Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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Customs and Border Protection K-9 Officer Lopez was working at the airport in St. Thomas and took his certified canine, Bo, into a cargo plane to inspect incoming mail. Bo alerted to a package, indicating the presence of drugs. The package purportedly had been sent by Price, whose address was in South Carolina, and had been mailed to Meade in St. Thomas. Kouns removed it from the plane, opened the box and brought out a piece of clothing that smelled strongly of marijuana, although no drugs were found. When Kouns returned the item to the box, a magazine and round of ammunition fell to the floor. The officers discovered the unassembled parts of a gun. Days later, a postal inspector contacted Customs regarding another package, bearing the same names and addresses. Lopez and Kouns responded. Because of the addresses and the package's weight, Kouns suspected it might contain another gun. An x-ray revealed items an apparent gun and ammunition. Kouns opened the package and discovered a gun and ammunition. Homeland Security arranged a controlled delivery of the packages. Authorities apprehended Baxter as the sender of the packages; he was charged with two counts of illegal transport of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(5). The District Court of the Virgin Islands granted his motion to suppress. The Third Circuit vacated, holding that Customs permissibly conducted the searches pursuant to the border search exception to the Fourth Amendment. View "United States v. Baxter" on Justia Law

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Bruce was indicted for possession with intent to distribute 28 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine base, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B)(iii). Pursuant to 21 U.S.C. 851, the government filed an information alleging that Bruce had previously been convicted of two serious drug felonies and that he was subject to an enhanced sentence, including a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of 10 years. Bruce pleaded guilty and acknowledged that he was subject to the 10-year mandatory minimum. At sentencing, Bruce argued that the 10-year mandatory minimum was “disproportionately harsh,” was unsupported by “any legitimate scientific, medical or law enforcement justification,” and was the result of “racially motivated fears” that influenced policymaking, but acknowledged that the court was “bound by the statutory minimum” in imposing his sentence. The court “recognize[d]” Bruce’s objections, but stated that it had “no discretion” and sentenced him to ten years of imprisonment. The Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting an argument that 21 U.S.C. 851 violates the non-delegation doctrine and noting that Bruce did not argue this in the district court. The filing of a section 851 information is not a delegation of legislative power. View "United States v. Bruce" on Justia Law

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Hoffert, incarcerated since 2003, made requests for documents from various governmental entities after he began serving his sentence. Dissatisfied with the responses, Hoffert filed a pro se 42 U.S.C. 1983 complaint. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of that complaint. Hoffert then filed an administrative tort claim with the Torts Branch of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division, seeking $7,396,800,000 for his allegedly unlawful incarceration, which he claimed was “beyond the lawful Decrees of the Laws of Commerce and without use of a compact/contract/agreement between the Claimant and the U.S. Inc.’s subcorporation, PENNSYLVANIA.” The claim was rejected. Hoffert wrote a threatening letter to the director of the Torts Branch, then filed a “Claim of Commercial Lien Affidavit [and] Notice of Non-Judicial Proceeding” in the Office of the Recorder of Deeds, Erie County, Pennsylvania, naming five federal officials as lien debtors. Hoffert asked the U.S. Marshals Service to “begin collection/liquidation of all their movable assets” Hoffert was convicted five counts of filing or attempting to file a false lien or encumbrance against the real or personal property of an officer or employee of the federal government, 18 U.S.C. 1521 and was sentenced to 48 months to be served consecutive to his current sentence. The Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting challenges that section 1521 is unconstitutionally vague and an overbroad restriction of protected speech and to the sufficiency of the evidence. View "United States v. Hoffert" on Justia Law

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Ragbir, a green card holder from Trinidad and Tobago, was convicted of mortgage fraud in 2000. On his attorney’s advice, Ragbir agreed that the actual loss was $350,000-$500,000, believing that his convictions alone made him deportable. The Third Circuit affirmed Ragbir’s convictions and sentence. Ragbir never sought post-conviction relief. DHS commenced removal proceedings. Ragbir then learned that his stipulation to a loss of more than $10,000 made him deportable. Ragbir’s immigration counsel represented that an attorney would be hired to attempt to vacate the underlying convictions. Ragbir still did not pursue a collateral attack. The IJ ordered him removed; the BIA and Second Circuit upheld the decision. In the meantime, Ragbir married an American citizen and obtained an immigrant visa. The BIA denied a motion to reopen. DHS eventually elected not to renew its discretionary stay of removal. Ragbir then challenged his detention, asserting that his conviction should be overturned because jury instructions given at his trial were erroneous in light of later Supreme Court rulings and asserting ineffective assistance of counsel. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of the petition. Ragbir had the ability to bring all his claims at least six years before his 2012 petition for coram nobis. He provides no sound reason for his delay. View "Ragbir v. United States" on Justia Law

