Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Smith: No mens rea element required for prior drug offenses

In U.S. v. Smith, No. 13-15227 (Dec. 22, 2014), the Court rejected the argument that, for prior criminal history sentence enhancement purposes, prior drug convictions should not count as “serious drug offenses” or “controlled substance offenses,” because the prior convictions did not contain the requisite mens rea element. The Court explained that neither the statutory definition of a “serious drug offense,” nor the Guideline definition of a “controlled substance offense” expressed or implied an element of mens rea. The Court declined to presume that mental culpability was a required element, because the definitions were “unambiguous.” The Court distinguished cases that involved different definitions.

Baldwin: Rejecting Sufficiency challenges

In U.S. v. Baldwin, No. 13-12973 (Dec. 17, 2014), the Court affirmed the convictions and sentences of defendants convicted of the unauthorized use of personal identifying information to obtain fraudulent tax refunds. The Court rejected a number of challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, relying on evidence that the fraudulent returns were submitted from the defendant’s addresses, the fraudulent activity took place within their residences, and one defendant was captured on video making an ATM withdrawal from a card that had been loaded with the proceeds of fraudulent returns. The Court rejected the argument that a constructive amendment occurred when the district court instructed the jury that “scrivener’s errors” in the last digits of the account numbers explained a discrepancy between the number charged in the indictment and the evidence at trial. The Court recognized that it might have been erroneous to allow the jury to convict as long as it found that a defendant “had used any means of identification belonging to any person.” But here the indictment charged the defendant with using names, and those charges were proven at trial. Consequently, the district court did not allow a shift in theory regarding the essential elements of the crime. The Court also rejected challenges to the sentences, finding sufficient evidence that the amount of the loss was reasonably foreseeable. The Court also affirmed the restitution order, finding that a defendant “agreed fully to participate in the broader scheme, rather than to engage in only a small handful of withdrawals.” Finally, the Court rejected the argument that the U.S.S.G. § 2T guidelines, applicable to fraudulent tax returns, instead of the § 2B guidelines, applicable generally to fraud, should have applied. The Court noted that the offense involved more than filing fraudulent tax returns, but stealing identities.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Velazco: no evidentiary hearing on counsel's ineffectiveness

In Velazco v. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 13-12525 (Dec. 16, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of an evidentiary hearing to a habeas petitioner who claimed that counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate two defense witnesses to the murder whose credibility was impeached at trial. The Court found that the Florida courts could have reasonably concluded that Velazco failed to establish prejudice regarding his trial counsel’s failure to investigate, because these two witnesses were, in fact, helpful to the defense, and because of the overwhelming evidence that defeated his defense of self-defense.

Wilson: Counsel not ineffective for failing to present mitigating evidence

In Wilson v. Warden, No. 14-10681 (Dec. 15, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Georgia inmate sentenced to death for a 1996 murder. The Court rejected the argument that trail counsel were ineffective because they failed to investigate his background and present mitigation evidence at sentencing. The Court found that Supreme Court of Georgia could have reasonably concluded that new evidence of Wilson’s background would not have changed the overall mix of evidence at his trial. For example, evidence that Wilson was more of a follower than a leader was contradicted that he had “risen to the rank of ‘God damn chief enforcer’” of a local gang.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Cruanes: Youth Offender Act required automatic set aside of prior conviction

In U.S. v. Cruanes, No. 13-15057 (Dec. 5, 2014), the Court issued a writ of mandamus ordering a district court to set aside a defendant’s conviction as of December 1, 1983. The Court noted that under the (then effective, now-repealed) Federal Youth Corrections Act, the conviction of a youth offender is “automatically set aside” when the offender is discharged by the Parole Commission or by the court. Here, Cruanes had been discharged in 1983, but the district court never issued a certificate setting aside his conviction. The Court noted that the district court erred in ruling only the Parole Commission was authorized to issue this certificate.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Brown: Upward variance supported by depraved online chats

In U.S. v. Brown, No. 13-13670 (Nov. 25, 2014), the Court affirmed a 240-month sentence for possession and receipt of child pornography. The Court recognized that as a result of an upward variance, the 240-month sentence was well above the applicable Guidelines range of 78 to 97 months. But Brown failed to show that the upward variance was unreasonable. The Court noted the district court’s reference to the self-evident danger to society posed by Brown, as demonstrated by his “depraved” online chats and interest in the abduction, sexual molestation, murder, and cannibalization of children.

McIlwain: Prior Commitment to mental institution satisfies 922(g)(4)

In U.S. v. McIlwain, No. 14-10735 (Nov. 25, 2014), the Court held that the defendant, prior to possession of a firearm, had been “committed to a mental institution” within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4), and therefore affirmed his conviction under this statute. The Court noted that McIlwain received a formal hearing before the state probate court, was represented by counsel, and the court heard sworn testimony and made substantive findngs of fact that it included in its formal order of commitment. The Court further noted that, just as a convicted felon could not mount a collateral attack on the validity of a prior state conviction under § 922(g)1), McIlwain was not allowed to mount a collateral attack on an underlying state order of commitment under § 922(g)(4).