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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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John Russell Howald was convicted for a federal hate crime under 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2) and discharge of a firearm during a crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A). Howald had fired shots at a local woman's house in Basin, Montana, with the intent to "rid" the town of "lesbians and gays." The firearms and ammunition used in the offense had traveled across state lines.In the United States District Court for the District of Montana, Howald moved to dismiss both counts of the indictment, arguing that § 249(a)(2) exceeded Congress’s Commerce Clause power and that his § 249(a)(2) hate crime conviction was not a predicate crime of violence for § 924(c)(1)(A). The district court upheld the charges and rejected Howald's arguments.On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Howald reiterated his arguments. The appellate court held that the jurisdictional element in § 249(a)(2)(B)(iii) defeated the facial challenge to the statute's constitutionality. The court also rejected the as-applied challenge because the government had proven that the firearms and ammunition used in the offense had traveled across state lines. Furthermore, the court held that § 249(a)(2) is divisible, and that Howald’s offense is categorically a crime of violence because an attempt to kill in violation of § 249(a)(2)(A)(ii)(II) necessarily involves the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another per § 924(c)(3)(A). Therefore, the court affirmed Howald's convictions. View "United States v. Howald" on Justia Law

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The case involves Chad Alan Lee, who was convicted and sentenced to death for three murders. Lee filed a habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, arguing that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective at sentencing because he failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence that Lee suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effect. Lee also argued that the Arizona Supreme Court erred by requiring him to establish a causal nexus between his crimes and his mitigating evidence.The district court denied Lee's petition and his motion for leave to amend. The court found that Lee's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was procedurally defaulted because he did not raise it in his postconviction relief petition. The court also found that Lee's proposed claim that the Arizona Supreme Court erred was untimely, procedurally defaulted, and without merit.On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision. The court held that Lee's theories for obtaining a federal evidentiary hearing notwithstanding 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2), which places strict limits on when federal courts can hold evidentiary hearings and consider new evidence, lacked merit. The court also held that even if Lee could demonstrate cause to excuse the procedural default, he could not demonstrate prejudice. The court further held that the district court correctly denied leave to add Lee's proposed claim because it was untimely under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1), procedurally defaulted, and lacked merit. View "LEE V. THORNELL" on Justia Law

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The case involves Gerardo Farias-Contreras, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute methamphetamine and heroin. As part of the plea agreement, the government agreed to dismiss two other charges and not to recommend a sentence exceeding the low-end of the guideline range. Farias-Contreras argued for a six-level reduction in the base offense level, resulting in a guidelines range of 108–135 months, citing his many physical disabilities. The government, after reducing the base offense level by three levels, calculated a guidelines range of 151–188 months and recommended a 151-month term.The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington sentenced Farias-Contreras to 188 months' imprisonment, citing substantially the facts and argument presented by the government. Farias-Contreras appealed, arguing that the government implicitly breached its promise under the plea agreement not to recommend a sentence in excess of the low-end of the sentencing guidelines range when the government implicitly urged the district court to impose a harsher sentence.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the sentence. The court found that the government's conduct crossed the line from permissible advocacy to an improper end-run of the plea agreement, thus implicitly breaching its promise not to recommend a sentence in excess of the low-end of the calculated guideline range. However, the court concluded that the error was not plain because the court's precedent does not make sufficiently clear to what extent the government may respond to a defendant’s request for a downward departure without implicitly breaching the plea agreement. The court took the opportunity to clarify its law on the subject. View "USA V. FARIAS-CONTRERAS" on Justia Law

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A class of indigent criminal defendants in Oregon, who were incarcerated and awaiting trial without legal representation, filed a federal habeas corpus petition. They argued that the state's failure to provide them with counsel violated their Sixth Amendment rights. The district court issued a preliminary injunction requiring that counsel be provided within seven days of the initial appearance, and if this did not occur, the defendants must be released from custody subject to reasonable conditions imposed by Oregon Circuit Court judges.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the petitioners were likely to succeed on the merits of their Sixth Amendment claim. The court reasoned that without counsel, the petitioners could not understand, prepare for, or progress to critical stages of their cases. The court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the petitioners were suffering and would continue to suffer irreparable harm. The court found that the public has an interest in a functioning criminal justice system and the protection of fundamental rights. View "Betschart v. Washington County Circuit Court Judges" on Justia Law

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The case involved Chanel Wiley, who was convicted for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. During jury selection, Wiley's ankle monitor, which she was wearing as a condition of her pretrial release, started beeping. Wiley argued that this incident prejudiced her and warranted a new trial.The district court judge acknowledged hearing the alert but did not believe the jurors knew what the sound was. After the monitor beeped again, the judge ordered a recess and had the monitor removed outside the presence of the jury. Wiley was subsequently convicted of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and acquitted of distributing methamphetamine.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit assumed that at least one juror concluded that the beeping sound meant Wiley was wearing an ankle monitor. However, the court held that ankle monitors are not inherently prejudicial under the standards set by previous cases, including Deck v. Missouri and Holbrook v. Flynn. The court reasoned that ankle monitors are less obtrusive and do not create the same perception of the defendant as shackles do. The court also found that Wiley failed to prove that she was actually prejudiced by the beeping ankle monitor. Therefore, the court affirmed the conviction. View "USA V. WILEY" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In 2014, Salvatore Groppo pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the transmission of wagering information as a "sub-bookie" in an unlawful international sports gambling enterprise. He was sentenced to five years' probation, 200 hours of community service, a $3,000 fine, and a $100 special assessment. In 2022, Groppo moved to expunge his conviction, seeking relief from a potential tax liability of over $100,000 on his sports wagering activity. He argued that the tax liability was disproportionate to his relatively minor role in the criminal enterprise.The district court denied Groppo's motion to expunge his conviction. The court reasoned that expungement of a conviction is only available if the conviction itself was unlawful or otherwise invalid. The court also stated that the IRS's imposition of an excise tax does not provide grounds for relief as 'government misconduct' that would warrant expungement.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court held that because Groppo alleged neither an unlawful arrest or conviction nor a clerical error, the district court correctly determined that it did not have ancillary jurisdiction to grant the motion to expunge. The court explained that a district court is powerless to expunge a valid arrest and conviction solely for equitable considerations, including alleged misconduct by the IRS. View "USA V. GROPPO" on Justia Law

