Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Monday, August 27, 2012

Shelton: AEDPA precludes holding statute unconstitutional

In Shelton v. Sec., Dep’t of Corrections, No. 11-13515 (Aug. 24, 2012), the Court reversed the grant of habeas relief to a Florida inmate convicted of cocaine trafficking, and sentenced to 18 years in jail.
The district court held that the Florida statute violated Due Process, because the law partially eliminated an element of mens rea – under the Florida statute, an offender must be aware of the presence of an unlawful substance but need not be aware of the substance’s unlawful nature. Reversing, the Court held that this ruling was not permitted by AEDPA, which allows a federal court to reverse a state court’s determination only if that state court determination unreasonably applies clearly established Supreme Court precedent. Here, the Supreme Court has not held that a statute with only a partial mens rea violates Due Process. The Court expressed no view on the underlying constitutional question – only that the issue was "novel" and could be the basis for habeas relief.

Ponticelli: Insufficient evidence of ineffectiveness

In Ponticelli v. Sec., Florida Dep’t of Corrections, No. 11-11966 (Aug. 16, 2012), the Court (2-1) affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for a 1987 murder.
The Court found that the Florida Supreme Court did not unreasonably reject Ponticelli’s claim that his counsel’s deficient performance during the penalty phase of his state trial did not prejudice him. The Court agreed that any new mental health testimony would have been "cumulative" to testimony the jury heard. The Court also agreed that evidence of cocaine abuse would have done more harm than good, as the state could have elicited testimony that Ponticelli had a history of drug abuse, but had quit on one occasion for an extended period of time, only to return to a habit he knew was evil.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Kuenzel: Insufficient proof of "actual innocence"

In Kuenzel v. Commissioner, Ala. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 10-10283 (Aug. 17, 2012), the Court held that the habeas petitioner, sentenced to death for a 1987 murder, failed to present sufficient evidence of "actual innocence" and therefore could not overcome the state procedural bar to his federal habeas claims.
The Court noted that evidence of actual innocence need not establish "conclusive exoneration," but it must do more than strengthen a defense if offered at trial: it must show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted in light of the new evidence. The Court, after reviewing Kuenzel’s new evidence, concluded that he had not met this "heavy burden."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mathurin: Plea Negotiations do not toll Speedy Trial Act

In U.S. v. Mathurin, No. 11-13211 (Aug. 15, 2011), the Court held that the government violated the Speed Trial Act when it failed to file an indictment within thirty days from the date on which the defendant was arrested -- which in Mathurin’s case was the date on which he was transferred from juvenile to adult status.
The government claimed that the thirty-day period was tolled because during this period the parties were engaged in plea negotiations. The Court rejected this argument, pointing that 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(1)’s tolls the period during which a court considers a plea agreement, but does not automatically toll periods during which plea negotiations are happening. The Court declined to include plea negotiations within the "ends of justice" catch-all of the Act, noting that plea negotiations are controlled by the parties, not the court, and this catch-all was aimed at delay attributable to court inaction. The Court rejected the argument that Mathurin waived the Speedy Trial claim because he failed to raise it prior to the filing fo the indictment. The Court noted that the Act only requires the defendant to move for dismissal prior to trial, or entry of a guilty plea. The Court rejected the argument that defense counsel "sought the pre-indictment delay," noting that a party could not control the running of the act, which is designed to advance the public’s interest in speedy trials.
The Court remanded the case to the district court for a determination whether the indictment should be dismissed with, or without, prejudice.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Broughton: Insurance Fraud convictions affirmed

In U.S. v. Broughton, No. 10-15527 (Aug. 10, 2012), the Court affirmed convictions for fraud and money-laundering in connection with a scheme involving fraudulent capitalization of purported insurance companies.
The Court rejected the argument that the statute of limitations barred the prosecution. The Court pointed out that, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3292, the district court had suspended the running of the statute of limitations because the government had filed a notice that an official request for evidence had been made from a foreign country. The Court rejected the argument that the statute of limitations should not have been suspended because the government knew of the conspiracy before sending its official requests to Costa Rica and Panama, or that the conspiracy had terminated before the Government requested the statute of limitations be tolled, or that none of the evidence requested was needed at trial. None of these matters were needed to satisfy the conditions of § 3292.
The Court also rejected the argument that even with a suspension of the limitations period, the criminal action was untimely because it was filed more than five years after the completion of the conspiracy. The Court pointed out that within the limitations period Broughton wrote "placatory" letters to victim-investors, urging "continued patience" with what was a fraudulent scheme. This was a "continuing execution of a conspiracy to defraud." Alternatively, the Court found that if the suspension time was factored in, the indictment was timely.
The Court rejected challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, pointing to the evidence of a fraudulent conspiracy, and to the fact that the jury could have disbelieved Broughton when he testified in his defense at trial. Finally, the Court rejected challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting money-laundering convictions, noting evidence that cash was transported to the Cayman Islands and stuffed under a mattress.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Blanco: Counsel knew of plea deals

