Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, July 28, 2022

King: Collateral-Attack Waiver Precludes 2255 Motion Based on Davis

In King v. United States, No. 20-14100 (July 28, 2022) (Grant, Luck, Anderson), the Court affirmed the denial of a 2255 motion based on Davis.

In his plea agreement, the defendant agreed not to collaterally attack his conviction or sentence in a 2255 motion.  After Davis, the defendant brought a 2255 motion, arguing that his 924(c) conviction, which was predicated on conspiracy, was no longer a valid crime.  The Eleventh Circuit held that, even though Davis subsequently announced a new retroactive rule of constitutional law, the defendant’s waiver remained valid under contract principles.  And while the Court had previously recognized limited exceptions to such waivers, including in the case of a jurisdictional defect, the defendant’s Davis claim did not fit any of those exceptions.  Specifically, the Court held that the claim did not involve a sentence exceeding the statutory maximum, because the maximum must be understood based on the law in effect at the time the waiver was signed by the parties.  The defendant bore the risk that there would be a favorable change in the law, and “the government’s wager has paid off” in that regard.

Judge Anderson concurred.  He agreed that the Davis claim did not satisfy the exception for sentences exceeding the statutory maximum.  However, he wrote separately to address the movant’s reliance on an exception for a miscarriage-of-justice/actual innocence.  A footnote in the majority noted that the Court had never adopted such an exception.  And Judge Anderson opined that this case would not satisfy any such exception because the defendant admitted to his involvement in an armed bank robbery at the plea, and that dismissed count could have formed the basis of the 924(c) offense.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Watkins: Sufficient Evidence Supported Convictions for Defrauding Investors

In United States v. Watkins, No. 19-12951 (July 15, 202) (Newsom, Tjoflat, Ed Carnes), the Court affirmed the defendants’ fraud convictions.

The defendants solicited millions of dollars in investments from wealthy and famous people, including Sir Charles Barkley, by misleading them about their ownership interest in the investment company, that the funds would be used for business (rather than personal) purposes, and that other high-profile people were involved in the company.  The defendants also directed a friend to request a loan from a bank where the defendants were already maxed out, and to conceal that the loan was for the defendants.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit held that the evidence was sufficient to support the defendants’ convictions.  As for wire fraud, the evidence was sufficient to show an intent to defraud because the misrepresentations affected the nature of the bargain and sought to obtain money to which the defendants were not entitled.  As for bank fraud, the evidence was sufficient because concealing the true recipient of the loan affected the nature of the bargain with the bank.

The Eleventh Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendants’ proposed jury instruction on the “intent to harm” element of wire/bank fraud.  Using the pattern instruction, the court properly instructed the jury that it could not have convicted without finding that the misrepresentations were made with an intent to cause loss or injury to the people from whom he solicited money, and thus to obtain money to which he was not entitled.  The court also properly instructed the jury on the theory of defense.

Finally, the Eleventh Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by excluding defense evidence about the value of the investment companies.  That evidence would not have affected the government’s theory of the case.  For example, showing that the companies were successful would have done nothing to relieve the defendant from liability for deceiving investors about how their money would be used.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Lewis: No Privity Between State/Federal Prosecutors for Collateral Estoppel, and Upholding Exclusion of Moral Juror for Cause

In United States v. Lewis, No. 20-12997 (July 14, 2022) (Grant, Luck, Hull), the Court affirmed the defendant’s drug convictions.

First, the Court upheld the denial of a motion to suppress.  The argued that collateral estoppel prevented the federal government from re-litigating the legality of the traffic stop, which was already decided in state court.  The Court assumed, without deciding, that collateral estoppel applied to successive criminal prosecutions by different sovereigns, but held that it would not apply here because the defendant failed to establish privity between the state and federal authorities.  There was no evidence that the state was acting as a tool of, or were controlled by, federal prosecutors.

