Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Case of the Polite Bank Robber

Bank robbers get a two-level sentencing enhancement for making a death threat. But all bank robberies involve some explicit or implicit threat of harm. So, says the 11th Circuit, we must distinguish between "less bad" bank robberies and worse ones when we decide who qualifies for the death-threat enhancement. This unarmed robber walked into two different banks, gave the tellers notes asking for money and telling them he "had kids to feed," and then "bargained pleasantly" for the money. Even though his notes stated that "no one would get hurt" if the tellers gave him the money, he never stated or implied that he had a weapon, and the tellers did not act as if they feared him. The court held that his actions would not have caused a reasonable person to fear for their life, and he should not have received the enhancement. 

In fact, in this case the government agreed that the robber should not have received the death-threat enhancement. The 11th Circuit appointed a lawyer as amicus to defend the district court's ruling.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Tenth Circuit Breviaries

The Tenth Circuit did not publish any decisions in any direct criminal appeals last week.

Habeas practitioners will want to read Davis v. Sharp, affirming the denial of 28 U.S.C. 2254 relief to an Oklahoma state capital defendant. Sharp discusses anticipatory procedural bars, procedural default, and defense counsel's obligations with respect to investigating and presenting mental-health claims at trial.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Do border searches of electronic devices require reasonable suspicion?

The "border search" exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement allows "routine searches" at an international border without a warrant or any suspicion. A couple of weeks ago, we told you about United States v. Williams, in which the Tenth Circuit declined to decide whether reasonable suspicion is required to conduct a forensic search of a person's laptop seized at an international border. The Court held that Mr. Williams would lose either way, because there actually was reasonable suspicion to search his computer.

Other courts have held that suspicion is required to support a search of a phone or laptop at the border. Recently, in Alsaad v. McAleenan, a Massachusetts district court held that suspicionless searches of personal electronic devices seized at the border violate the Fourth Amendment.  The court emphasized that the border search exception is based the need to discover contraband in violation of customs and importing rules at the border, not to search for general evidence of crime. The court held that both a basic search of an electronic device and a more advanced (or "forensic") search are "non-routine" searches at the border, and thus require reasonable suspicion. But the court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the higher probable-cause standard must be met.

Note: because Alsaad is a civil case, it does not deal with the good-faith exception that can be an additional obstacle in a criminal case in this developing area.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Tenth Circuit Breviaries

Last week at the Tenth Circuit:

Preserving sufficiency issues, both at trial and on appeal

In United States v. Leffler, the Tenth Circuit reminded us that it will consider a sufficiency argument forfeited (and subject to plain-error review on appeal) if it is different from the sufficiency argument made during a Rule 29 motion at trial. And it will consider the argument waived (and not reviewable at all) if appellate counsel does not argue it under the plain-error standard.

Let us consider ourselves warned.

Fourth Amendment/Fifth Amendment: consent

In United States v. Armando Martinez (unpublished), the Tenth Circuit reversed a district court order suppressing evidence, finding that an encounter between Mr. Armando Martinez and a Border Patrol agent was consensual. That encounter included some version of the following questions, asked in a conversational tone while the agent was standing about three feet away:

Image result for border patrolGood morning, I'm a Border Patrol agent.
Are you a United States citizen?
Are the people in your car your family?
Can I talk to them?

These questions, under the totality of other circumstances discussed by the Court, did not render the encounter a seizure.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Second Chair applications due December 1

Image result for "two chairs"Applications for the 2020 Kansas Federal Public Defender's Second Chair program are due December 1, 2019. The year-long program will take place in Wichita beginning in January. Inquiries should be sent to Laura Shaneyfelt at laura_shaneyfelt@fd.org.

Second Chair is a training and mentoring program for attorneys who want to apply for the CJA panel but lack the requisite experience. The program, led by the FPD, includes guideline workshops and an intensive six-part orientation that covers all phases of a federal criminal case. Each participant will be assigned to a more experienced mentor attorney to shadow on select cases.

Participants should plan to commit from 80 to 120 hours throughout the year. Compensation at the rate of $70 per hour is provided courtesy of the Bench-Bar Committee.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Tenth Circuit Breviaries

Last week at the Tenth Circuit:

Fourth Amendment

Must border searches of personal electronic devices be supported by reasonable suspicion? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, there was reasonable suspicion for such a search in United States v. Williams

(Non)admissibility of exculpatory suicide note

In United States v. Hammers, the district court excluded a coconspirator's suicide note, in which the author took full responsibility for the charged fraud. The Tenth Circuit affirmed.

First, the statements in the note were not admissible as statements against interest under Fed. R. Evid. 804(b)(e), because (1) the author "had no intention of sticking around to face criminal prosecution"; and (2) the statements were not sufficiently corroborated.

Second, the statements were not admissible under the residual hearsay exception in Fed. R. Evid. 807, because the note did not offer sufficient guarantees of trustworthiness.

Third, the statements were not admissible under the defendant's Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights to present a defense because the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the note.

Sufficiency of evidence

In Hammers, the Tenth Circuit also rejected the defendant's argument that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions. Here the Court reminds appellate practitioners that it will resist arguments asking the Court "to weigh conflicting testimony or evaluate the credibility of the witnesses."

Prosecutorial misconduct

The Hammers Court also rejected the defendant's claims of prosecutorial misconduct, holding that even if the government made improper statements, those statements did not prejudice the defendant.

Obstruction of justice, USSG 3C1.1

In Hammers, the Tenth Circuit reviews the elements of the obstruction-of-justice enhancement, and finds them met in this case. Read Hammers for a reminder of these elements.

Disruption of governmental function, USSG 5K2.7

Finally in Hammers, the Tenth Circuit held that a defendant convicted of embezzling federal program funds may be subject to an upward departure for disrupting a governmental function over double-counting objections (and the departure was factually supported here).

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Can factual errors constitute plain error on appeal?


As we noted last week, the Tenth Circuit recently reminded us in United States v. Carter that it will not “typically” review a factual error at sentencing if that error was not raised first in the district court. The Court explained the reason for this rule: “when a defendant properly raises the disputed factual issues in the district court, a record sufficient to permit adequate review is thereby developed, but, when a defendant fails to raise the issue below, we have no factual record by which to review the district court’s factual determinations.”

Let's take a longer look at this precedent. In 2015, Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Breyer, addressed this issue in a statement respecting the denial of certiorari in United States v. Carlton. Carlton involved a factual error underlying a sentencing enhancement. The enhancement was based on witness testimony that simply did not contain the facts supporting the enhancement. No one discovered the error until appeal. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the sentence based on circuit precedent holding that “factual errors are never cognizable on plain-error review.”

Justice Sotomayor argued that this precedent is “misguided.” She wrote that neither the Supreme Court’s plain-error precedent nor Rule 52 distinguish between legal and factual errors. To the contrary, the Supreme Court has generally held that a per se approach to plain-error review is “flawed.” Justice Sotomayor also stated that no other circuit, beyond the Fifth Circuit, has a per se rule that factual errors cannot be plain error. She identified the Tenth Circuit as applying a rule somewhat like the Fifth’s. But, she noted, citing United States v. Dunbar, 718 F. 3d 1268, 1280 (10th Cir. 2013), “even the Tenth Circuit’s rule is subject to an exception in cases. . . where the appellant can establish the certainty of a favorable finding on remand.” She urged the Fifth Circuit to “rethink its approach to plain-error review.”

Take a look at these cases if you find yourself in a factual bind on appeal.