Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

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Defendants-Appellants appealed a district court order denying their motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. Plaintiff-Appellee Michael Leatherwood brought suit seeking declaratory and monetary relief under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for violation of his constitutional rights stemming from the search of his house while he was a probationer in Oklahoma. Defendants were Oklahoma Department of Corrections Probation and Parole Division employees who participated in or authorized the search. The district court denied their motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, finding that "questions of material fact remain[ed] regarding the existence of reasonable suspicion" for the search. The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court, finding: (1) as a probationer, plaintiff had a diminished expectation of privacy; (2) the search of his house was reasonable if supported by reasonable suspicion; (3) probation searches could be premised on less reliable information than required in other contexts; (4) an anonymous, uncorroborated tip and a phone call from plaintiff's ex-wife were enough to create reasonable suspicion (defendant Welker had previously talked to plaintiff's ex and was presumably able to assess the wife's credibility and rely on her information); thus (5) the search of plaintiff's home did not violate his Constitutional rights. View "Leatherwood v. Welker, et al" on Justia Law

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Petitioner-appellant Lawrence Taylor sought a certificate of appealability (COA) to challenge the district court's dismissal of his petition for habeas relief. He was found guilty by an Oklahoma jury of first degree murder and shooting with intent to kill for which he received consecutive life sentences. In his application for post-conviction relief, he argued that the government's witness against him at trial lied about his alleged confession to shooting the two victims. The witness recanted his testimony, but the district court denied relief. Thereafter, petitioner sought a COA from the Tenth Circuit. To the Tenth Circuit, petitioner argued the witness' affidavit recanting his testimony at trial was "newly discovered evidence" The Tenth Circuit concluded petitioner did not make a substantial showing that the district court erred in its finding that the "date on which the factual predicate of the claim… could have been discovered" prior to the date on which the judgment became final. As such, the Court denied the COA and dismissed the appeal. View "Taylor v. Martin" on Justia Law

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Vanity Johnson pled guilty pursuant to a written plea agreement in which she "knowingly and voluntarily waive[d] any right to appeal . . . any matter in connection with this prosecution, the defendant's conviction, or the components of the sentence to be imposed herein including the length and conditions of supervised release." Despite her appeal waiver, Johnson filed a notice of appeal and indicated her intent to challenge her sentence. The government moved to enforce Johnson's appeal waiver. On appeal, Johnson argued that her waiver was subject to an exception because the district court relied on an impermissible factor in its sentencing decision. However, Johnson did not challenge that impermissible factor at the district court. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit's review was for plain error only. Finding none, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of the government's motion. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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A series of appeals came before the Tenth Circuit brought by Maria Vianey Medina-Copete and Rafael Goxcon-Chagal following their convictions on drug trafficking charges. The issue these cases presented to the Court were one of first impression. At trial, the district court allowed a purported expert on certain religious iconography to testify that veneration of a figure known as "Santa Muerte" was so connected with drug trafficking as to constitute evidence that the occupants of the vehicle were aware of the presence of drugs in a secret compartment. In addition to qualifying a law enforcement official as an expert on Santa Muerte, the court allowed the witness to wander far afield and render theological opinions about the "legitima[cy]" of Santa Muerte in relation to other venerated figures. Upon review of these cases, the Tenth Circuit concluded that the law enforcement officer was improperly vetted under Fed. R. Evid. 702, "Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals," (509 U.S. 579 (1993)), and "Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael," (526 U.S. 137 (1999)), and that the testimony proffered was both impermissible and prejudicial. The Court reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial. View "United States v. Medina-Copete" on Justia Law

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Michael Salas was pulled over for erratic driving and consented to a search of his car, which yielded over 20 pounds of methamphetamine. He pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute. On appeal, he challenged the district court's denial of his motion to suppress the drug evidence, arguing the court erred in finding that the police officer had reasonable suspicion to stop his car based on a violation of an Oklahoma fog line statute that requires driving "as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane." He also appealed the district court's sentence based on the court's refusal to decrease his offense level by one point under 3E1.1 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG) for acceptance of responsibility and the court's refusal to issue a downward departure for minor or minimal participation in criminal activity under 3B1.2. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's decisions. View "United States v. Salas" on Justia Law

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Anthony and Melissa Stonecipher became targets of an investigation because of their purchases and sales of firearms and explosives. During the investigation, federal officers discovered that Mr. Stonecipher had pled guilty in 2007 to a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence in Missouri. One of the officers, Carlos Valles, concluded Mr. Stonecipher had violated federal law, which made it illegal for anyone convicted of even a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence to possess a firearm. Acting on this knowledge, Valles obtained a search warrant for the Stoneciphers' home, ending with Mr. Stonecipher's arrest. It turned out that Mr. Stonecipher had not been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence for purposes of federal law. Prosecutors soon learned that the conviction did not count because the sentence had been suspended and, under Missouri law, a suspended sentence in these circumstances did not amount to a conviction. The government dismissed the criminal complaint. The Stoneciphers filed a "Biven"s action against Valles and other law enforcement officers involved in the investigation, alleging violations of their Fourth and First Amendment rights in connection with the search of their home and Mr. Stonecipher's arrest and prosecution. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on the grounds of qualified immunity. The Stoneciphers appealed the grant of summary judgment on their claims for unreasonable search and seizure, unlawful arrest, malicious prosecution, and violation of their First Amendment rights. For purposes of qualified immunity, Valles had enough information to: (1) conclude he had probable cause to search the Stoneciphers' home; and (2) arrest and file charges based on Mr. Stonecipher's possession of firearms and explosives. Further, there was no evidence that Mr. Stonecipher's arrest and prosecution were in retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights. Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's order. View "Stonecipher, et al v. Valles, et al" on Justia Law

