Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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On March 3, 2018, a man called 911 to report that he witnessed two men in a Honda shoot at another car. The caller followed the Honda and dialed 911 within “two to three minutes” of observing the gunfire. During the approximately thirteen-minute 911 call, the caller discussed the shooting, his continuing observations of the Honda and its occupants, and his safety, often in response to the 911 operator’s questions. Shortly thereafter, responding police officer Levi Braun (“Officer Braun”) located a Honda matching the caller’s description. With Officer Braun in pursuit, the Honda slowed down and Defendant Daniel Lovato jumped out of the passenger’s side of the moving car. Officer Braun stopped to detain Defendant, who volunteered that he had a gun on him. Officer Braun then retrieved a .22 caliber pistol from Defendant’s waistband, along with thirty-two rounds of .22 caliber ammunition from Defendant’s left front pants pocket. At the time of this incident, Defendant had prior felony convictions. The government ultimately charged Defendant with three counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm or ammunition: one each for possessing the .22 caliber pistol, thirty-two rounds of .22 caliber ammunition, and canister full of additional ammunition. At trial, Defendant objected to the admission of the 911 call on hearsay grounds. The district court overruled the objection and admitted the 911 call into evidence under the present sense impression exception to the rule against hearsay. A jury convicted Defendant as charged, and the district court sentenced Defendant to 100 months’ imprisonment followed by three years of supervised release. On appeal, Defendant alleged the district court abused its discretion in admitting the 911 call. Finding no reversible error as to Defendant's conviction, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. The Court vacated a special condition and remanded on that issue for further proceedings. View "United States v. Lovato" on Justia Law

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After committing crimes when he was seventeen years old, defendant Atorrus Rainer was convicted of two counts of attempted first-degree murder, two counts of first-degree assault, one count of first-degree burglary, and one count of aggravated robbery. For these crimes, the district court sentenced Mr. Rainer to 224 years in prison. On direct appeal, the convictions were affirmed. But the Colorado Court of Appeals ordered modification of the sentences, concluding that the prison terms for attempted first-degree murder and first-degree assault should have run concurrently, rather than consecutively, because the crimes could have been based on identical evidence. The Colorado Court of Appeals thus modified Mr. Rainer’s sentences to run for 112 years. After the direct appeal, the Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), that the Eighth Amendment prohibited life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide crimes. Under Graham, these juveniles were entitled to a meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. Defendant sought habeas relief, claiming the State of Colorado deprived him of this opportunity by imposing the 112-year sentence for the crimes he committed as a juvenile. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the State provided defendant with the required opportunity through the combination of the Juveniles convicted as Adults Program, and the general parole program. View "Rainer v. Hansen" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Michael Bacon appealed a district court’s decision to keep the supplement to his plea agreement filed under seal. In 2015, Bacon pleaded guilty to two counts of bank robbery and one count of robbing a credit union, pursuant to a written plea agreement. At his combined plea and sentencing hearing, the district court asked Bacon if he had signed the documents relating to his plea agreement. After responding that he had not, Bacon’s counsel explained that Bacon was “concerned about the [plea] supplement” and asked “for permission to file the plea agreement without the [plea] supplement. The district court responded that under Utah local rules, supplements were sealed in every case, “and we do that to protect the rare person who does cooperate.” Plea supplements describe the nature of the defendant’s cooperation with the government or lack thereof. Bacon ultimately refused to sign his plea supplement, explaining to the court that “[w]hen you go off to prison and you’ve got something sealed inside your paperwork and the yard gets the paperwork and they see you’ve got a sealed document, they think you cooperated, and they want to hurt you.” His counsel signed it on his behalf. At Bacon’s resentencing, the parties did not dispute that Bacon’s supervised release term should have been reduced to 36 months, however, a dispute emerged over the sealed plea supplement. Bacon addressed the court himself, regarding the sealed plea supplement, stating, “If I don’t wan’t [sic] to place my life in jeopardy, I don’t see how the federal government can force me to do that.” Bacon contended the district court erred by failing to consider the common law right of access to court documents and by failing to make case-specific findings regarding sealing on the record. The Tenth Circuit determined defendant was challenging the district court’s decision to keep a specific document under seal, not its authority to enact a local rule. “A presumption of openness must be overcome for a judicial record to remain under seal. The record demonstrates that the district court did not consider this presumption of access to judicial records.” Because the Court determined the district court failed to articulate a case-specific reason for its sealing decision, its decision was vacated and the matter remanded. View "United States v. Bacon" on Justia Law

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Defendant Bruce Bradley appealed a federal district court’s order denying his motion to dismiss a suit brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 based on qualified immunity. Plaintiff Susan Ullery alleged Defendant violated, among other things, her Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by using excessive force against her in the form of sexual assault and abuse. Plaintiff was a former inmate at the Denver Women’s Correctional Center, which was a prison in the Colorado state prison system. Between early 2014 and April 2016, Plaintiff worked in the canteen services at the prison under the direction of Defendant, a corrections officer and supervisor of inmates who worked in the department. During this time, Defendant sexually harassed, abused, and assaulted Plaintiff. On appeal, Defendant did not challenge the district court’s determination that he violated a constitutional right. Rather, Defendant argued he was entitled to qualified immunity even if he violated the Constitution because Plaintiff’s asserted Eighth Amendment right to be free from sexual abuse was not clearly established at the time of the alleged violations. After review of the district court record, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court erred to the extent it held the contours of the asserted constitutional right were clearly established before August 11, 2015. But the Court further concluded any reasonable corrections officer in Defendant’s position since August 11, 2015, would have known the alleged conduct violated the Eighth Amendment based upon the clearly established weight of persuasive authority. “Because any actionable constitutional violations in this case would necessarily have occurred after this date, the law was clearly established for all relevant purposes; the district court therefore correctly denied Defendant qualified immunity.” View "Ullery v. Bradley" on Justia Law

