Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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A.S. was adjudicated a juvenile delinquent under the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act (“FJDA”) after the district court concluded that, when he was seventeen years old, he knowingly engaged in a sexual act with a victim, K.P., while she was incapable of appraising the nature of the conduct. The court ordered A.S. to be committed to eighteen months’ custodial detention to be followed by twenty-four months’ juvenile-delinquent supervision. On appeal, A.S. raised three challenges: (1) the district court erred in limiting cross-examination and excluding extrinsic evidence concerning a prior allegation of sexual assault that K.P. made; (2) the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that he knew that K.P. was incapable of appraising the nature of the sexual conduct, which he says was an element of the offense; and (3) the district court erred in imposing a dispositional sentence on him of custodial detention. The Tenth Circuit concluded: (1) the district court’s actions accorded with the Federal Rules of Evidence and did not violate A.S.’s constitutional rights; (2) there was ample evidence for a reasonable factfinder to determine A.S. engaged in sexual conduct with K.P. while he knew she was asleep and drunk; and (3) the sentence did not constitute an abuse of the district court's broad sentencing discretion. Thus, the Tenth Circuit affirmed judgment. View "United States v. A.S." on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Ashton Malone was convicted on two counts of distributing methamphetamine and sentenced to 151 months’ custody followed by five years of supervised release. At sentencing, the district court imposed all the various conditions of supervised release set forth in the Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”), including a special condition requiring Malone to undergo mental health treatment. Contained within this special condition was the mandate for Malone to “take prescribed medication as directed” by mental health staff or a treating physician. That medication requirement was the issue on appeal to the Tenth Circuit. Malone did not object to this proposed condition in either his written objections to the PSR or at sentencing, but he argued on appeal that the district court’s failure to make particularized findings to support this condition was plain error compelling reversal. The Tenth Circuit agreed and accordingly, reversed. View "United States v. Malone" on Justia Law

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Samuel Elliott pled guilty for producing and possessing child pornography. Each of the four possession counts concerned a different electronic device or medium on which Elliott stored his collection. On appeal, he argued three of the four possession counts were multiplicitous and thus violated the Double Jeopardy Clause. Elliott contends that because he possessed the different electronic devices in the same physical location and at the same time, he could not be convicted of distinct possession counts for each device. To this end, Elliott argued the rule of lenity requires a single possession conviction because the statute was ambiguous as to whether the unit of prosecution was a single device containing child pornography or the simultaneous possession of multiple devices containing child pornography. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed the statute’s unit of prosecution was ambiguous, and thus concluded the rule of lenity required the Court construe 18 U.S.C. 2252A(a)(5)(B) to preclude distinct charges for each electronic device or medium simultaneously possessed. The case was remanded back to the district court with instructions to vacate three of Elliott’s possession convictions and sentences. View "United States v. Elliott" on Justia Law

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Manuel Romero was charged with one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and one count of knowingly possessing a stolen firearm. Romero moved to suppress the firearm that a Las Cruces police officer discovered in Romero’s backpack during a search incident to his arrest for obstructing an officer in violation of New Mexico Statute 30-22-1(D). The officer arrested Romero for obstruction because he failed to immediately comply with the officer’s request that he submit to a pat-down search. Romero argued in his motion that the firearm should have been suppressed because the officer had neither: (1) reasonable suspicion to conduct the pat-down search; nor (2) probable cause to arrest Romero for obstruction. The district court denied Romero’s motion. The Tenth Circuit reversed, agreeing with Romero’s latter argument that there was insufficient probable cause to support an arrest under section 30-22-1(D). Thus, the search of the backpack could not be supported as a search incident to arrest. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Romero" on Justia Law

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Oscar "O" Garcia was charged by indictment with money laundering, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, and possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Following plea negotiations, the government filed an information, charging Garcia with only two counts: conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance and money laundering. The parties entered into a plea agreement with a stipulated sentence of 180 months. Garcia consented to appearing before a federal magistrate judge for his change of plea hearing the same day. After Garcia’s change-of-plea hearing before the magistrate judge, but prior to his sentencing before the district judge, Garcia moved to withdraw his plea. The magistrate judge did not make a written recommendation nor did the clerk of court file a notice as to any objections to the magistrate judge’s recommendation. This case called on the Tenth Circuit to resolve whether federal magistrate judges could accept and enter guilty pleas in criminal proceedings where the parties have consented to appearing before the magistrate judge. Longstanding precedent says they could, but in this case, Garcia argued this precedent was abrogated by subsequent changes to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, and that only district court judges could accept pleas deemed to be dispositive. He contended these changes to the Rules allowed him to withdraw his previously accepted plea of guilty as a matter of right. The Tenth Circuit found Garcia’s argument persuasive, but felt bound by prior precedent. For that reason, the Court affirmed the district court. View "United States v. Garcia" on Justia Law

