Justia U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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The Ninth Circuit vacated convictions related to defendant's guilty plea on the ground that she was constructively denied her right to counsel when the district court denied her motions to substitute counsel without conducting an adequate inquiry. In this case, defendant did everything in her power to alert the district court to her belief that she was receiving inadequate assistance of counsel; the record reflected serious breakdowns in communicaiton and trust; defendant filed her motions promptly; and even if her motions could be considered untimely; the district court's failure to conduct an adequate inquiry and the extent of the conflict outweigh any untimeliness. The Ninth Circuit concluded that there was a substantial risk that defendant agreed that she was satisfied with her attorney's performance because the magistrate judge pressured her to accept the plea and she knew that she had to make that statement to enter the plea. View "United States v. Velazquez" on Justia Law
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Sarah Weeden was convicted in California state court of felony murder and sentenced to twenty-nine years to life in prison for her role in a bungled robbery that occurred when she was fourteen. She was not present at the scene of the crime; the prosecution’s case rested on evidence of her role in planning and facilitating the robbery. Weeden’s defense at trial consisted entirely of four character witnesses. Trial counsel did not seek an evaluation by a psychologist or present expert testimony about the effect of Weeden’s youth on her mental state. In post-trial proceedings, counsel claimed that he did not obtain an evaluation because the result might not support his defense strategy. In her habeas corpus petition, Weeden claimed that her trial counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel. The state courts rejected this claim, finding that counsel’s refusal to investigate psychological testimony was a reasonable strategic decision. The district court denied habeas relief; the Ninth Circuit reversed. The Court concluded that had an expert's testimony been presented to the jury, "the probability of a different result is 'sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.'" View "Weeden v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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A jury convicted Donald “Ski” Johnson of wire fraud. The district court sentenced Johnson to five years’ probation and ordered Johnson to pay $5,648.58 in restitution. On appeal, the government argued the district court erred by considering only Johnson’s fraudulent conduct that occurred in Montana (the count of conviction) when determining restitution, and thus misinterpreted the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act (“MVRA”). After review, the Ninth Circuit agreed, vacated the district court’s restitution order and remanded for determination of whether Johnson’s conduct outside of Montana was related to his scheme to defraud. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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California state prisoner Kevin Andres appealed pro se the district court’s summary judgment in his 42 U.S.C. 1983 action alleging excessive force. After prison staff failed to respond to plaintiff’s grievance alleging excessive force, plaintiff filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in state court regarding his attempt to exhaust the claim. While the state court action was pending, plaintiff filed this action alleging that administrative remedies were unavailable because officials failed to process his grievance. Subsequently, the state habeas court held an evidentiary hearing and granted the habeas petition, finding that plaintiff had timely filed a grievance and ordering that the grievance be accepted and processed. The district court subsequently dismissed the excessive force claim, finding that exhaustion was not complete at the time plaintiff filed this action. The Ninth Circuit vacated and remanded. Under the circumstances present here, Andres exhausted his available administrative remedies prior to filing suit. "When prison officials fail to respond to a prisoner’s grievance within a reasonable time, the prisoner is deemed to have exhausted available administrative remedies within the meaning of the [Prison Litigation Reform Act]." View "Andres v. Marshall" on Justia Law

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Defendant Raymond Fryberg, Jr., appealed his conviction for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person. He argued several grounds for reversal, including the allegedly erroneous admission into evidence of a return of service that the Government used to prove that Defendant had been served with notice of a hearing on a domestic violence protection order. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the admission of the return of service did not violate either the rule against hearsay or the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment. Accordingly, the Court affirmed Defendant’s conviction. View "United States v. Fryberg, Jr." on Justia Law