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Johnson and Wright were charged with murder. Before trial, Wright confessed to his involvement in the crime and identified Johnson as the shooter. The prosecution introduced Wright’s confession at trial, substituting Johnson’s name with “the other guy” in an attempt to avoid a Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause violation. Johnson’s identity as the “other guy” was explicitly revealed at the trial's beginning and end. The court instructed the jury to ignore Wright’s confession when considering Johnson’s culpability, but a question from the jury indicated that they were having great difficulty doing so. Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder. The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that there was no violation of the Supreme Court’s “Bruton” holding; the substitution of “other guy,” plus the jury instructions were adequate to protect Johnson’s rights under Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent. A federal district court concluded that a Bruton violation had occurred but was harmless. The Third Circuit reversed. In these circumstances. courts cannot rely on a juror’s ability to put such inculpatory statements out of their minds; the statement’s admission violates the non-confessing co-defendant’s rights under the Confrontation Clause and requires a new trial if he has been prejudiced by such damaging evidence. The court noted that the jury, faced with a lack of overwhelming inculpatory evidence against Johnson, and significant credibility issues with the prosecution’s key witnesses, struggled for six days to reach a verdict. View "Johnson v. Superintendent Fayette SCI" on Justia Law

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Philadelphia enacted an ordinance to address the disparity in the pay of women and minorities: the “Inquiry Provision” prohibits an employer from asking about a prospective employee’s wage history and the “Reliance Provision” prohibits an employer from relying on wage history in setting or negotiating a prospective employee’s wage. The Chamber of Commerce filed suit, alleging that both provisions infringed on the freedom of speech of the Chamber and its members. The Chamber concedes that the pay gap exists and that the city has a substantial governmental interest in addressing it but argues that the city passed the Ordinance “with only the barest of legislative records” and did not present sufficient evidence to establish that the Ordinance would satisfy the city’s objective.. The district court agreed that the Inquiry Provision violated the First Amendment speech rights of employers and invalidated it but concluded that the Reliance Provision did not impact speech. The Third Circuit reversed in part. The district court’s analysis applied a much higher standard than required. The Supreme Court has not demanded legislative certainty or empirical proof that legislation would achieve the stated interest even when applying strict scrutiny. Courts need only determine whether the legislature “has drawn reasonable inferences based on substantial evidence.” The Supreme Court has even “permitted litigants to justify [analogous] speech restrictions by reference to studies and anecdotes pertaining to different locales altogether, or even, in a case applying strict scrutiny, to justify restrictions based solely on history, consensus, and ‘simple common sense.’” View "Greater Philadelphia Chamber Commerce v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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In 2002, Holloway was convicted of a DUI at the highest blood alcohol content (BAC). The charge was dismissed upon his completion of an accelerated rehabilitation program. In 2005, Holloway was again arrested for DUI and registered a BAC of 0.192%. Holloway pled guilty to violating 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. 3802(c) for driving under the influence at the highest BAC (greater than 0.16%). He received a sentence of 60 months’ “Intermediate Punishment,” including 90-days’ imprisonment that allowed him work-release. In 2016, Holloway sought to purchase a firearm but was unable to do so because of his disqualifying DUI conviction, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). Holloway sought a declaration that section 922(g)(1) is unconstitutional as applied to him. The district court granted Holloway summary judgment and entered a permanent injunction barring the government from enforcing section 922(g)(1) against him. The Third Circuit reversed. Pennsylvania’s DUI law, which makes a DUI at the highest BAC a first-degree misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment, constitutes a serious crime that requires disarmament. The prohibition does not violate Holloway’s Second Amendment rights. View "Holloway v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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ABC stores its subscribers’ data on the cloud. ABC received a grand jury subpoena issued under 18 U.S.C. 2703(c)(2), ordering it to produce the non-content data of one of its subscribers, as part of a criminal investigation. The subpoena was accompanied by a nondisclosure order (NDO), prohibiting ABC from notifying any person, except its lawyers, of the existence of the subpoena for one year. Weeks later, a magistrate issued a search warrant directing ABC to produce content-specific data for the same account, with another NDO. ABC complied. The subscriber filed for bankruptcy. ABC moved to modify the NDOs to permit it to notify the bankruptcy trustee of the existence of the subpoena and warrant, arguing that the NDOs are content-based restrictions and prior restraints that infringe upon its First Amendment rights. ABC asserted the bankruptcy trustee had a duty to uncover and assert causes of action against the debtor’s officers and directors. The district court found that 18 U.S.C. 2705(b) implicates the First Amendment rights of service providers and that such an NDO passes strict scrutiny. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of ABC’s motion to amend the NDOs. The governmental interest in maintaining grand jury secrecy is sufficiently strong for the NDOs to withstand strict scrutiny; the restriction is the least restrictive means of serving that interest and is narrowly tailored, being limited to one year. View "In The Matter of the Application of Subpoena 2018R00776" on Justia Law