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Ten plaintiffs filed a civil lawsuit against Daniel Fitzgerald under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), alleging multiple sex trafficking violations. The government intervened and requested a stay of the litigation pending the resolution of a criminal case involving a different defendant, Peter Nygard. The district court granted the stay under a provision of the TVPRA that mandates a stay of any civil action during the pendency of any criminal action arising out of the same occurrence in which the claimant is the victim. Fitzgerald appealed the stay order.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court held that it had jurisdiction to review the stay order as it was lengthy and indefinite, thus effectively placing the litigants out of court. The court also held that the district court properly granted a mandatory stay under the TVPRA because a criminal action was pending, the criminal action arose out of the same occurrence as the civil action, and the plaintiffs in the civil action were victims of an occurrence that was the same in the civil and criminal proceedings. The court rejected Fitzgerald's argument that the stay should only be issued if the defendant in the civil action is a named defendant in the related criminal action. The court also held that if a stay is required under the TVPRA, then the district court must stay the entire action. View "DOE V. FITZGERALD" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Ulises Romeo Lucas-Hernandez was arrested by Border Patrol Agent Brian Mauler in a remote area north of the U.S.-Mexico border. During the arrest, Agent Mauler asked Lucas-Hernandez three questions in Spanish about his citizenship and immigration status. Lucas-Hernandez was subsequently charged with misdemeanor attempted entry by an alien under 8 U.S.C. § 1325(a)(1). Before trial, Lucas-Hernandez moved to exclude Agent Mauler from testifying to his Spanish-to-English translation of the questions and answers, arguing that the statements were hearsay and that Agent Mauler was not qualified as an expert to translate the statements. The magistrate judge denied the motion regarding hearsay, reasoning that the statements made by a defendant are considered party admissions, not hearsay.The magistrate judge found Lucas-Hernandez guilty of violating 8 U.S.C. § 1325(a)(1) and he was sentenced to time served. Lucas-Hernandez challenged his conviction in district court, asserting that Agent Mauler’s testimony of his field statements was hearsay and fell outside the hearsay exclusion in Rule 801(d)(2) because Agent Mauler was not a “mere language conduit” under United States v. Nazemian. The district court affirmed the magistrate judge’s ruling and found that Nazemian did not apply, and so Agent Mauler’s testimony as to Lucas-Hernandez’s field statements was not hearsay.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the Nazemian analysis applies to the statements of a party opponent that are translated by the testifying witness. However, the court concluded that any error in admitting Agent Mauler’s testimony was harmless, considering the evidence presented from Lucas-Hernandez’s A-file, the database searches, and the circumstances when he was found by Agent Mauler. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court’s ruling upholding Lucas-Hernandez’s conviction under 8 U.S.C. § 1325(a)(1). View "United States v. Lucas-Hernandez" on Justia Law

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The case involves the United States government's appeal against a district court's order to pay monetary sanctions for failing to disclose information that suggested its key witness in a criminal trial was willing to shape her testimony in exchange for certain benefits. The case arose from a five-body homicide trial where the government's star witness, Esmeralda, was willing to alter her testimony for benefits. The defense learned about this not from the government, but from Esmeralda's counsel. The district court found that the government's failure to disclose this information violated the defendant's due process rights under Brady v. Maryland, and imposed sanctions on the government.The district court's order was appealed by the government before the final judgment was issued in the underlying criminal case. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's order, holding that it had appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 because the sanctions order satisfied the elements of the collateral-order doctrine.On the merits, the court found that the government had suppressed evidence, and that suppression was material under Brady. The court held that the district court's decision to exclude the testimony and impose sanctions was not an abuse of discretion. The court also held that the district court did not violate the government's sovereign immunity by imposing monetary sanctions under an exercise of its supervisory powers. View "USA V. CLOUD" on Justia Law

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The case involves Steven Duarte, who was convicted for violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), a law that prohibits anyone previously convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for over a year from possessing a firearm. Duarte, who had five prior non-violent state criminal convictions, was charged and convicted under this law after police saw him discard a handgun from a moving car.Duarte appealed his conviction, arguing that § 922(g)(1) violated his Second Amendment rights. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with Duarte, finding that the law was unconstitutional as applied to him, a non-violent offender who had served his time in prison and reentered society. The court held that under the Supreme Court's decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass'n v. Bruen, § 922(g)(1) violated the Second Amendment as applied to Duarte. The court concluded that Duarte's weapon, a handgun, is an "arm" within the meaning of the Second Amendment, and that the government failed to prove that § 922(g)(1)'s categorical prohibition, as applied to Duarte, is part of the historic tradition that delimits the outer bounds of the Second Amendment right. As a result, the court vacated Duarte's conviction and reversed the district court's judgment. View "USA V. DUARTE" on Justia Law