Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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Tommy Peña was convicted in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico of conspiracy to commit a carjacking, carjacking and aiding and abetting, using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, and four counts of felon in possession of a firearm and/or ammunition. For these convictions, defendant was initially sentenced to 480 months. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015), defendant no longer qualified for a sentence enhancement under 18 U.S.C. 924(e). At resentencing, the district court imposed a 360-month sentence, varying upward from the guidelines. Defendant appealed, arguing the sentence was procedurally and substantively unreasonable. Although the Tenth Circuit found the variance from the guidelines here was indeed large, the district provided compelling reasons for the upward variance, and thereby maintained the connection between defendant's conduct and the sentence imposed. Given that detailed explanation, the Court determined defendant could not meet his burden of showing the sentence was arbitrary, whimsical or substantively unreasonable. View "United States v. Pena" on Justia Law

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While in pretrial detention at the Rio Grande County Jail (RGCJ), Gordon Sawyers’s delusional behavior deteriorated to the point that he removed his right eyeball from its socket. He sued the sheriff in his individual and official capacities under 42 U.S.C 1983 for a deliberate indifference Fourteenth Amendment violation, and under state law for negligence. He also sued three on-duty officers for state law negligence. The district court granted in part and denied in part Defendants' summary judgment motion. Defendants appealed. The Tenth Circuit, after its review, affirmed the denial of the three officers' motion for summary judgment asserting qualified immunity to Sawyers' 1983 claim. The Court concluded it lacked jurisdiction on interlocutory review to address their factual challenges to the trial court's conclusion that a jury could find a constitutional violation. Further, due to what the Court characterized as "inadequate briefing," it determined defendants waived an argument about clearly established law. The Court affirmed the denial of sovereign immunity to Rio Grande County on the state law negligence claim because the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act waived immunity resulting from the operation of a jail. View "Sawyers v. Norton" on Justia Law

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Defendant Abel Cristerna-Gonzalez was convicted by jury on one count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and one count of possession with intent to distribute heroin. On appeal, he argued three evidentiary errors occurred at trial: (1) two law-enforcement witnesses gave expert testimony without being admitted as experts; (2) the government made an impermissible propensity argument in violation of Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b); and (3) the district court allowed irrelevant and prejudicial testimony about the Sinaloa cartel. The Tenth Circuit found defendant did not raise the first two issues at trial, and that there was no plain error. Although the Court agreed with Defendant that Sinaloa-cartel evidence was inadmissible, the error was harmless. View "United States v. Cristerna-Gonzalez" on Justia Law

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"A series of coincidences and mistaken beliefs led to the arrest of Laramie Hinkle for possessing a stolen trailer that was not even stolen. And things got worse from there." After investigation showed Hinkle innocent, he sued, alleging as unlawful his arrest, the press release, and the body-cavity strip search by the sheriff's office that arrested him. While the Tenth Circuit sympathized with Hinkle, it found the deputy sheriff had probable cause for the arrest, that the deputy arrested Hinkle based on that probable cause, and that the district court did not err in dismissing Hinkle’s claim that the sheriff issued the press release to retaliate against Hinkle. That said, the Court concluded the body-cavity strip search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. And because this unlawful search was based on the County’s indiscriminate strip-search policy, the Court held the Beckham County, Oklahoma was directly liable. View "Hinkle v. Beckham County Board of County" on Justia Law

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Defendant Shane Young appeals the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress a confession. A sheriff's deputy witnessed Young's vehicle swerving on the roadway, and signaled for Young to stop his car. Young continued to drive, ultimately pulling into a nearby residential property, stopping his car, and fleeing on foot. The deputy pursued, tasing and arresting Young. After the arrest, the deputy retraced Young’s path and found a small case containing about four grams of a substance containing methamphetamine. Officers later found a black bag containing about 93 grams of a mixture or substance containing methamphetamine near where Young previously stopped his car. The deputy arrested and interviewed Young; Young admitted to possessing the smaller quantity of methamphetamine but denied that the larger quantity was his. Days later, while still held in the county jail, Young was interrogated by a Federal Bureau of Investigations Special Agent. The agent told Young he tried to help people in trouble, and would do his best to try and help. The agent then told Young he had met with the prosecutor about Young’s arrest. He said the prosecutor had met with the judge. The agent reiterated that Young needed to trust him, and he asked Young about the bag with the larger quantity of drugs in it, suggesting that Young could explain that he threw the bags in different directions as he ran from the car. In response, Young wondered aloud whether he should have a lawyer present. Following the agent's earlier suggestion, Young admitted that after he exited his vehicle, he lost his grip on the containers of methamphetamine, and they flew in different directions as he was running away. He also provided information about the source of the methamphetamine and about his drug-dealing activities. After his confession, Young was charged with possession with intent to distribute approximately 97 grams of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine. Although the court found the agent made false representations and improper promises of leniency that were “coercive in nature under the circumstances,” it ultimately concluded Young’s confession was not involuntary and denied his motion to suppress. Young pled guilty and was sentenced to 188 months’ imprisonment and five years’ supervised release. Under the totality of the circumstances, the Tenth Circuit concluded Young’s capacity for self-determination was critically impaired, rendering his confession involuntary. Judgment was vacated and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Young" on Justia Law

