Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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A California-based psychologist, Dr. Rick Q. Wilson, was investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for potential violations of the Controlled Substances Act. The DEA issued an administrative subpoena to obtain Wilson's medical, prescription, and billing records. Wilson challenged the subpoena on statutory, constitutional, and privacy grounds.The district court initially dismissed the United States' petition to enforce the subpoena, finding it violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Fourth Amendment. However, upon reconsideration, the court granted the United States' motion to amend the petition and enforce a narrowed version of the subpoena.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that the modified subpoena complied with HIPAA, was not unreasonably burdensome under the Fourth Amendment, and did not violate Wilson's Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination due to the required-records exception. The court held that the subpoena was issued within the DEA's authority, was relevant to the DEA's investigation, and was not unreasonably broad or burdensome. The court also found that the records requested fell within the required-records exception to the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination. View "United States v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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In this appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the defendant, Paul Curtis Pemberton, contested his federal conviction for a murder committed in McIntosh County, Oklahoma in 2004. The case was influenced by the Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020), which confirmed that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reservation covered a larger area of eastern Oklahoma than previously acknowledged by state and federal governments. This ruling impacted many crimes that had been prosecuted in state courts but were actually committed within tribal jurisdictions. Pemberton, an enrolled member of the Creek Nation, argued that his crime fell within this category and should have been prosecuted in federal court under the Major Crimes Act.The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision, ruling that the state officers involved in Pemberton’s arrest and the subsequent collection of evidence had acted in good faith, based on the prevailing legal understanding at the time. The court noted that the officers could not have known that the Major Crimes Act barred state jurisdiction over the crime as the reservation boundaries were not clarified until the McGirt decision in 2020.The court also rejected Pemberton’s argument that the district court violated his Sixth Amendment right to self-representation during his sentencing. The court found that Pemberton's request to represent himself was made with the intention to delay the proceedings and was not related to the sentencing hearing. Therefore, the lower court's decision to deny his request was affirmed. View "United States v. Pemberton" on Justia Law

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In November 2018, Joseph Hoskins was stopped by a Utah state trooper, Jared Withers, because his Illinois license plate was partially obscured. The situation escalated when Trooper Withers conducted a dog sniff of the car, which led him to search the car and find a large amount of cash. Mr. Hoskins was arrested, and his DNA was collected. Mr. Hoskins sued Trooper Withers and Jess Anderson, Commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety, alleging violations of the First and Fourth Amendments and state law.The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that Trooper Withers had reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop because Utah law requires license plates to be legible, and this applies to out-of-state plates. The court also found that the dog sniff did not unlawfully prolong the traffic stop, as Mr. Hoskins was searching for his proof of insurance at the time. The court ruled that the trooper's protective measures, including pointing a gun at Mr. Hoskins, handcuffing him, and conducting a patdown, did not elevate the stop into an arrest due to Mr. Hoskins's confrontational behavior.The court further held that the dog's reaction to the car created arguable probable cause to search the car and that the discovery of a large amount of cash provided arguable probable cause to arrest Mr. Hoskins. The court found that Trooper Withers did not violate any clearly established constitutional rights by pointing a gun at Mr. Hoskins in retaliation for protected speech or as excessive force. Lastly, the court found no violation of Mr. Hoskins's due process rights related to the handling of his DNA sample, as neither the Due Process Clause nor state law created a protected interest in a procedure to ensure the destruction of his DNA sample. View "Hoskins v. Withers" on Justia Law

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In this case, the defendant, Donald Alvin Tolbert, appealed against the denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) opening his emails and attachments without a warrant. These emails contained child pornography and were detected by AOL's software, which reported them to the NCMEC. The NCMEC, state law enforcement in New Mexico, and the federal government subsequently conducted investigations leading to Tolbert's conviction.Tolbert argued that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated by the warrantless search of his emails and attachments. The court, however, ruled that even if Tolbert's Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, the evidence would still be admissible under the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule. This exception allows illegally obtained evidence to be admitted if it would have inevitably been discovered by legal means.The court found that the investigations by the NCMEC and law enforcement would have proceeded in the same way, even if the emails and attachments had not been opened, based on their routine practices. They would have used information available in the CyberTips, such as IP addresses and email addresses, to link the CyberTips to Tolbert and conduct further investigations. Thus, the evidence against Tolbert would have been discovered even without opening his emails and attachments.The court, therefore, affirmed the district court's denial of Tolbert's motion to suppress and motion to reconsider. View "United States v. Tolbert" on Justia Law

