Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Cox: No "new judgment" for AEDPA purposes where amended judgment did not affect sentence

In Cox v. Sec., Fla. Dept of Corrections, No. 13-15718 (Aug. 26, 2016), the Court held that an amended judgment of a Florida court that dismissed one of the counts of conviction did not qualify as a “new judgment” for purposes of avoiding AEDPA’s bar on second or successive habeas petitions filed more than one year after a judgment became final. The Court noted that the dismissal of the count of conviction did not affect the sentence, as the trial court had imposed a suspended sentence on this count, and he was serving a life sentence on the remaining counts. As a result, Cox was not “in custody” under this count, and the “new judgment” rule did not apply.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Hunter: Government breached plea agreement

In U.S. v. Hunter, No. 15-12640 (Aug. 26, 2016), the Court vacated a defendant’s sentenced because the government breached the plea agreement. The plea agreement provided that the government would recommend at sentencing an acceptance of responsibility sentence reduction. Hunter pled guilty to his drug trafficking charges. In response to the presentence investigation report, the government, instead of requesting a reduction for acceptance of responsibility, sought an upward departure or variance. The district court decided to give the acceptance of responsibility reduction, but then, at the government’s urging, imposed a 60-month sentence, an upward departure or variance from the Guideline range of 18-24 months. Hunter’s plea agreement contained an appeal waiver; but an appeal waiver does not include a waiver of a government’s breach of a plea agreement. The Court found that the government breached its promise to recommend an acceptance of responsibility sentence reduction. The government claimed that it was relieved of this obligation because, prior to the plea agreement, Hunter had testified at a suppression hearing in a manner that the district court found not to be credible, and it argued that this fell within one of the exceptions of the plea agreement. But “the government cannot avail itself of [exceptions to the plea agreement] based solely on facts of which it was aware prior to entering the plea agreement.” The government claimed that it anticipated that the district court would impose an obstruction of justice enhancement. But the government failed to condition its obligation to recommend the acceptance reduction on a specific ruling with regard to obstruction. The government cannot read the plea agreement as “a promise it knew it did not have to keep.” This would “induce a guilty plea in exchange for nothing.” The government claimed that Hunter was not entitled to any remedy, because the district ultimately disregarded its objection to an acceptance of responsibility reduction. The Court rejected this argument. “[W]e are not concerned with whether the district court was influenced by the government’s recommendation (or lack thereof); instead, our focus in on the interests of justice.” The breach occurred before the district court imposed sentence; any actions by the district court thereafter could “neither moot nor cure the government’s breach.” The Court therefore applied one the applicable remedies in this circumstance: it remanded the case for resentencing before a different district court judge.

Tharp: No ineffective assistance of counsel

In Tharpe v. Warden, No. 14-12464 (Aug. 25, 2016), the Court denied habeas relief to a Georgia inmate sentenced to death for a 1990 murder. The Court rejected Tharpe’s ineffective assistance claim, finding that a fairminded jurist could easily have concluded that counsel’s investigation was reasonable assistance. The Court found that Tharpe had failed to identify any “red flags” that would have required further investigation of his background. The Court also rejected Tharpe’s claim that he suffered from cognitive impairments that made him ineligible for the death penalty. He was able to graduate high school, and engage in routing commercial transactions.

Wilson: On habeas review, court will not "look through" summary disposition

In Wilson v. Warden, No. 14-10681 (Aug. 23, 2016), the Court (en banc) (6-5), affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Georgia inmate sentenced to death for a 1996 murder. Wilson had sought habeas relief in Georgia state courts unsuccessfully: his request for a certificate of probable cause was summarily denied by the Georgia Supreme Court. The Court held that this adjudication was an adjudication on the merits. The Court would not “look through” this denial to the reasoning of the lower court. Wilson was required to show that there was no reasonable basis for the Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling, which he failed to do.

Jones: No habeas relief for 1991 murder

In Jones v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 13-15053 (Aug. 25, 2016), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a death row inmate sentenced to death for a 1991 murder. The Court rejected the argument that counsel at the penalty phase was ineffective for failing to present mental health mitigation evidence. The Court deferred to the Florida Supreme Court’s determination that mitigating evidence would have been undercut by other mental health evidence that indicated that Jones was not suffering from any mental illness. The Court also found that Jones had not carried his burden of showing that he was prejudiced by trial counsel’s failure to object to his alleged shackling at trial. “The evidence establishing Jones’s guilt was overwhelming.”

Gonzalez: No Double Jeopardy violation for convictions on two conspiracies

In U.S. v. Gonzalez, No. 13-15878 (Aug. 23, 2016), the Court rejected the Double Jeopardy challenges of a defendant convicted of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 and a separate count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349. The Court noted the Double Jeopardy test is whether each offense requires proof of a fact which the other does not. Here, the § 371 conspiracy required proof of an overt act, whereas the health care fraud conspiracy did not. The § 371 required the United States government to be a victim whereas health care fraud did not. Hence, there was no Double Jeopardy violation in convicting Gonzalez under both statutes. On plain error review, the Court rejected Gonzalez’ argument that the jury instructions mistakenly told the jury that a conviction of one conspiracy would require a conviction of the other charged conspiracy. The Court further found that even if the instruction was mistaken, there was “more than ample evidence” to support Gonzalez’ conviction for both conspiracies.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Phillips: Civil writ of bodily attachment is valid warrant under Fourth Amendment