Second, the Court rejected the defendant’s arguments pertaining to jury selection.  It found no abuse of discretion in dismissing a juror for cause where the juror could not sit in judgment due to moral beliefs.  Unlike the religious juror in the en banc decision in Brown, the juror here never confirmed the ability to follow the law and the court’s instructions, and, unlike in Brown, the juror here was not already seated.  In addition, the Court found no clear error in the district court’s finding of discriminatory intent under Batson as to one of the defendant’s peremptory strikes, and that decision was harmless in any event because the defendant did not claim that the juror was unqualified to sit and he did not renew his challenge when given the chance.

Third, the Court upheld the district court’s exclusion of evidence about why the state court proceeding against the defendant was terminated, including the state court’s order finding the federal government’s main witness to be not credible.  Although the district court excluded the evidence as irrelevant, the Eleventh Circuit did not decide whether it was because it was harmless, as there was other overwhelming evidence of guilt.  For the same reason, the Court found no plain error with respect to the defendant’s argument that the exclusion deprived him of his right to present a complete defense.

Butler: Affirming Upward Variance Life Sentence in Enticement/Production Case

In United States v. Butler, No. 21-10659 (Wilson, Branch, Tjoflat), the Court affirmed the defendant’s life sentence for enticing a minor to engage in sexual activity and for production of child pornography.

Although it was an upward variance from the guideline range of 292-365 months, the Court held that the life sentence was substantively reasonable.  The district court did not abuse its discretion by failing to consider his age, amenability to treatment, acceptance of responsibility, or the circumstances of his prior offenses.  The district court did not abuse its discretion by giving significant weight to any irrelevant sentencing factors.  And the district court did not unreasonably weigh the sentencing factors.  Instead, the court reasonably concluded that the guideline range did not adequately reflect his criminal history or the need to protect the public, and that finding was within the court’s discretion.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Hesser: Reversing Denial of 2255 Motion Based on Counsel's Failure to Seek Rule 29 Judgment of Acquittal

In Hesser v. United States, No. 19-13297 (July 13, 2022) (Lagoa, Brasher, Tjoflat), the Court reversed the partial denial of a federal prisoner’s 2255 motion.

The movant alleged that defense counsel was ineffective for failing to move for a Rule 29 judgment of acquittal after the government’s case in chief.  The district court granted the 2255 motion for three counts of tax fraud—the Eleventh Circuit on direct appeal had already held that the evidence was insufficient and affirmed based on the deferential standard of review.  But the district court denied the 2255 motion with respect to a conviction for attempted tax evasion.  On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit held that this was error because, had counsel filed a Rule 29 motion after the government’s case, the district court would have been required to grant it.

The Court explained that the government’s evidence was insufficient because it did not establish an affirmative act constituting attempted tax evasion.  Although the defendant hid gold in his house with the purpose of hiding it from the IRS, the government failed to prove that he actually owned the gold and that it was therefore subject to a tax levied on him.  If the gold was not subject to a tax, then attempting to conceal it from the IRS was not a crime, even if the defendant made a mistake of law (not fact) by believing that it was.  In addition, while the defendant suspiciously quitclaimed his house to a newly created trust the government never proved how doing that would have affected his tax liability; there was no tax lien on his house at the time he transferred the house to a trust.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Stapleton: Affirming Alien-Smuggling Convictions Over Various Challenges

In United States v. Stapleton, No. 19-12708 (Newsom, Marcus, Covington) (July 12, 2022), the Court affirmed the defendant’s alien smuggling convictions.

First, the Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the government’s four-year delay in extraditing him violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial.  The district court did not clearly err in finding that the government acted reasonably and diligently (rather than negligently or in bad faith) given the onerous requirements for extradition from the Bahamas and Jamaica, and that the 33 aliens involved in the case had scattered.  And the government acted once it learned that the defendant planned to travel to Germany, a country with less demanding extradition requirements.  Because the reason for delay did not weigh heavily against the defendant, and he did not argue actual prejudice, his claim failed.

Second, the Court held that the indictment was neither multiplicitous nor insufficiently specific.  While two counts charged a violation of the same statute, they charged two separate alien-smuggling conspiracies rather than one.  And while it charged three immigration-related offenses for the same conduct, they each required proof of different elements, thus satisfying the Blockburger test.  Finally, the indictment was not required to specifically identify the alleged co-conspirators.  And it did not need to specify a principal whom he aided and abetted because he was charged with committing the substantive offenses himself.

