Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Monday, August 25, 2014

Haynes: Invited error where defendant appeals the very sentence he invited

In U.S. v. Haynes, No 12-12689 (Aug. 22, 2014), the Court held that the doctrine of “invited error” precluded Haynes from challenging his categorization as a “career offender” in a separate sentence on a separate case from the one for which the district court amended his sentence at resentencing. Haynes was charged with a total of five crimes, in two separate federal prosecutions. He pled guilty to all five crimes in one proceeding, and was sentenced at a single sentencing proceeding. After an unsuccessful appeal, Haynes filed a § 2255 motion, arguing that one of his sentences exceeded the statutory maximum, and further arguing that he was erroneously sentenced as a career offender. At his resentencing, the district court announced that it agreed that one sentence exceeded the statutory maximum, and defense counsel acknowledged that the court was “not going to touch the other case.” Defense counsel urged the court to impose a 322 month sentence. The district court imposed a 322-month sentence. On appeal, the Court refused to entertain the challenge to the career offender designation. The Court noted that defense counsel had remarked that the district court would “not . . . touch the other case,” and would not now fault the district court for abiding by counsel’s request. Further “defense counsel herself proposed the amended sentence lengths.” “Because Haynes appeals the very sentence he invited the resentencing court to impose, we decline to review the alleged errors.”

Friday, August 22, 2014

Therve: No abuse of discretion in granting mistrial after hung jury

In U.S. v. Therve, No. 13-11879 (Aug. 20, 2014), the Court affirmed a bribery conviction, rejecting the argument that the district court abused its discretion in denying a mistrial at the conclusion of a first trial after the jury was unable to agree on a unanimous verdict, with all but one juror in favor of finding Therve not guilty. The Court found that the following circumstances supported the judge’s decision to declare a mistrial: (1) the jury had deliberated to deadlock in two separate periods of deliberation, including one after receiving an Allen charge; (2) despite the two periods of deliberation, the jury said that had it had been split in the same way since the very beginning; (3) the judge believed the jury to be truthful in its assessment that it was hung; (4) the trial was short and straight-forward; and (5) the judge suggested that he thought that making the jury continue to deliberate after the second note following the Allen charge was coercive. The Court noted that it did not agree with the judge’s decision to reveal to the parties the jury’s numerical split (a split the jury revealed despite a specific instruction not to do so), but held that this did not render improper an otherwise sound decision to declare a mistrial.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Troy: Exclusion of evidence of prison conditions not reason for granting habeas relief from death sentence

In Troy v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 13-10516 (Aug. 15, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida death row inmate convicted of a 2001 murder. The Court rejected the argument that, at the penalty phase of the trial, the trial court erroneously testimony from a corrections officer about general conditions for those serving life sentences in Florida prisons. The Court held that, to date, Supreme Court precedent does not require a sentencer to consider this type of testimony. The Court noted that even if the State’s cross-examination of a witness suggested that Troy might use drugs in prison while serving a life sentence, the witness Troy wanted to call “could only speculate about possible incarceration outcomes.” The Court further noted that even if error occurred, it was harmless, because Troy was able to present considerable mitigating evidence, which the jury rejected in light of the aggravating evidence presented. [Martin, J., concurring, stated that de novo review, rather than AEDPA deference, applied to the issue, because it was unclear how Supreme Court precedent applied. However, the concurrence found no basis for granting habeas relief because it agreed with the majority that any error would have been harmless.]

Barsoum: Affirming Oxycodone trafficking conviction and sentence

In U.S. v. Barsoum, No. 13-10710 (Aug. 15, 2014), the Court affirmed the conviction and sentence of a defendant convicted of unlawfully dispensing Oxycodone out of several pharmacies. The Court rejected Barsoum’s challenge to the number of pills for which he was held accountable at sentencing. The Court found no clear error in the district court’s estimate of the number of pills, based on average frequency and the number of pills Barsoum sold over a one-year period. The Court also rejected the argument that statements should not have admitted as non-hearsay co-conspirator statements under Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d). The Court found that the testimony at issue did not relay any out-of-court statement and therefore was not hearsay. Further, the government had sufficiently established the existence of a conspiracy for purposes of Rule 801(d), and the statements at issue were made in furtherance of this conspiracy.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Payne: Alleyne error "harmless" because of uncontroverted evidence of brandishing

In U.S. v. Payne, No. 13-15699 (Aug. 15, 2014), the Court held that the district court committed Alleyne error when it imposed an 84-month mandatory minimum sentence based on its finding that a firearm was brandished during a bank robbery, but the error was harmless because of the “uncontroverted evidence” that a firearm was in fact brandished. Payne pled guilty to bank robbery and to possession of a firearm during a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A). However, at sentencing, citing Alleyne, Payne objected to the imposition a mandatory consecutive minimum term of 84 months, under § 924(c)(1)(A)(ii), for the brandishing of a firearm. Overruling this objection, the district court relied on evidence at the sentencing hearing that a pistol was pointed at a bank teller during the robbery by one of the robbers, and imposed a consecutive 84-month sentence. The Court noted that because Payne did not admit to the brandishing of a firearm, the district court committed Alleyne error when it made its own brandishing finding. However, Alleyne error, like Apprendi error, was subject to “harmless error” review. Here, the evidence of the brandishing was uncontroverted. Hence, the error was harmless.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hayes: Sentence of Probation Substantively Unreasonable for defendant who paid $600,000 in bribes