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Millennium provides laboratory-based diagnostic services. In 2014, it entered into a $1.825 billion credit agreement with several lenders, including Voya. Millennium refinanced existing financial obligations and paid a $1.3 billion special shareholders dividend. The U.S. Department of Justice, which had been investigating since 2012, then filed a False Claims Act complaint; Millennium’s Medicare billing privileges were revoked. Millennium agreed to pay the government entities $256 million to settle. Millennium lacked adequate liquidity to pay both its debt and the settlement and began working with the lenders, including Voya, to restructure its obligations. The lenders suggested that there were potential claims based on Millenium's lack of disclosure regarding the government’s investigation. Millennium, its equity holders, and the lenders, except Voya, entered into an agreement that required Millennium’s equity holders to transfer their equity interests to the lenders, including Voya. The equity holders were to “receive full releases.” Millennium filed a petition for bankruptcy with a “Prepackaged Joint Plan of Reorganization” that contained broad releases that would bind even non-consenting lenders. Voya objected, stating that it intended to assert claims for material misrepresentations in connection with the 2014 credit agreement against Millennium and Millennium’s equity holders and that the Bankruptcy Court lacked authority to approve the releases. The Bankruptcy Court overruled Voya’s objections and confirmed the plan. Voya filed suit, asserting RICO and other claims. The district court affirmed the Bankruptcy Court’s ruling on constitutional authority. The Third Circuit affirmed. On these facts, the Bankruptcy Court can, without running afoul of Article III of the Constitution, confirm a Chapter 11 reorganization plan containing nonconsensual third-party releases and injunctions. The releases and injunctions were “integral to the restructuring of the debtor-creditor relationship.” View "In re: Millennium Lab Holdings II LLC" on Justia Law

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In October 2013, Jones was on a Pennsylvania prison bus, traveling to his post-conviction hearing. Jones talked with a fellow inmate. The driver “threaten[ed]” both men, then switched Jones’s property box with that of the other inmate. The box held Jones’s legal papers for the hearing. Weeks later, Jones was waiting for another prison bus. The same driver yanked him out of line, put him in the segregation cage, and berated him. Jones told other inmates to get the names of the transportation crew; they took off their name tags. The stress of this incident exacerbated his mental ailments. He had a nervous breakdown and stayed two days in the medical annex. Days later, Jones filed a grievance. For 10 months, he refiled, appealed, and sent follow-up letters. In September 2014, he was released, but the prison had not decided his grievance. Just under two years after his release, Jones filed a pro se 42 U.S.C. 1983 complaint. On remand, a magistrate recommended dismissing his claim as time-barred. She acknowledged that the limitations period is tolled for a prisoner who exhausts his administrative remedies before suing but reasoned that the rule does not apply to former prisoners who sue after their release. The Third Circuit vacated. A prisoner must exhaust the prison’s internal administrative remedies, whether he sues from prison or sues after his release. Jones’s claim for injunctive relief against the driver were moot but Jones may seek monetary relief against the remaining defendants. View "Jones v. Capozza" on Justia Law