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In a case brought before the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the plaintiff organization, Speech First, Inc., challenged three policies implemented by Oklahoma State University (OSU) that allegedly suppressed the freedom of speech of its student members. The organization provided declarations of three pseudonymous students, Student A, Student B, and Student C, describing how these policies stifled their constitutionally protected expression. The main issue in this case was whether pseudonymous declarations could establish Article III standing for Speech First to bring the action. The defendant, OSU President Kayse Shrum, had successfully argued in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma that the plaintiff lacked standing because it failed to identify its members by name, as required by the Supreme Court in Summers v. Earth Island Institute.The Tenth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s interpretation of Summers, stating that the Supreme Court had not intended to require legal names for standing and had not suggested that it was overruling decades of precedent allowing anonymous plaintiffs. The Tenth Circuit explained that the Supreme Court in Summers had simply required that there be a specific person who is injured, not just a statistical probability that some member would suffer an injury. The appeals court found that this requirement could be satisfied by identifying an injured member as “Member 1” just as well as by a legal name. It also pointed to previous cases where standing was granted based on pseudonymous or anonymous declarations.The Tenth Circuit ultimately concluded that an organization can establish standing to bring a suit if at least one of its members, even if identified by a pseudonym, would have standing to sue in their own right. The court therefore reversed the district court's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Speech First v. Shrum" on Justia Law

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In this case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit overturned the United States District Court for the District of Utah's decision to dismiss the charge against Jonathan Alexander Morales-Lopez, who was accused of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3). This statute prohibits any person who is an unlawful user of a controlled substance from possessing a firearm.The district court held that the phrase "unlawful user" in the statute is unconstitutionally vague, both on its face and as applied to the facts of Morales-Lopez's case. However, the appellate court disagreed on both counts.First, the appellate court held that the district court erred in considering whether § 922(g)(3) was unconstitutional on its face. The court cited longstanding precedent that a defendant whose conduct is clearly prohibited by a statute cannot pose a facial challenge to it.Second, the appellate court held that the district court erred in finding § 922(g)(3) unconstitutional as applied to Morales-Lopez's conduct. The appellate court found that there was sufficient evidence of a temporal nexus between Morales-Lopez's drug use and his possession of a firearm.The facts of the case are as follows: Morales-Lopez and another man were caught stealing firearms and ammunition from a store in Utah. Morales-Lopez was found with a stolen gun and methamphetamine. He also admitted to using drugs regularly in the month prior to his arrest.The appellate court concluded that the phrase "unlawful user" in § 922(g)(3) is clear in its application to Morales-Lopez's conduct and that the district court should reinstate the jury’s verdict. The case was remanded back to the district court with instructions to proceed accordingly. View "United States v. Morales-Lopez" on Justia Law

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In this case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit analyzed whether a police officer violated the Fourth Amendment by prolonging a traffic stop to determine whether the driver of a rental vehicle was authorized to drive it. The driver, Jerry Dawson, was pulled over for speeding, and during the stop, the officer discovered marijuana and two pounds of methamphetamine in the vehicle. Dawson argued that the officer had no reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity and therefore had no authority to detain him beyond the time necessary to issue the speeding ticket.The court held that the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment because checking a rental agreement is an ordinary inquiry incident to a traffic stop. The court found that this inquiry is part of an officer's mission during a traffic stop and does not constitute an "unrelated investigation." Therefore, the officer was justified in continuing to detain Dawson to determine whether he was authorized to drive the rental car.Dawson also appealed his 70-month imprisonment sentence, arguing that the district court erred in concluding it could not adjust his sentence to account for his pretrial time served for a relevant offense. The court dismissed Dawson's appeal of his sentence, holding that it lacked jurisdiction to review a discretionary refusal to depart from the sentencing guidelines. View "United States v. Dawson" on Justia Law

