faith,” the Court noted that the Superseding Indictment was filed with the support of newly discovered evidence. The prosecution was therefore “objectively reasonable.” The Court recognized the prosecutor’s threat that a “seismic shift” in the case would occur if the defense filed a motion to suppress, but found that this comment did not establish that the ensuing Superseding Indictment (which added 118 counts to the original indictment) was filed in subjective bad faith; “tough negotiating tactics and harsh words used by prosecutors cannot alone be grounds for a determination of bad faith under the Hyde Amendment.”

The Court also found that the district court violated the rights of the prosecutors when it publically reprimanded them without first affording them due process. The Court pointed out that the district court failed to give the prosecutors notice that it was considering a public reprimand. The prosecutors had no meaningful opportunity to be heard, or to cross-examine any witnesses. The Court remanded the case for further proceedings, and declined to assign the case to a different judge.

[Dissenting, Judge Edmondson argued that “the prosecutor’s personal vindictiveness prominently marked the Government’s [prosecution].” He therefore would have affirmed the attorneys’ fees award.]

Friday, August 19, 2011

Lopez: "Thug Mansion" convictions affirmed

In U.S. v. Lopez, No. 09-12802 (Aug. 16, 2011), the Court affirmed fatal carjacking, drug trafficking, and firearm possession convictions and sentences of four co-defendants.

The Court rejected two drug trafficking co-defendants’ arguments that their trials should have been severed. The Court noted that defendants indicted together are usually tried together, and a defendant will rarely be able to show the requisite “prejudice” to avoid this result. Here, the co-defendants argued that they should not have been tried with co-defendants who were charged with crimes that were subject to the death penalty, but the Court found that this was not a sufficient ground for severance. The Court recognized that the joint trial brought into evidence the fact that two coconspirators had murdered a fellow drug dealer, his wife, and their two young children. But the district court instructed the jury not to consider this evidence against the co-defendants who were not charged with these crimes. In addition, the government presented “compelling evidence” of their guilt, mitigating the effect of “spillover” prejudice.

The Court rejected the argument that the district court, during jury selection, improperly required the co-defendants to agree unanimously on all 20 of their peremptory challenges. The Court noted that a district court is permitted to require co-defendants to agree by majority vote on the use of peremptories. In addition, other Circuits have held that it is not improper to require co-defendants to agree on the exercise of peremptory challenges.

The Court rejected the argument that there was insufficient evidence to support a search warrant of premises known as the “Thug Mansion.” The defendants argued that the passage of time between the murders and the search – 12 days – meant that probable cause had “faded away.” The Court pointed out that the police investigation continued during this period, and the “less-than-a-fortnight time lapse” would not prevent them from believing that evidence would still be found there.

The Court rejected a challenge to the admission of evidence of defendants’ prior drug deals. The evidence was admissible because it provided “context” and established the trust among the parties for the drug transactions that were part of the charged offenses.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Willis: Proper Limitations on 2255 resentencing

In U.S. v. Willis, No. 09-15676 (Aug. 17, 2011), the Court rejected a defendant’s arguments that he should have received additional sentence reductions at a § 2255 resentencing beyond no longer categorizing him as a career offender.

The Court found that Willis was barred from asserting additional ineffective assistance of counsel, because these claims were either waived in his brief, or had not been a subject of a certificate of appealability after being denied by the district court. The Court also found that the district court had properly limited Willis’ § 2255 resentencing, because it declined to review aspects of his sentence that were without error.

The Court also rejected the argument that his statutory right to receive 10-days notice of a PSR prior to (re)sentencing was violated. The Court found that any error was harmless, because the resentencing was limited to striking the career offender enhancement, and the resentencing PSR contained the same information as the original PSR, which Willis had received years earlier.

Barrington: Affirming Convictions for Inflating Grades

In U.S. v. Barrington, No. 09-15295 (Aug. 11, 2011), the Court affirmed convictions and sentences of a defendant convicted of computer fraud and aggravated identity theft in connection with a scheme to inflate grades of students at Florida A & M University.