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In separate claims, appellees Willie Carr and Kim Minor sought disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). In each case, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) denied the claim, and the agency’s Appeals Council declined to review. While his case was pending in district court, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) ALJs were “inferior officers” under the Appointments Clause, and therefore must be appointed by the President, a court, or head of the agency. Shortly thereafter, Minor also sued in district court to challenge the denial of benefits in her case. In response to the Supreme Court case, Lucia v. S.E.C., 138 S. Ct. 2044 (2018), the SSA Commissioner appointed the SSA's ALJs to address any Appointments Clause questions Lucia posed. After the Commissioner’s action, Carr and Minor each filed a supplemental brief, asserting for the first time that the ALJs who had rejected their claims had not been properly appointed under the Appointments Clause. The district court upheld the ALJs’ denials of the claims, but it agreed with the Appointments Clause challenges. The court vacated the SSA decisions and remanded for new hearings before constitutionally appointed ALJs. It held that appellees did not waive their Appointments Clause challenges by failing to raise them in their SSA proceedings. On appeal, the Commissioner argued Appellees waived their Appointments Clause challenges by failing to exhaust them before the SSA. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the Commissioner and reversed. View "Carr v. Commissioner, SSA" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Randy Hamett was convicted of kidnapping, possession of a stolen firearm, and possession of firearms while subject to a domestic violence protective order. Hamett was represented by counsel throughout much of his jury trial. Near the end of the government’s case-in-chief, however, Hamett requested a sealed ex parte hearing, where he discussed with the court, with his counsel present, the possibility of representing himself. At this hearing, despite stating that he “ha[d] two great attorneys,” but Hamett asked the district court if he could “talk to another attorney . . . that might be able to answer just some legal [] questions.” The court declined this request, giving Hammett two options: to continue with his appointed counsel, or to proceed pro se. Hamett stated that he did not want to represent himself, and the trial resumed. At the conclusion of the government’s case-in-chief, Hamett requested another sealed ex parte hearing with his attorneys and the court. At this hearing, Hamett asked the court various questions regarding post-conviction relief and his right to appeal. He then told the court that he would like to take over his own representation in order to recall various witnesses to demonstrate “untruths.” Hamett acknowledged he did not know the elements of the crimes of which he was charged, nor had he read the jury instructions. At the conclusion of its colloquy, the district court allowed Hamett to proceed pro se, “based upon [Hamett's] knowledge of the facts in wanting to ask questions that counsel have not asked for their own strategic reasons.” Trial resumed with the assistance of standby counsel. Hamett recalled various witnesses and made his own closing argument. The jury convicted Hamett on all three counts. Hamett was appointed new counsel to represent him at sentencing. The Tenth Circuit reversed conviction, "considering the rigorous restrictions on the information that must be conveyed to a defendant before permitting him to waive counsel at trial," the Court found the district court’s warnings did not adequately ensure Hamett was aware of the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation. Furthermore, the Court held there were no case-specific factors permitting it to conclude that, despite the inadequate warnings, the district court nevertheless correctly determined that Hamett’s waiver of his right to counsel was knowing and intelligent when it was made. Accordingly, the Court concluded the district court erred in finding Hamett knowingly and intelligently waived his right to counsel. View "United States v. Hamett" on Justia Law

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In 2016, Defendant-Appellant Timothy Merritt crashed into a vehicle containing a family of three while driving within the borders of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. Merritt was intoxicated at the time of the accident and had been driving in the wrong lane. Cecil Vijil, a passenger in the other vehicle, died by the time the ambulance arrived. Cecil’s wife Sallie Vijil, also a passenger, was seriously injured. Their son Creighton, who was driving, suffered minor injuries. The government charged Merritt with second-degree murder for the death of Cecil Vijil, and assault resulting in serious bodily injury for the injuries sustained by Sallie Vijil. At trial, the government introduced evidence of three other drunk-driving incidents involving Merritt. The jury convicted Merritt on both counts. Merritt appealed the murder conviction, arguing that the district court should not have allowed testimony about the facts and circumstances of 2012 and 2014 incidents, and that no evidence concerning the 2016 arrest should have been admitted. Determining that it was within the district court's discretion to admit the facts and circumstances of Merritt's 2012 and 2014 drunk driving arrests, and that any error in admitting the 2016 incident was harmless, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Merritt's convictions. View "United States v. Merritt" on Justia Law

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The federal government twice charged Scott Arterbury with the same crime for the same possession of child pornography. In the original prosecution, the district court suppressed the child-pornography evidence seized from Arterbury’s personal computer. The government appealed the suppression order but withdrew its appeal without filing a brief. Once back in district court, the government obtained an order dismissing the case without prejudice. Eight months later, in a case involving a defendant in a different state, the Tenth Circuit reversed an order suppressing child-pornography evidence obtained in reliance on the same FBI search warrant as at issue in Arterbury’s case. The government re-indicted Arterbury on the original child-pornography charge. Arterbury argued that the court was bound by collateral estoppel to enforce its earlier order suppressing the evidence. But the district court disagreed and later denied the motion to suppress on the merits. After review, the Tenth Circuit concluded the district court erred in its analysis of criminal collateral estoppel, and vacated the order denying Arterbury’s motion to enforce the original suppression order. The matter was remanded for the district court to enforce its earlier suppression order. View "United States v. Arterbury" on Justia Law

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The district court granted Defendant-Appellee Julian Trujillo Morales’s motion to suppress 4.11 kilograms of methamphetamine. Thirty-two minutes after he was stopped for a traffic violation, Morales and his passenger consented to an officer’s search of the car that yielded the methamphetamine. During the first 10 minutes after the stop, the officer questioned Morales and developed reasonable suspicion of drug trafficking. He next questioned Morales’s passenger for seven minutes and then called the El Paso Intelligence Center (“EPIC”), a national law enforcement database, which took another 15 minutes. The district court said that the officer’s actions were reasonable up to the EPIC call, but the EPIC call unreasonably prolonged the detention. The Government appealed. The Tenth Circuit reversed, finding the district court erred in granting the motion to suppress. View "United States v. Morales" on Justia Law