Third, the district court did not plainly erred by admitting evidence of the defendant’s abuse of migrant women and of an uncharged alien-smuggling conspiracy.  The former was probative of his intent to smuggle migrants into the United States, which he placed at issue.  And the latter was probative of his modus operandi, and also to refute his trial defense that he did not intend to commit any crimes.

Fourth, the evidence was sufficient to convict him of knowingly aiding the entry of an inadmissible alien who had been convicted of an aggravated felony.  The evidence was sufficient for a jury to conclude that the alien was in fact the same person who had been convicted of an aggravated felony.

Fifth, the district court did not clearly err in imposing two sentencing enhancements.  As to an enhancement for inflicting serious bodily injury, the court was entitled to credit the testimony of the victim, even though she had illegally entered the country and had a pending petition to remain.  As to an enhancement for possession of a firearm in relation to his offenses, that conduct was part of the “relevant conduct,” even though it occurred during an uncharged operation, because it was part of the same common scheme or plan sharing a similar modus operandi.

Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Cohen: Unauthorized, Unlicensed Driver Had Fourth Amendment Standing, But Inventory Search Complied with Impound Procedures

In United States v. Cohen, No. 21-10741 (Wilson, Branch, Tjoflat) (July 6, 2022), the Court affirmed the denial of a motion to suppress.

The Court held that Cohen had Fourth Amendment to standing to challenge the search of the rental car he was driving, even though he was not an authorized driver of the rental car and had a suspended license.  In Byrd, the Supreme Court held that standing is not defeated merely because the driver was not listed on the rental agreement.  The Eleventh Circuit rejected the reasoning of the Second Circuit, and agreed with the Eighth Circuit, that being an unlicensed driver does not defeat a reasonable expectation of privacy because it is not comparable to wrongful presence in the car.  And the Court emphasized that the Cohen did not interfere with the authorized renter’s valid possessory interest in the car because had the renter’s permission to use the car.  However, the Court ultimately held that the inventory search of the car complied with the city’s impoundment procedures, and the Court therefore upheld the denial of the motion to suppress.

Friday, July 01, 2022

Riolo: Affirming Denial of § 2255 Motion Raising IAC

In Riolo v. United States, No. 20-12206 (June 29, 2022) (Jordan, Jill Pryor, Marcus), the Court affirmed the denial of Mr. Riolo's 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to vacate his 293-month prison sentence and convictions.    

Mr. Riolo argued that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel because she told him that if he pleaded guilty to five counts of mail fraud, he would serve no more than 10 years in prison because of a deal she had worked out with the government.  His trial counsel also advised him that his sentencing range under the Guidelines was 97-121 months' imprisonment because he had an offense level of 30 and a criminal history category of I.  He argued that he pleaded guilty based upon those representations when he otherwise would have proceeded to trial.  

After an evidentiary hearing, the district court found that the trial counsel never represented to Mr. Riolo that she had a deal with the government about his guideline range and that she had properly advised him that the district court would ultimately determine his guideline range for itself.  On appeal, Mr. Riolo argued that the district court's factual findings were clearly erroneous, and that, even putting aside the disputed facts, the fact that his trial counsel underestimated his guideline range by more than 100 months alone constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.  

The Court found no clear error in the district court's findings, and under those facts, no ineffective assistance of counsel.  The Court also reasoned that though trial counsel's estimated guideline range was "far off the mark--by more than 100 months," "experienced attorneys make mistakes."  That is, ineffective assistance of counsel claims are fact-bound, and here, the factual record demonstrated that trial counsel's miscalculation was not the product of deficient performance.  The Court chose not to address the Fifth Circuit's opinion in United States v. Herrera, wherein the Fifth Circuit remanded for an evidentiary hearing, noting that a movant may have a potential ineffective assistance of counsel claim where an attorney gives incorrect advice regarding exposure under the Guidelines.   

Judge Jordan concurred in the Court's opinion, but wrote separately to point out that a majority of the Court's sister circuits had held that significant errors in advice about sentencing exposure can constitute deficient performance.  He noted that while the Court had avoided the issue here, it would have to confront the issue at some point.