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In this case, Domingo Martinez Jr. was convicted of possession with intent to distribute and distribution of 50 grams or more of methamphetamine. On appeal, he challenged the admission of a narcotics detective’s testimony about Santa Muerte shrines, claiming the testimony violated his First Amendment rights. He also objected to the district court’s instruction to the jury to disregard a robocall inadvertently played during the trial, rather than declaring a mistrial.The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the conviction. The court found no error in the admission of the detective's testimony relating to Santa Muerte, noting it was based solely on the detective's law enforcement experience, not personal self-study. Moreover, the testimony was relevant to the issue raised by Mr. Martinez's entrapment defense, whether he was predisposed to drug trafficking. The court also found no error in the district court's treatment of the robocall interruption. The district court had instructed the jury to disregard the interruption twice and recessed the trial briefly to ensure it would not happen again. The court of appeals found no indication that the jury had time to process the robocall or that it affected the outcome of the trial. View "United States v. Martinez" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that impounding a vehicle from a private property without a reasonable, non-pretextual community-caretaking rationale violates the Fourth Amendment. The defendant, Isaac Ramos, was arrested after an altercation at a convenience store. His truck was impounded from the store's parking lot, and a subsequent inventory search revealed a machine gun and ammunition. Ramos was charged with unlawful possession of a machine gun and being a felon illegally in possession of ammunition. He moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the impoundment of his truck violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied his motion, and he appealed.The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court's decision, finding that the impoundment was not supported by a reasonable, non-pretextual community-caretaking rationale. The court considered five factors: whether the vehicle was on public or private property; if on private property, whether the property owner had been consulted; whether an alternative to impoundment existed; whether the vehicle was implicated in a crime; and whether the vehicle’s owner and/or driver had consented to the impoundment. The court found that all of these factors weighed against the reasonableness of the impoundment, and thus, it violated the Fourth Amendment. The court remanded the case to the district court with instructions to grant Ramos’s suppression motion and conduct any further necessary proceedings. View "United States v. Ramos" on Justia Law

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Timothy Chischilly gathered five relatives to get something “off his chest.” To the shock of the relatives, Chischilly confessed that he and his girlfriend, defendant-appellee Stacey Yellowhorse, had killed a woman. The relatives told law enforcement about Chischilly’s confession, and the accounts were largely consistent: Chischilly had admitted: he held the woman down while Yellowhorse bludgeoned the woman with a sledgehammer or mallet; and he and Yellowhorse pinned the woman down with nails and a hammer. Authorities later found parts of the woman’s skeletal remains in various locations, including a fire pit next to Chischilly’s house. Despite confessing to the murder, Chischilly pleaded not guilty. That plea led the district court to set Chischilly’s trial after Yellowhorse’s. At Yellowhorse’s upcoming trial, the government wanted Chischilly to testify about what he told his relatives. Because his statements were self-incriminating, however, the government expected Chischilly to invoke the Fifth Amendment if he was called as a witness. So the government asked the district court to allow the relatives to testify at Yellowhorse’s trial about three of Chischilly’s statements. Chischilly's statements would ordinarily constitute inadmissible hearsay; the hearsay exception would apply only if Chischilly's statements harmed his penal interest and had corroboration. The government argued the district court applied the wrong test by assuming that Chischilly’s statements about Yellowhorse’s involvement were not self-inculpatory. Yellowhorse disagreed, adding that the excluded parts were also inadmissible because the court shouldn’t have found corroboration. In the Tenth Circuit's view, the district court’s approach contradicted its precedent. The case was remanded for the district court to reconsider the admissibility of Chischilly’s statements to his relatives. View "United States v. Yellowhorse" on Justia Law