In U.S. v. Phillips, No. 14-14660 (Aug. 23, 2016), the Court held that, under the Fourth Amendment, the police can validly arrest a person based on a civil writ of bodily attachment for unpaid child support. The Court noted that the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant to be “particular, sworn, and supported by probable cause.” The Florida writ in Phillips’ case met these requirements because it issued only after a person was found liable by a preponderance of the evidence for civil contempt for failure to pay child support. The Court rejected the argument that the warrant must be based on a crime, as opposed to a civil offense, pointing out that bench warrants based on civil contempt have been held not to present a problem under the Fourth Amendment. The Court also noted that even if material witness warrants might not satisfy the Fourth Amendment, this would not affect the decision because writs of bodily attachment, like bench warrants, are based on a “violation of law” – here, civil contempt. Turning to sentencing, the Court held that Phillips had waived his challenge to his 15-year sentence as an armed career criminal, because his plea agreement stated that he understood that the district court “must” impose a sentence of no less than 15 years, and at sentencing he affirmatively asked the district court to sentence him to 15 years.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Clay: Affirming health care fraud convictions

In U.S. v. Clay, No. 14-12373 (Aug. 11, 2016), in a 124-page opinion, the Court affirmed convictions of defendants convicted, after a three-month trial, of filing false Medicaid expense reports. After a length recitation of the facts, the Court rejected challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence. The Court found “abundant” evidence of false expenses, noting that the firm’s own forensic accountant testified that reported expense amounts were false. The Court found that Florida’s “80/20” law, and implementing contracts, mandated that 80% of the premium paid to a health plan must be expended for health care services, and could not count as administrative expenses or overhead. The defendants submitted false reports to avoid these mandated requirements, and knew their reports were false. The Court also affirmed the convictions for making false statements to federal agents. The Court also rejected a challenge to jury instructions. The defendants argued that the jury instruction regarding their “deliberate indifference to the truth” lowered the standard to recklessness, instead of an intent to defraud. The Court found that the instruction linked “deliberate indifference” to “intent to defraud.” Further, the trial proceeded under a theory of actual knowledge rather than deliberate indifference. The Court also rejected the defendants’ challenge to the district court’s ruling that their compensation could be admitted in evidence. The Court noted that the district court instructed the jury that the defendants’ wealth had nothing to do with their guilty, but was admitted only to show their “financial motive” to commit the charged frauds. The Court also rejected a challenge to the admissibility of a restated financial statement, generated while the company was under investigation.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Parker: Baptiste bars SOS grant for applicant whose application was previously denied

In In re: Leslie Parker, No. 16-13814-J (Aug. 10, 2016), the Court reversed its earlier grant of an application to file a second or successive § 2255 motion. A member of the panel which had earlier granted Parker’s application learned of a conflict requiring recusal. As a result, the Court had to decide the request anew. Since its earlier grant, the Court had decided In re Baptiste, which held that it must dismiss an application from a prisoner, like Parker, whose prior request had previously been denied. The Court therefore now denied Parker’s application. [Rosenbaum and Jill Pryor, concurred but stood by their view that Baptiste “is incorrect as a matter of law.”].

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Devon Chance: Granting SOS to 924(c)/Hobbs Act conspiracy applicant

In In re: Devon Chance, No. 16-13918-J (Aug. 8, 2016) (Tjoflat, Wilson, Jill Pryor), the Court granted an application for leave to file a second or successive § 2255 motion to an applicant who was convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The Court noted that the predicate offense for the § 924(c) offense was conspiracy to violate the Hobbs Act. As in In re Pinder, the law is “unsettled” as to whether this companion conviction was valid, post-Johnson. The Court recognized that Chance received concurrent sentences on substantive Hobbs Act robbery offenses, offenses that are still valid § 924(c) predicates post-Johnson. However, the sentences were not “fully concurrent” because the $100 fines on each count were cumulative. Chance therefore had at least a pecuniary interest in the review of his sentence. Further, as in In re Davis, the terms of incarceration were not dictated by a mandatory minimum. For these reasons, the concurrent sentence doctrine that the Court applied in In re Williams did not apply here. The Court then addressed the Court’s recent statement in In re Jasper Moore that “the district court cannot grant relief in a § 2255 proceeding unless the movant . . . proves that he was sentenced using the residual clause.” Though recognizing that its own discussion of Moore was dicta, the Court stated that this statement in Moore was dicta, because it was necessary to the decision to grant an SOS application. The Court added that the statement in Moore was “quite wrong.” First, the statement implied that a district court deciding a § 2255 motion “can ignore decisions from the Supreme Court that were rendered since that time in favor of a foray into a stale record.” But cases like Descamps and Mathis are binding. If the district court determined that Hobbs Act conspiracy does not qualify under the elements clause, in light of Descamps and Mathis, then that would be conclusive proof that the defendant was wrongfully sentenced under the residual clause – regardless of whether the district court “uttered the magic words ‘residual clause.’” Second, eligibility under § 2255 should be based solely on “a chance remark.” Quoting Rivers v. Roadway Express, Inc., the Court noted that a judicial construction of a statute is an authoritative statement of what the statute meant “before as well as after the decision of the case giving rise to that construction.”