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Defendant Joshua Smith robbed two stores and shot the managers in both. He was convicted on two counts of robbery, and two counts of using a gun "during and in relation to" those "crime[s] of violence." "Normally, [. . .] a district court enjoys considerable discretion when it comes to picking a prison term within the applicable statutory range. But at the government's urging in this case the district court decided there was one set of facts it had to disregard - Mr. Smith’s [section] 924(c) gun convictions and the lengthy sentence it just issued for them." The Tenth Circuit phrased the issue before it on appeal as whether "a sentencing court must studiously ignore one of the most conspicuous facts about a defendant when deciding how long he should spend in prison." The Court was "convinced the law doesn't require so much from sentencing courts. [. . .] Viewed with a cold eye, the relevant statutes permit a sentencing court to consider a defendant's 924(c) conviction and sentence just as they permit a sentencing court to consider most any other salient fact about a defendant. To say this much isn't to suggest a sentencing court must reduce a defendant's related crime of violence sentence in light of his mandatory gun enhancement sentence under 924(c). Only that the court is not required to feign the sort of ignorance the government demands." The Court affirmed defendant's conviction but remanded the case for resentencing. View "United States v. Smith" on Justia Law

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The plaintiffs in this case were David and Barbara Green, their three children, and the businesses they collectively owned and operated: Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Mardel, Inc. As owners and operators of both Hobby Lobby and Mardel, the Greens organized their businesses with express religious principles in mind. As was particularly relevant to this case, one aspect of the Greens’ religious principles was a belief that human life begins when sperm fertilizes an egg. In addition, the Greens believed it was immoral for them to facilitate any act that caused the death of a human embryo. Plaintiffs brought an action to challenge portions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) whereby employment-based group health plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) were required provide certain types of health services for women that implicated contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling (without cost-sharing by plan participants or beneficiaries) - all "abortifacients" that went against plaintiffs' religious beliefs. Plaintiffs filed suit to challenge the contraceptive-coverage requirement of the ACA under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and the Administrative Procedure Act. Plaintiffs simultaneously moved for a preliminary injunction on the basis of their RFRA and Free Exercise claims. The district court denied that motion. Plaintiffs appealed the denial of the injunction. After review by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court held that Hobby Lobby and Mardel were entitled to bring claims under RFRA, established a likelihood of success that their rights under statute were substantially burdened by the contraceptive-coverage requirement, and established an irreparable harm. However, the case was remanded back to the district court for further proceedings on two remaining factors governing the grant or denial of a preliminary injunction. View "Hobby Lobby Stores, et al v. Sebelius, et al" on Justia Law

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Several Utah residents and same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses in Utah and were denied. They filed suit against the Governor, the Attorney General of Utah and the Clerk of Sale Lake County, all in their official capacities, challenging provisions of Utah law relating to same-sex marriage. Utah Code 30-1-2(5) included among the marriages that were "prohibited and declared void," those "between persons of the same sex." The Legislature referred a proposed constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 3, to Utah's voters (Amendment 3 passed with approximately 66% of the vote and became section 29 of Article I of the Utah Constitution). Plaintiffs alleged that Amendment 3 violated their right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment by depriving them of the fundamental liberty to marry the person of their choosing and to have such a marriage recognized. They also claimed that Amendment 3 violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiffs raised their claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983, seeking both a declaratory judgment that Amendment 3 was unconstitutional and an injunction prohibiting its enforcement. On cross motions for summary judgment, the district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, concluding that "[a]ll citizens, regardless of their sexual identity, have a fundamental right to liberty, and this right protects an individual's ability to marry and the intimate choices a person makes about marriage and family." Furthermore, the court held that Amendment 3 denied plaintiffs equal protection because it classified based on sex and sexual orientation without a rational basis. It declared Amendment 3 unconstitutional and permanently enjoined enforcement of the challenged provisions. The Governor and Attorney General filed a timely notice of appeal and moved to stay the district court's decision. Both the district court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a stay. The Supreme Court, however, granted a stay of the district court's injunction pending final disposition of the appeal by the Tenth Circuit. Having heard and carefully considered the argument of the litigants, the Tenth Circuit concluded that, consistent with the United States Constitution, the State of Utah may not deny a citizen benefit of the laws based solely on the sex of the person the citizen chooses to marry. View "Kitchen, et al v. Herbert, et al" on Justia Law

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A Utah state trooper stopped Sherida Felders for speeding while on a trip from California to Colorado. Based on her answers to a few questions, Trooper Brian Bairett asked to search Felders’s car for drugs. After Felders refused, Bairett called for assistance from K-9 Unit officer Jeff Malcom to conduct a dog sniff. The ensuing two-hour search yielded no drugs. Felders and her passengers filed suit against Bairett and Malcom under 28 U.S.C. 1983, alleging, among other claims, that both Bairett and Malcom unlawfully searched Felders’s car in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Malcom moved for summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment unlawful search claim based on qualified immunity. The district court denied Malcom’s motion for summary judgment. The district court found as a matter of law that Malcom could not establish probable cause to search the car prior to conducting the dog sniff and that material facts were in dispute regarding (1) whether Malcom’s canine alerted prior to jumping into the vehicle; and (2) whether Malcom facilitated the dog's entry into the vehicle prior to establishing probable cause. Malcom filed an interlocutory appeal from the district court’s denial of qualified immunity. He argues that the district court erred in denying his motion for summary judgment because he had probable cause to search the car prior to conducting the dog sniff and, alternatively, that the law did not clearly establish that his actions during the sniff violated the Fourth Amendment. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that Malcom did not have probable cause to search the vehicle prior to conducting the sniff. Therefore, the Court affirmed the district court's denial of Malcom's motion for summary judgment. View "Felders, et al v. Malcom, et al" on Justia Law