Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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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

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Lawrence Herring appealed the denial by the district court of his motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. 2255. In 2016, Herring pled guilty to one count of possession of child pornography pursuant to a plea agreement, which included a waiver of many of Herring’s appeal rights, except for his ability to appeal claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. In exchange for Herring’s guilty plea, the government agreed to recommend at sentencing a term of incarceration at the low end of the Sentencing Guideline range, which was 78-97 months. The district court sentenced Herring to sixty months’ imprisonment. At the sentencing hearing, the district court advised Judgment was entered in Herring’s case on May 5, 2016. That same day, Herring met with his trial counsel. In his section 2255 motion, Herring alleged that he told his attorney “specifically that he wanted to appeal his case,” although he conceded he did not explicitly command his attorney to file a notice of appeal. According to the motion, in response, Herring’s attorney said that “he did not do appellate work and that he would not be able to do it. . . . [Herring’s trial counsel] flatly stated [that Herring] had waived [his] right to appeal in the plea agreement and offered no further options other than to contact another attorney.” Furthermore, Herring alleged that his attorney never told him that “there was no merit to appealing his case” nor offered any other “advice regarding appealing” besides referring Herring to other attorneys. The Tenth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability to determine whether the district court erred in denying, without a hearing, Herring's claim that his trial counsel's failure to consult with him about an appeal constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court abused its discretion under 28 U.S.C. 2255(b) by failing to hold an evidentiary hearing to resolve Herring’s section 2255 motion because the record did not “conclusively show” that Herring was entitled to no relief. View "United States v. Herring" on Justia Law

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Roderick Smith was sentenced to death by an Oklahoma state jury for the 1993 murders of his wife and four stepchildren. In the pendency of his case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), prohibiting the execution of the intellectually disabled. Smith filed a successor application in state court for postconviction relief pursuant to Atkins, and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (“OCCA”) remanded the case to the Oklahoma County District Court for a jury trial to determine whether Smith was intellectually disabled. At the subsequent jury trial in 2004 (the “Atkins trial”), the jury found Smith was not intellectually disabled and allowed his execution to move forward. But the Tenth Circuit then granted relief on Smith’s previously filed habeas corpus petition in Smith v. Mullin, 379 F.3d 919 (10th Cir. 2004), entitling him to resentencing. A jury found Smith competent to stand trial in 2009, and he was resentenced to death in 2010. Smith again sought federal habeas relief. The district court denied relief in an unpublished opinion. On appeal again to the Tenth Circuit, Smith argued multiple violations of his constitutional rights following the Atkins resentencing trials. With respect to the district court’s denial of habeas relief on Smith’s Atkins challenge to the constitutionality of his execution, the Tenth Circuit granted relief and did not address Smith’s remaining claims concerning his Atkins proceeding. The Court otherwise affirmed the district court’s denial of Smith’s 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The case was remanded with instructions to grant a conditional writ vacating Smith’s death sentence and remanding to the State for a new penalty-phase proceeding. View "Smith v. Sharp" on Justia Law

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Micheal Baca, Polly Baca, and Robert Nemanich (collectively, the Presidential Electors) were appointed as three of Colorado’s nine presidential electors for the 2016 general election. Colorado law required the state’s presidential electors to cast their votes for the winner of the popular vote in the state for President and Vice President. Although Colorado law required the Presidential Electors to cast their votes for Hillary Clinton, Mr. Baca cast his vote for John Kasich. In response, Colorado’s Secretary of State removed Mr. Baca as an elector and discarded his vote. The state then replaced Mr. Baca with an elector who cast her vote for Hillary Clinton. After witnessing Baca’s removal from office, Ms. Baca and Mr. Nemanich voted for Hillary Clinton despite their desire to vote for John Kasich. After the vote, the Presidential Electors sued the Colorado Department of State (the Department), alleging a violation of 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Department moved to dismiss the complaint. The district court granted the motion, concluding the Presidential Electors lacked standing, and, in the alternative, the Presidential Electors had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Tenth Circuit concluded Mr. Baca had standing to challenge his removal from office and cancellation of his vote, but that none of the Presidential Electors had standing to challenge the institutional injury: a general diminution of their power as electors. Therefore, the Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Ms. Baca’s and Mr. Nemanich’s claims but reversed the district court’s standing determination as to Mr. Baca. On the merits of Mr. Baca’s claim, the Court concluded the state’s removal of Mr. Baca and nullification of his vote were unconstitutional. As a result, Mr. Baca stated a claim upon which relief could be granted, and we reversed dismissal of his claim under rule 12(b)(6). The matter was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Baca v. Colorado Department of State" on Justia Law

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In 2011, Elliott Williams was jailed at the Tulsa Oklahoma County Jail. Shortly after his booking, he severely injured his neck, causing lower body paralysis. No one treated his injury. Despite his frequent complaints of pain and paralysis, no one transported him to a hospital. He remained immobile for five days, lying on his back in various cells at the jail, and died of complications from the neck injury. The administrator of Mr. Williams’s estate, Robbie Emery Burke, filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging detention officers and medical providers at the jail violated Mr. Williams’s Fourteenth Amendment right by acting with deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. It further alleged Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz was liable in his individual supervisory capacity and in his official capacity for his subordinates’ violations. During pretrial litigation, Sheriff Glanz resigned and his successor, Sheriff Vic Regalado, was substituted as the defendant on the official-capacity claim. By the time of trial, Sheriffs Glanz and Regalado (“the Sheriffs”) were the only defendants remaining. A jury awarded Burke $10 million in compensatory damages against Sheriff Glanz and Sheriff Regalado and $250,000 in punitive damages against Sheriff Glanz in his individual supervisory capacity. On appeal, the Sheriffs challenged the verdict, various evidentiary rulings, and several pre- and post-trial decisions of the district court. After careful consideration of all issues raised, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court on all grounds except for its denial of the Sheriffs’ motion for a setoff. The Court reversed and remanded for further consideration of that issue. View "Burke v. Regalado" on Justia Law

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A citizen initiative passed by Colorado voters in 2016 (“Amendment 71”) made it more difficult to amend the Colorado constitution through the initiative process. Plaintiffs filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 challenging the constitutionality of Amendment 71, asserting it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Defendant, the Colorado Secretary of State, moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. The United States District Court for the District of Colorado entered judgment in favor of Plaintiffs, ruling that article V, section 1(2.5) of the Colorado constitution violated the “one person, one vote” principle inherent in the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the number of registered voters was not substantially the same in each state senate district. Because the district court not only denied Defendant’s motion to dismiss but also entered a final judgment in favor of Plaintiffs, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1291 and reversed entry of judgment in favor of Plaintiffs and ordered the district court to grant judgment in favor of Defendant. View "Semple v. Griswold" on Justia Law