The Court rejected Barrington’s challenge to the admission of his prior involvement in changing grades, finding the evidence admissible under FRE 404(b) to prove Barrington’s intent to commit the charged offense.

The Court also rejected the argument that Barrington should have been allowed to cross-examine a government witness about his pending state burglary charge, pointing out that this charge was only “marginally relevant,” and that other cross-examination adequately brought out the witness credibility issues.

Reviewing the issue for “plain error,” the Court rejected the argument that inflated grades did not constitute “a thing of value” for purposes of the federal fraud statutes. The Court found that by changing grades from failing to non-failing, the scheme deprived A&M of additional tuition the students would have paid to retake the classes. In addition, the scheme changed the residencies of students, depriving A&M of the higher tuition that would have been paid by non-resident students.

The Court rejected the argument that the passwords of A&M employees were not personal identity information for purposes of aggravated identity theft. The Court noted that the passwords were unique to the employees and allowed them to access the protected grading system.

Turning to Barrington’s 84 month sentence, the Court rejected the contention that the district court improperly drew an adverse inference, and imposed a higher sentence when, after the district court asked “Do you still maintain that you did nothing wrong?” Barrington remained silent. The Court noted that failure to accept responsibility was an appropriate consideration in the determination of the sentence.

The Court rejected a challenge to the calculation of the “loss” amount based on the cost of students of retaking classes that they would have failed, but for the changed, inflated grades. The Court noted that the district court relied on the cost of tuition for the affected credit hours.

The Court also rejected a challenge to a sentence enhancement based on the use of “device-making equipment”and the production of “unauthorized access devices.” The Court found that the use of key loggers to use usernames and passwords to access identifiable student accounts met the statutory definition.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Singletary: Guess not enough to support restitution calculation

In U.S. v. Singletary, No. 09-13892 (Aug. 15, 2011), the Court vacated a $ 1 million restitution order in a mortgage fraud case, because the district court failed to support this order with specific factual findings.

The Court pointed out that, unlike the amount of “loss” under the Sentencing Guidelines, which is determined using the greater of actual loss or intended loss, restitution must be based “on the loss the victim actually suffered.” The Court noted that at sentencing and restitution hearings, the government failed to establish the amount of the mortgage losses to the Federal Housing Authority (“FHA”). Further, the district court stated it might make a “reasonably intelligent guess” of the restitution amount, when in fact it was required to make specific factual findings.

The Court therefore vacated the restitution order and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Court instructed that on remand the government “is not receiving another bite at the apple.” The district court was instructed to calculate restitution based on “the evidentiary record as it now exists.”

Friday, August 05, 2011

Langford: Upholding Bribery Convictions of former Birmingham mayor

In U.S. v. Langford, No. 10-11076 (Aug. 5, 2011), the Court (Marcus, Anderson, Mills b.d.) affirmed the convictions of a former Jefferson County, Alabama County Commissioner, and Mayor of Birmingham.

The Court rejected challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting convictions of using the mail and wires to deprive the public of honest services. The Court found that Langford accepted bribes, which he did not disclose, and used the mails and wires to execute his scheme.

The Court also rejected a challenge to the district court’s refusal to redact the reference to Langford’s “gambling winnings” in his tax returns, noting, inter alia, that one might draw an inference that he was a law-abiding citizen from his dutiful report of these winnings.

The Court also rejected the argument that business records should not have been admitted, because the bank custodian had no personal knowledge of the documents. It sufficed that the custodian could testify that the documents were kept in the regular course of business.

The Court further rejected Langford’s challenge to the district court’s denial of his request for a change of venue. The Court noted that the trial occurred in Tuscaloosa, not in Birmingham or Jefferson County. The Court found no evidence of “rampant pretrial publicity.”