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Defendant Donald Blackbird attempted to sexually abuse his fifteen-year-old granddaughter. He pleaded guilty to the offense, and the district court sentenced him to sixty months’ imprisonment. At sentencing, the district court applied a sentence enhancement, which increased his base offense level because “the minor was in the custody, care, or supervisory control of the defendant” at the time of the attempted sexual abuse. Defendant appealed, arguing the government presented no evidence he had custody, care, or supervisory control of his granddaughter at the time of the attempted abuse. The Tenth Circuit concurred with this reasoning, finding that because the government failed to show that Defendant exercised “custody, care, or supervisory control” over the victim, it vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Blackbird" on Justia Law

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Defendant Rodolfo Gonzalez-Fierro, a Mexican citizen, challenged his conviction for unlawfully re-entering the United States after a prior removal. That conviction was based in part on Gonzalez-Fierro’s prior expedited removal from the United States in 2009. Due process required that, before the United States can use a defendant’s prior removal to prove a 8 U.S.C. 1326(a) charge, “there must be some meaningful review” of the prior administrative removal proceeding. In light of that, Congress provided a mechanism in section 1326(d), for a defendant charged with a section 1326(a) offense to challenge the fundamental fairness of his prior unreviewed removal. But, pursuant to 8 U.S.C. 1225(b)(1)(D), the section 1326(d) mechanism applied only to prior formal removal orders, and not to prior expedited removal orders like Gonzalez-Fierro’s. "Expedited removals apply to undocumented aliens apprehended at or near the border soon after unlawfully entering the United States. Different from formal removals, expedited removals are streamlined - generally there is no hearing, no administrative appeal, and no judicial review before an expedited removal order is executed." Applying the Supreme Court’s reasoning in United States v. Mendoza-Lopez, 481 U.S. 828 (1987), the Tenth Circuit concluded section 1225(b)(1)(D) was unconstitutional because it deprives a defendant like Gonzalez-Fierro of due process. Without section 1225(b)(1)(D), the Court reviewed Gonzalez-Fierro's 2009 expedited removal order, and concluded he failed to establish that removal was fundamentally unfair. On that basis, the Court affirmed Gonzalez-Fierro's section 1326(a) conviction. View "United States v. Gonzalez-Fierro" on Justia Law

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This case arose out of a fraudulent business scheme involving the sale of the “Scrubbieglove” cleaning product. Defendant Pasquale Rubbo and other co-conspirators lied to investors to solicit money, ultimately defrauding them of more than six million dollars. The conspirators lured potential investors to the “Scrubbieglove” by lying about high returns on investment, potential and ongoing business deals, and how they would use and invest funds. They also misrepresented the Scrubbieglove’s production demand, telling told investors that the Scrubbieglove required substantial financing because of deals with QVC, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and other major retailers. In reality, beyond producing a few samples, the conspirators never manufactured any Scrubbiegloves. Instead, the conspirators transferred investor funds to their own personal bank accounts. Defendant’s primary role in the scheme involved intimidating and threatening investors to ensure their silence. Defendant pleaded guilty to two fraud-related charges, and was sentenced to 106 months’ imprisonment. He appealed his sentence, alleging the government breached the Plea Agreement. Finding no breach, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Defendant’s sentence. View "United States v. Rubbo" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Brian Tony was convicted of first-degree murder for the fatal stabbing of Pat Garcia during a fight. Before trial, Tony sought to introduce evidence that Garcia had used methamphetamine before the fight. The district court excluded the evidence, and Tony argued that the evidence should have been allowed into evidence. The Tenth Circuit determined the district court excluded the evidence for a reason unsupported by the record. Thus, it reversed and remanded for a new trial. View "United States v. Tony" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Mark Berg entered a conditional guilty plea to one count of possession of 100 kilograms or more of marijuana with intent to distribute. Berg appealed his conviction, claiming the district court erred by refusing to suppress evidence seized after a traffic stop. Specifically, Berg argued law enforcement lacked the reasonable suspicion of criminal activity necessary to detain him after the initial stop ended. Taking the totality of the circumstances, including facts indicating Berg was traveling in tandem with two escort vehicles and Berg’s rental car was packed in a manner inconsistent with his assertion he was moving his possessions from one state to another, the Tenth Circuit concluded law enforcement had reasonable suspicion, thus affirming denial of Berg's motion suppress. View "United States v. Berg" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Adam Sadlowski entered a conditional plea of guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, reserving the right to appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress. He was sentenced to 51 months' imprisonment and three years' supervised release. On appeal, he argued the district court erred because: (1) the state metropolitan court lacked jurisdiction to issue a felony-related search warrant; (2) the warrant’s issuance violated Rules 4.1 and 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure; (3) the warrant was deficient for lack of probable cause and particularity; and (4) he was entitled to a Franks hearing. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "United States v. Sadlowski" on Justia Law