Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Vail-Balon: Mere touching is not a crime of violence

In U.S. v. Vail-Bailon, No. 15-10351 (Sept. 28, 2016) (2-1), the Court held that when it is committed by “mere touching,”Florida felony battery in violation of Fla. Sta. § 784.041 does not qualify as a “crime of violence” for purposes of U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2. The Court noted that § 784.041 is a “divisible” offense. Here, no Shepard-approved documents established under which alternative element Vail-Balon was convicted. The Court therefore assumed that he was convicted under for “actually and intentionally touching” a victim. Simple battery, under Florida law, contains the same touching element, and can be satisfied by any intentional physical contact, no matter how slight. But the elements clause of § 2L1.2 requires “violent force.” The Court noted that at oral argument Vail-Bailon asserted that a person can be guilty of felony battery in Florida if the offender taps another person on the shoulder at the top of stairs, and the person falls down the stairs and suffers grievous bodily harm. The government did not challenge that interpretation at oral argument. Such a crime does not involve the use of “violent force.” “Florida battery by mere touching cannot qualify as a ‘crime of violence,’ no matter what the injury resulting from the mere touching might turn out to be. Citing Leocal, which held that driving under the influence was not a crime of violence, the Court noted that an action that does not normally cause bodily harm, like touching, only qualifies as a “crime of violence” if the offender engages in it “with some type of intent to harm another.”

Thursday, September 22, 2016

White: Prior Alabama drug convictions count as ACCA predicates

In U.S. v. White, No. 14-14044 (Sept. 21, 2016), the Court rejected the defendant’s argument that his prior Alabama drug trafficking convictions qualified under ACCA as a “serious drug offense.” White’s prior Alabama offense was for possessing marihuana “for other than personal use.” White argued that he could have possessed marihuana to administer or dispense it. The Court rejected this as a mere “theoretical possibility.” The Court also rejected the argument that its precedent in U.S. v. Robinson, which had rejected the same argument, had been abrogated by the Supreme Court subsequent decision in Descamps. Descamps’ holding that the modified categorical approach applies only when a statute is divisible “has no bearing” on whether possession of marijuana for other than personal use necessarily involves an intent to distribute, that is, a “serious drug offense.” The Court likewise rejected the argument that White’s prior cocaine conviction was not a predicate ACCA offense, because it was merely based on a quantity of cocaine, not necessarily manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to do either. The Court noted that it had rejected this same argument previously, finding one could infer an intent to traffic in cocaine from the quantity of cocaine involved. The Court again rejected the argument that its prior precedent was no longer controlling in light of Descamps.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Cruickshank: Reversing denial of minor role reduction

In U.S. v. Cruickshank, No. 14-13754 (Sept. 20, 2016), the Court affirmed convictions for drug trafficking on the high seas, in violation of 46 U.S.C. § 70503. The Court held that its precedent in U.S. v. Campbell foreclosed a challenge to the constitutionality of the statute. The Court also rejected a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, finding that the evasive maneuvers of the vessel while being followed by a Coast Guard helicopter, and other evidence, sufficed. The Court also rejected the defense challenge to the district court’s reliance, for jurisdictional purposes, on a State Department certification that Jamaica had not accepted a claim of nationality for the vessel. The Court noted that under the statute, jurisdiction was not an element of the offense. The Confrontation Clause was therefore not implicated by the admission in evidence of the State Department certification. Turning to sentencing, the Court reviewed the district court’s denial of a “minor role” Guideline sentence reduction in light of the amendments to this Guideline that took effect in November 2015, amendments that clarified the meaning of this Guideline. The Court noted that the district court stated that the quantity of cocaine being transported was so large that no participant in the scheme could have been eligible for a minor role reduction. However, in light of the Court’s precedent in U.S. v. DeVaron, and the factors identified in the amended Guideline, it was legal error for the district court to say that drug quantity could be the only factor to be considered. The Court noted that Cruickshank did not load the drugs on the vessel, reconstruct the vessel, fuel the vessel, attend the planning meetings for the trip, or otherwise appear to have any role concerning the quantity of drugs involved. The Court therefore vacated the minor role reduction denial, and vacated the case for the district court to consider “the totality of the circumstances.”

Sullivan: Ineffective post-conviction counsel

In Sullivan v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 15-13993 (Sept. 20, 2016), the Court affirmed the grant of habeas relief to a Florida inmate who claimed that post-conviction counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate a claim that trial counsel was ineffective in counseling Sullivan to reject a 7-year plea offer and to go to trial on an voluntary intoxication defense, when voluntary intoxication was no longer a valid defense under Florida law, and Sullivan, a habitual offender, received a 30-year sentence. The failure to investigate was objectively unreasonable. Had post-conviction counsel investigated, he would have learned about the 7-year plea offer, and would have determined that it was ineffective advice to rely on a defense that had been abolished years earlier.

Difalco: 851 notice is not jurisdictional

In U.S. v. Difalco, No. 15-14763 (Sept. 20, 2016), the Court, reversing Circuit precedents, held that the failure of the government to file a notice of prior conviction, as required by 21 U.S.C. § 851, is not a jurisdictional defect. “Section 851 is essentially a claims-processing rule that has no impact on the district court’s subject-matter jurisdiction.” Therefore, the notice requirement of Section 851 is subject to waiver. Difalco’s plea agreement contained an appeal waiver. This waiver knowingly waived Difalco’s right to challenge a § 851 defect in his sentence. Moreover, even if the waiver was not knowing, there was no defect that gave rise to “plain error.” Though the government’s § 851 notice was “hardly a model to be emulated by prosecutors in future cases,” the “scrivener’s errors” it contained did not result in Difalco not being put on notice of the prior conviction upon which the government was relying. Nor did the district court’s statements at sentencing – at which it varied downward below the Guideline range – indicate that Difalco’s sentence was affected by any error. The Court also rejected the argument that the Magistrate Judge committed error during its Rule 11 colloquy, finding that Difalco was informed of the mandatory minimum punishment on account of his prior felony convictions.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Matchett: Rehearing Denied

In U.S. v. Matchett, No. 14-10396 (Sept. 13, 2016), the Eleventh Circuit denied rehearing en banc from the panel decision, which had held that the void for vagueness doctrine does not apply to the sentencing guidelines.