In U.S. v. Hayes, No. 11-13678 (Aug. 12, 2014) (2-1), the Court held that the district court imposed a substantively unreasonable sentence when it imposed a term of probation and no term of incarceration on a defendant who pled guilty to of giving $600,0000 in bribes to a state official to ensure that his company would continue to receive government contracts. The defendant’s guideline range was 135-168 months. The government recommended a substantial assistance downward departure, which would have resulted in a 57-71 months range. At sentencing, after noting the need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparity, the district court sentenced Hayes to three years’ probation. Though acknowledging “the institutional superiority that district courts possess with regard to sentencing,” the Court vacated the sentence as substantively unreasonable. The Court found that the possibility of unwarranted sentencing disparity did not justify sentencing Hayes to probation, pointing out that of the similarly situated persons identified in a chart prepared by the probation office, the one most closely situated to Hayes – the state official who took his bribes – received a sentence of 78 months. Four of the five others received prison terms, and the only one who did not was responsible for just $300,000 in losses, half of the amount of money Hayes was ordered to pay in restitution.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Madison: No Batson Violation for Alabama Death Row Inmate

In Madison v. Comm., Ala. Dept. of Corrections, No. 13-12348 (Aug. 4, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to an Alabama death row inmate sentenced to death for a 1985 murder, rejecting the claim of a Batson violation during jury selection. The Court reviewed deferentially the findings of the district court, after an evidentiary hearing, regarding the Batson findings. The Court noted that Madison had put forward a “strong” prima facie case of purposeful discrimination against black jurors. Nonetheless, the Court deferred to the district court’s findings that the reasons for striking black prospective jurors were race-neutral.

Wright: No Brady claim when defense had equal access to information

In Wright v. Sec., Fla. Dept. of Corrections, No. 13-11832 (Aug, 4, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida death row inmate convicted of a 1983 murder. The Court rejected a Brady claim that statements by witnesses were not provided to the defense. The Court noted that a defendant cannot prevail under Brady where he had ‘equal access” to the information forming the basis of the claim. Here, the defense had access to the information in the statements. The Court also rejected an ineffective assistance of counsel claim regarding a “glass vase”, pointing out that defense counsel effectively pointed out that the prosecutor had misstated a witness’ testimony.

Mendoza: Counsel not ineffective in investigating mitigating evidence

In Mendoza v. Sec., Fla. Dept of Corrections, No. 13-14968 (July 31, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for a 1992 murder. The Court rejected the argument that trial counsel performed a deficient investigation of mitigating evidence, noting that counsel “thoroughly” investigated Mendoza’s mental health, and hired three experts to evaluate Mendoza’s mental health. The Court also rejected the argument that the defense should have put on evidence that Mendoza had a substance abuse problem, pointing out that this argument is a “two-edged sword.”

Roy: Defense Counsel's Absence from Trial during presentation of inculpatory evidence is Cronic error

In U.S. v. Roy, No. 12-15093 (Aug. 5, 2014) (2-1), the Court reversed the defendant’s convictions for possession of child pornography, holding that the absence of defendant’s trial counsel during a critical stage of trial when inculpatory evidence was admitted against him violated the Sixth Amendment. At Roy’s trial, evidence admitted to prove that Roy knowingly possessed photographs of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct was presented to the jury during his lawyer’s absence from the courtroom. The Court explained that “[t]he absence of counsel during the presentation of inculpatory evidence used by the government to convict the defendant eliminates the opportunity to decide whether to lodge an objection and how to frame an objection, as well as the ability to conduct cross-examination.” The Court held that this constituted error under U.S. v. Cronic. Pointing out that “Cronic error is structural error,”the Court noted the practical difficulties of discerning the harmlessness of the error in the denial of counsel during the presentation of inculpatory evidence. The Court reversed the convictions without engaging in harmless error analysis. The Court held that even though defense counsel did not object once he returned to the courtroom, Cronic error is not subject to plain error review, and defense counsel could not have known what evidence he missed, as he was absent. The Court rejected the dissent’s argument that the Cronic error did not affect all the counts of conviction, pointing out that the counts in this case were “interrelated.” The Court also rejected the argument that defense counsel’s absence was “opportunistic.” “Our confidence in the integrity of lawyers, who are admitted to practice in our courtrooms as officers of the Court and bound by rules of professional responsibility, satisfies us that our decision today will not go so far as to motivate them to place their licences to practice law in jeopardy by, as the dissent suggests, strategically slipping out of the courtroom when the judge is not looking and when they think inculpatory evidence is coming.”

Friday, August 01, 2014

Taylor: No habeas relief because no Due Process violation in exclusion of defense evidence

In Taylor v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No 12-12112 (July 28, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for a 1988 murder. The Court rejected the argument that Taylor’s due process rights were violated when the trial court did not allow him to present evidence that the murder victim occasionally used or purchased crack cocaine, which would have corroborated Taylor’s defense that the victim consented to sex on the night of her murder. The Court noted that the testimony had no direct bearing on the issue of sexual consent, and would not have materially supported Taylor’s defense. The Court also rejected the argument that defense counsel was ineffective for having Taylor reenact the crime on the witness stand. The Court noted that Taylor did not in fact physically reenact the crime, and counsel’s tactical choices were not constitutionally deficient.