Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Puentes-Hurtado: Claims reviewable on appeal despite appeal waiver

In U.S. v. Puentes-Hurtado, No. 13-12770 (July 22, 2015), the Court held that an appeal waiver in a plea agreement did not bar a subsequent appeal on a claim that the plea was involuntary because counsel rendered ineffective assistance, because the government breached the plea agreement, nor on a claim that there was an insufficient factual basis to support the plea – such a claim goes to whether the guilty plea is enforceable. The Court declined to reach the ineffective assistance of counsel claim, finding the record insufficiently developed, and noting that the defendant could file a motion to vacate under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Reviewing the issue for “plain error,” the Court found that even if the defendant only admitted to physically transporting the drug proceeds, this sufficed to support his guilty plea for a narcotics distribution conspiracy. Again reviewing for “plain error,” the Court found that even if the government breached the plea agreement by presenting drug quantity evidence that supported a higher sentence, the district court would have imposed the same sentence even based on a lower drug quantity. The defendant failed to establish a reasonable probability that the district court would have imposed a lower sentence.

Khan: Defense ran the risk that video conferencing witnesses would fail

In U.S. v. Khan, No. 13-14048 (July 23, 2015), the Court affirmed convictions for providing material aid to terrorists. The Court rejected the challenge to a translator’s use of bracketed words to explain the meaning of intercepted telephone conversations. The Court found that the bracketed words appropriately transported “living thoughts” from one language to another. The Court also rejected challenges to rulings made during the testimony of the government’s case agent. The Court found that any error in admitting as expert testimony the case agent’s non-expert testimony about the meaning of words used in conversations was harmless, in light of other testimony on the same topic. Though acknowledging that prosecutors should not permit investigators to give “overview testimony” about the results of a criminal investigation, the Court found that the case agent testified based on his personal knowledge of recorded conversations. The Court found no error in the limitation of cross-examination about a government informant, finding that the topics were irrelevant, or merely aimed to bolster the defendant’s credibility, not to undermine a witness’s credibility. The Court found no error in not allowing the defense to cross-examine the case agent about a Pakistani police report that purportedly exonerated Khan. The report was not in evidence, and offered no conclusions, but simply relayed hearsay statements. During the trial, the video-conference testimony of defense witnesses from Pakistan ceased when internet connection failed, most likely as the result of Pakistan police interference. The district court denied a defense request for a continuance to obtain the testimony. The Court found that the defense elected to run the risk that, in failing to obtain Pakistan government approval for the depositions, the depositions would be shut down. Moreover, it was undetermined how long it would take to re-establish internet connection.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hamilton: Appeal of Denial of 60(b) motion requires COA

In Hamilton v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 14-13535 (July 15, 2015), the Court held that a habeas petitioner who appeals the denial of Rule 60(b) motion is required, like a petitioner who appeals the denial of habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, to obtain a Certificate of Appealability (“COA”) in order for the Court of Appeals to consider the appeal. The Court rejected Hamilton's argument that intervening Supreme Court cases called into question the Circuit precedent that required a COA in order for a habeas petitioner to appeal the denial of a Rule 60(b) motion – and the denial of a Rule 59(e) motion. Turning to whether Hamilton, a death row inmate, was entitled to COA, the Court held that he was not, finding his arguments “squarely foreclosed” by Circuit precedent.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Aunspaugh: Erroneous "Honest Services" Jury Instruction

In U.S. v. Aunspaugh, No. 12-13132 (July 8, 2015), the Court reversed convictions for mail fraud because of erroneous jury instructions on what constitutes “honest services.” The case involved an Electric Cooperative whose general manager steered contracts to a company that hired one of the Cooperative’s employees to do the work, and made secret payments to the general manager for this arrangement. The Court found that the evidence supported a finding of a “kickback,” and not a merely egregious conflict of interest, for purposes of the “honest services” fraud statute. However, the jury instructions erroneously did not require the jury to acquit on a finding that the scheme involved only self-dealing, not kickbacks. The Court therefore reversed the conviction, even though the evidence supporting the defense theory was “weak.” Because the money laundering conviction was predicated on the honest fraud conviction, the Court vacated this conviction as well. The Court, however, affirmed the structuring transaction convictions. The Court found that a defendant cashed checks for amounts just below the reporting requirements. The Court noted that the less serious of the two structuring statutes does not require the violation of another law. In light of its vacatur of other convictions, the Court vacated the sentence on the remaining structuring count, noting that the sentence “may not have been the same” without the other convictions.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Ruggierio: No age of victim knowledge required for unlawful production of child pornography

In U.S. v. Ruggiero, No. 13-14773 (June 30, 2015), the Court rejected the argument that 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a) was unconstitutional because it does not require the government to prove, for the offense of producing child pornography, that a defendant knew the victim was a minor. The Court noted that while scienter is generally an element of a crime, there is an exception for sex offenses, where crimes like rape do not require knowledge of the age of the victim. The Court also noted that producing child pornography is not the type of “wholly passive” crime for which mens rea can be required. The Court stated: “We have no doubt that a person of ordinary intelligence would know, upon reading § 2251(a), that it prohibits persuading a 15-year old to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of photographing her with a cell phone camera that has traveled in foreign commerce.”

Williams: "False" is distinct from "Fictitious"

In U.S. v. Williams, No. 13-13042 (June 22, 2015), the Court held that the use of fake checks bearing the account and routing numbers of another person’s bank account qualified as passing a “false or fraudulent” instrument under 18 U.S.C. § 514. The Court rejected the argument that “false and fictitious” referred to non-existent types of instruments, such as a three-dollar bill. The Court noted that the term “false” was distinct from the term “fictitious.” The Court noted Williams’ argument that he could have been prosecuted under a separate “counterfeited” security statute, noting that a defendant can be prosecuted for similar conduct under separate statutes. The Court also rejected Williams’ challenge to his conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 1029 for unauthorized use of an “access device,” finding that a bank routing number plainly qualified as an access device. Finally, the Court rejected Williams’ argument that his offense of violating his terms of supervised release did not qualify as a “failure to appear” offense under 18 U.S.C. § 3146(b).