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Jeffrey Antonio was driving his pickup truck a few miles north of Albuquerque when he was involved in a car accident. He was driving north but drifted into the southbound lane where he collided head-on with another vehicle. Antonio had been drinking, and at the time of the accident, he was significantly over the legal limit for driving. He had been convicted of driving under the influence on two occasions prior to his arrest in this case. This time, a passenger in the other vehicle was killed. A federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Antonio with one count of second-degree murder. As an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, Antonio could be charged and tried in federal court if the accident occurred in Indian Country. The United States alleged that the accident occurred within the exterior boundaries of the Sandia Pueblo. Prior to trial, the United States filed a motion in limine asking the district court to rule that the site of the accident was in Indian Country to conclusively establish federal jurisdiction. After hearing the evidence, the district court judge stated he was “inclined to find” the site of the accident took place in Indian Country. One week before trial, Antonio filed a motion to dismiss the indictment for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12(b)(2). He argued that, as a matter of law, the accident site was on privately owned land and not in Indian Country. Therefore, there was no federal jurisdiction. The Tenth Circuit concluded the crime occurred within the exterior boundaries of the Sandia Pueblo, and therefore the federal court for the District of New Mexico was the proper forum for the prosecution. View "United States v. Antonio" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Aaron Bowen appealed a district court’s dismissal of his motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. Bowen challenged his conviction for brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, which rested on the trial court’s instruction that witness retaliation was a crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(3). Given the narrowing of issues by the parties and developments in the law while this appeal was pending, resolution of this case called for the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal to answer certain questions and leave others for another day. In short, the Court held that United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), in which the Supreme Court held that section 924(c)(3)(B) was void for vagueness, created a new substantive rule that was retroactively applicable on collateral review, and Bowen’s convictions for witness retaliation did not qualify as crimes of violence under 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(3)(A). Therefore, the Court found Bowen was actually innocent of 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1). The parties agreed in this case that, if Bowen was actually innocent, his 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion was timely. Because Bowen was entitled to relief under section 2255, the Court reversed the district court’s dismissal of Bowen’s section 2255 motion and remanded for the trial court to vacate his section 924(c)(1) conviction. View "United States v. Bowen" on Justia Law

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In 2004, Appellant Marlon Harmon picked up a friend, Jasmine Battle, and asked her to go with him to rob a nearby convenience store. As they neared the Q & S convenience store at 26th Street and Independence in Oklahoma City, Harmon got out of the car and walked to that store while Battle drove around the block. Shortly, she heard three gunshots and saw that Harmon had blood on his hands when he came running back to her. A frightened Battle abandoned the car and left. She would later enter a plea agreement agreeing to cooperate with the State and testify against Harmon. The store clerk was shot and died in the hospital from his injury. Harmon would ultimately be convicted by jury of first degree murder and sentenced to death. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his conviction and sentence on direct appeal and later denied two applications for post-conviction relief. Harmon then filed a petition for relief in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma under 28 U.S.C. 2254, which the district court denied. He appealed the district court’s denial of his petition to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district court's denial of federal habeas relief. View "Harmon v. Sharp" on Justia Law

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Beginning in 2009, Plaintiff Rajesh Singh worked as an untenured professor in the School of Library and Information Management (SLIM) at Emporia State University (ESU). He was informed in February 2014 that his annual contract would not be renewed. He sued ESU and various administrators in their individual capacities, asserting several retaliation and discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Kansas Act Against Discrimination (KAAD); and the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The district court granted summary judgment for Defendants on every claim except one: a First Amendment retaliation claim under section 1983 against Provost David Cordle. Provost Cordle appealed the denial of summary judgment on the ground that he was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court then certified as final under Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b) its order granting summary judgment on all other claims, and Plaintiff filed a cross-appeal, challenging the grant of summary judgment on Plaintiff’s claims: (1) ESU and the individual Defendants discriminated against him by not renewing his contract; and (2) ESU and the individual Defendants retaliated against him for filing discrimination complaints with ESU’s human resources department and the Kansas Human Rights Commission (KHRC). The Tenth Circuit found the claims against ESU were brought under Title VII and the KAAD, and the claims against the individual Defendants were brought under section 1983. The Court reversed the district court’s denial of summary judgment for Provost Cordle and affirmed grants of summary judgment on the remaining claims. Cordle was entitled to qualified immunity because he could have reasonably believed that the speech for which he allegedly punished Plaintiff was not on a matter of public concern. As for the discrimination claims, the district court properly granted summary judgment because Plaintiff did not establish a genuine issue of fact that ESU’s given reason for his nonrenewal, that he was noncollegial, was pretextual. “Although Plaintiff contends that these discrimination claims survive under the cat’s-paw theory of liability, he does not provide adequate evidence that the allegedly biased supervisor - his school’s dean - proximately caused the ultimate nonrenewal decision.” The Court affirmed summary judgment on Plaintiff’s retaliation claims because he failed to present adequate evidence that the ESU employees who allegedly retaliated against him knew that he had filed formal discrimination complaints. View "Singh v. Cordle" on Justia Law

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Defendant Markell Quashun Sweargin posted a sex video of the Victim after she attempted to no longer engage in prostitution; forced her to post provocative photos online; and beat her for refusing to have sex with a person who answered an advertisement on a prostitution-focused website. Defendant pleaded guilty to an Information charging him with knowingly transporting a person in interstate commerce from the State of Texas to the State of New Mexico with the intent that the person engage in prostitution in violation of New Mexico Statute 30-9-2 in violation of 18 U.S.C. 2421(a). In his presentence report, the probation officer recommended that the district court apply a four-level enhancement pursuant to Guideline 2G1.1(b)(1) because Defendant used fraud or coercion while promoting a commercial sex act. Defendant took issue with the meaning of “coercive” behavior in the context of United States Sentencing Guideline 2G1.1(b)(1). The Tenth Circuit was satisfied Defendant’s acts demonstrated he impressed his power over the Victim and the Victim knew she would face negative consequences for failing to succumb to Defendant’s pressure, therefore, Defendant did, in fact, coerce her. Accordingly, the Court affirmed sentence. View "United States v. Sweargin" on Justia Law