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In 2015, Hugo Rivera-Muniz pleaded guilty to reentering the United States without authorization after having been deported or removed. At the sentencing hearing, the district court considered Rivera-Muniz’s previous conviction for voluntary manslaughter under California Penal Code section 192(a) and concluded that it was an enumerated crime of violence that triggered a 16-level sentencing enhancement under U.S.S.G. 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii). However, the district court also applied a 7-level downward variance, thus sentencing Rivera-Muniz to twenty-seven months of imprisonment and three years of supervised release. Rivera-Muniz challenged the 16-level enhancement, arguing that California Penal Code section 192(a) was not categorically a crime of violence. Finding no error in the district court’s decision, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the sentence. View "United States v. Rivera-Muniz" on Justia Law

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In 1997, Michael Harris was convicted of eight federal criminal counts related to theft from an employee benefit plan. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay $646,000 in restitution. He paid only a small fraction of that amount. The government later learned that Harris was a beneficiary of two irrevocable, discretionary trusts established by his parents for his support. In 2015, the government applied for a writ of continuing garnishment for any property distributed to Harris from the trusts. The trustees opposed the application on the ground that Harris had disclaimed his interest in the trusts, with the exception of several checking and investment accounts. The district court granted the writ and ordered the trustees to pay to the United States all current and future amounts distributed to Harris under the trusts. After review, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Harris’s interest in the trusts qualified as property under the federal debt collection procedure that applied in this case. “The government is not attempting to compel distributions from the trusts. However, any current or future distributions from the trusts to Harris shall be subject to the continuing writ of garnishment, until the restitution judgment is satisfied.” View "United States v. Harris" on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed his sentence and conviction for sexual exploitation and attempted sex trafficking of a minor. The court concluded that, because the conduct charged in the indictment was substantially different from the conduct described in the jury instructions, the district court constructively amended the indictment. In this case, under the indictment, the government was required to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, either that defendant affirmatively knew of the victim's age, or, alternatively, that he recklessly disregarded her minority status. In contrast, the jury instructions afforded jurors a third option for convicting defendant: namely, they could convict so long as they determined that defendant had a reasonable opportunity to observe the victim. Therefore, defendant's conviction for attempted sex trafficking of a minor must be reversed. The court remanded for resentencing on defendant's single remaining conviction. View "United States v. Davis" on Justia Law
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The court filed an amended opinion reversing in part and affirming in part the denial of habeas relief, and order denying a petition for rehearing en banc. Petitioner, convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to death, appealed the district court's denial of his 28 U.S.C. 2254 habeas corpus petition. The court concluded that the relevant state court decision, relating to petitioner's claims regarding (1) the use of a leg brace as a security measure during trial; (2) the use of dual juries; (3) juror bias; (4) counsel's performance during the plea process; and (5) counsel's performance during the penalty phase, was not contrary to, nor an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law or based on an unreasonable determination of the facts before that court. The court concluded, however, that the Arizona Supreme Court applied a "causal nexus” test, whereby not all mitigating evidence was considered under Lockett v. Ohio, Eddings v. Oklahoma, and their progeny. Consequently, this decision was contrary to established federal law and the court reversed, remanding with instructions to grant the petition with respect to petitioner's sentence. View "Hedlund v. Ryan" on Justia Law

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Defendants Crooked Arm and Shane appealed their sentences for conspiring to kill, transport, offer for sale, and sell migratory birds, including bald and golden eagles in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), 16 U.S.C. 703(a), 707(b), and 18 U.S.C. 371. Crooked Arm and Shane contended that they admitted only to misdemeanor conduct and cannot be sentenced as felons, an argument they cast as an Apprendi claim. The court explained that while Crooked Arm and Shane challenge their sentences in this appeal, the core of their claim actually appears to be a challenge to their felony convictions— the logical predicate of being sentenced as a felon is conviction of a felony. The court has already resolved any challenge to defendants' felony convictions in Crooked Arm I. Because Crooked Arm I disposes of their arguments, Crooked Arm's and Shane's challenges to their felony sentences fail. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "United States v. Crooked Arm" on Justia Law
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