Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Watts: Upholding Armed Bank Robbery and Obstruction Enhancements Following Pro Se Trial

In United States v. Watts, No. 17-12066 (July 24, 2018) (Branch, Martin, Jill Pryor), the Court affirmed the defendant's convictions for armed bank robbery and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.

First, the Court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support the convictions because there were eyewitness accounts, clothing found in his car matched that worn by the robber, and he possessed the same caliber ammunition as would be used in the weapon that the robber brandished.

Second, the Court concluded that the district court did not violate his constitutional right to testify on his own behalf.  Although the pro se defendant repeatedly requested to testify, he changed his mind after having off-the-record conversations with his advisory counsel.  The record did not rebut the presumption that the defendant made his decision not to testify knowingly and voluntarily, even if he later had second thoughts.  And it did not indicate that he had a mistaken belief about his ability to testify.

Third, the Court upheld the imposition of a sentencing enhancement for obstruction of justice--namely, for destroying or concealing material evidence.  The Court found that the defendant did far more trying to avoid arrest; rather, he tried to alter his distinctive identifying tattoos that the investigators were looking for, thus destroying material evidence.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Hylor: Florida Attempted First-Degree Murder is a Violent Felony under the ACCA's Elements Clause

In Hylor v. United States, No. 17-10856 (July 18, 2018) (William Pryor, Jill Pryor, Restani), the Court held that Florida attempted first-degree murder was a "violent felony" under the elements clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Relying on circuit precedent, the Court rejected the defendant's argument that murder by surreptitious poisoning would not satisfy the elements clause, because it is "capable" of causing pain or injury.  It was irrelevant that the offense was committed with indirect, rather than direct, force.  Also relying on circuit precedent, the Court found that attempting to commit murder had an attempted use of force as an element.  The Court also reiterated that, under circuit precedent, Florida aggravated assault and robbery were violent felonies.

Judge Jill Pryor concurred in the result.  Although bound by circuit precedent, she opined that the attempted murder offense should not satisfy the elements clause.  She disagreed with circuit precedent conflating an attempt to commit a violent felony with attempt to use physical force, arguing that this conflation rested on faulty logic: one could attempt to commit a violent crime without attempting to use physical force.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Guevara: Evidence Sufficient to Support Conviction for Causing Business to File False FinCEN Form, but Obstruction Sentencing Enhancement Not Sufficiently Supported

In United States v. Guevara, No. 15-14146 (July 11, 2018) (Robreno (E.D. Pa.), Tjoflat, Wilson), the Court upheld the defendant's conviction for causing or attempting to cause a sports car business to file a false FinCEN form with the IRS, but it remanded for reconsideration of whether a two-level sentencing enhancement for obstruction of justice was warranted.

The Court found that the evidence was sufficient to support the conviction.  Although the defendant never tried to persuade, influence, coax, or encourage the business to file a form containing misstatements, he knowingly caused the business to do so.  The defendant negotiated and paid for the vehicles with cash; he knew that the business would be required to complete a form as a result; he solicited his friend to act as a straw owner; and, as a result, the forms contained material misstatements about the identity of the owner.

The defendant also argued, for the first time on appeal, that the evidence was insufficient because the government failed to introduce either the original or certified copy of form submitted to the IRS, but instead introduced an IRS-prepared document summarizing the transactions.  The Court agreed that the failure to admit the IRS form was error under the best evidence rule in Federal Rule of Evidence 1002.  However, applying plain error, the Court concluded that this error did not affect the defendant's substantial rights or the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the proceedings because, even without any evidence of a form containing the misstatements, the defendant still could have been convicted of attempting to cause the business to file a false form.

The Court, however, remanded for re-sentencing because the district court failed to make sufficient factual findings about how the defendant obstructed or impeded the investigation.  Instead, it made only vague and equivocal statements about his tax returns filed years before the offense, his use of a straw buyer, and his false statements that did not actually impede the investigation.  And the record did not clearly reflect how those statements supported the obstruction enhancement.  Accordingly, the Court vacated the sentence and remanded to allow the district court reconsider the obstruction enhancement and support it with factual findings.