In Blanco v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 11-11993 (July 31, 2012), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for a 1982 murder.
The Court rejected the argument that the defendant’s appointed mental expert was incompetent when he testified on the defendant’s behalf. The Court pointed out that at the penalty phase the defendant did not ask to halt the hearing and grant a new proceeding based on his psychiatrist’s incompetence.
The Court also rejected the claim that counsel was ineffective for failing to inform the defendant of an offer that he plead guilty and received a life sentence, with a possibility of parole after 25 years. The Court found that the record was replete with evidence that Blanco understood the plea deal. In addition, the plea deal required Blanco to admit to the killing, which he was unwilling to do.
Turning to Blanco’s claim of a Brady violation, the Court disagreed with the district court that this claim should be evaluated under the demanding standard for claims raised in "second or successive" habeas petitions, because, although Blanco raised it in his second § 2254 petition, and had not raised it in his first § 2254 petition, his first § 2254 petition had been successful. Therefore, the current § 2254 petition was the first to challenge the intervening judgment. On the merits, though, the Brady claim failed. Blanco claimed that the State failed to disclose the plea deals it had with co-defendants. The Court found that the record showed that Blanco’s counsel was aware of the deals.

Kormondy: No Conflict of Interest by Trial Counsel

In Kormondy v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 11-15001 (July 31, 2012), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for a July 1993 murder.
The Court rejected the argument that Kormondy’s trial lawyer should have withdrawn because she had been a high school classmate of the murder victim, finding no evidence that the lawyer was "actively representing conflicting interests."
The Court also rejected the argument that, at the penalty phase, counsel was ineffective for failing to put on evidence of the defendant’s impoverished upbringing and years of alcohol and drug abuse, in addition to evidence that he was not the "shooter." The Court noted that the aggravating factors were not weak (the murder victim’s wife was raped as he was killed), and evidence of drug addition is a "two-edged" sword.
Finally, the trial court did not violate Kormondy’s constitutional rights when it sustained a prosecution objection to a question of the wife of the murder victim. The Court took judicial notice of the proposition that courts uniformly require a cross-examiner to put a question to the witness and obtain an answer before confronting the witness with a previous inconsistent answer. This did not occur at Kormondy’s trial.

Liberse: Defendant Eligible for Amendment 750 reduction

In U.S. v. Liberse, No. 12-10243 (July 30, 2012), the Court held that a crack cocaine offender was eligible for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) based on Amendment 750 to the Sentencing Guidelines, even though the defendant had been subject to a mandatory minimum punishment.
Liberse’s guideline range for his crack cocaine offense, at a criminal history of IV, was 121-151 months. The mandatory minimum punishment of 120 months therefore did not directly affect his sentence. After the sentencing court imposed a 121-month term of incarceration, the government moved for a Rule 35(b) "substantial assistance" sentence reduction. The district court reduced the sentence to 97 months. Thereafter, Liberse sought a reduction pursuant to Amendment 750. The district court denied the motion, reasoning that Liberse remained subject to the same 120-month statutory mandatory punishment, which the Sentencing Commission lacked authority to reduce.
Reversing, the Court noted that Liberse was not sentenced based on the 120-month mandatory minimum, but at the low end of his original guideline range of 121-151 months.
The Court noted that it was not clear, after the Fair Sentencing Act, what the statutory mandatory minimum was. If the FSA applied to Liberse – he was sentenced before the FSA took effect, so Dorsey v. United States (FSA applies to defendants sentenced post-FSA) does not apply to him – his mandatory minimum would be 5 years, but if the FSA did not apply, his mandatory minimum would remain 10 years. Regardless of whether the FSA applies, Amendment 750 lowers Liberse’s sentencing range. Further, because Liberse received a Rule 35(b) substantial assistance reduction, the Guidelines provide that a comparable reduction based on a retroactive amendment "may be appropriate."
The Court left it to the district court to decide in the first instance whether the FSA applied to Liberse, noting that it was considering the same issue in a pending case, U.S. v. Hippolilyte, No. 11-15933.