Justia U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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On October, 20, 2014, at approximately 7:43 p.m., Denver police officers were patrolling West 10th Avenue near its intersection with Mariposa Street in Denver, in a marked police vehicle. It was dark out and the intersection was unlit. The two officers observed defendant-appellee Phillip Hernandez walking next to a fenced construction site. The officers considered this part of town “to be a high-crime area due to its proximity to the Lincoln Park housing project and the frequency of theft and drug dealing occurring therein.” Officer Morghem asked Hernandez where he was coming from and what he was doing, to which Hernandez replied that he was coming from his grandmother’s house and was “just trying to go home.” Officer Morghem pressed Hernandez for his grandmother’s address, but Hernandez could not remember it. Up to this point, the entire conversation took place while Hernandez was walking, with the two officers driving close beside him. Officer Walton noted in the police report he filed the next day that Hernandez “tried not to stop and talk to us.” Hernandez eventually did stop, and the officers were able to talk to him. Hernandez provided his real name but a false birth date. Although Officer Morghem did not have Hernandez’s correct date of birth, he was able to pull up additional information on Hernandez via the in-car computer, finding Hernandez’s mug shot and determined that he had an active warrant for a parole violation. Hernandez was arrested on the active warrant, and ultimately indicted and convicted on one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence retrieved after his encounter with the officers, claiming the evidence was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court granted the motion. The government appealed, and finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "United States v. Hernandez" on Justia Law

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Defendant Christopher Thornton appealed his seventy-eight month prison sentence. The issue this case presented was whether the district court committed procedural error by basing the length of Thornton’s sentence, in part, on the treatment and vocational services he would receive in jail. Federal judges may not use imprisonment as a means to promote defendants’ correction or rehabilitation. In this case, the district court calculated the advisory prison range under the Sentencing Guidelines and Thornton moved for a downward variance. The court denied that request, offering several reasons not to impose a below-guidelines sentence, including that Thornton “needs enough time in prison to get treatment and vocational benefits.” Thornton claimed on appeal, without having objected in the district court, that the court’s rationale for sentencing violated precedential caselaw. With this new argument the Tenth Circuit reviewed this case for plain error. Finding none, the Court affirmed the district court’s sentence. View "United States v. Thornton" on Justia Law

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Reginald Humphrey appealed the denial of his motion to dismiss an indictment charging him with one count of producing child pornography. Humphrey argued the district court erred in rejecting his argument that applying 18 U.S.C. 2251(a) to the intrastate production of child pornography violated the Commerce Clause. Finding no reason to overturn its prior precedent rejecting this same argument, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "United States v. Humphrey" on Justia Law

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Based on a confidential informant's report that defendant-appellant Michael Simpson had drugs and guns, law enforcement officers obtained a search warrant for his house. The search revealed cocaine, firearms and ammunition. A jury would ultimately find defendant guilty of thirteen counts relating to possession of the drugs and firearms. The district court imposed concurrent sentences of 240 months' imprisonment for possession with intent to distribute the cocaine (count 1), and 120 months' imprisonment for the remaining counts. Defendant argued on appeal to the Tenth Circuit that the Court should reverse the conviction or, alternatively, the sentence. Finding no reversible error with respect to the conviction on Count 1 (possession of cocaine with intent to distribute) and Counts 2 and 5 (possession of an unregistered shotgun and ammunition), the Court affirmed. But it reversed the conviction on the other counts based on plain error in the jury instructions, remanding for a new trial. The Court rejected defendant's challenge to the sentence on Counts 1, 2, and 5. View "United States v. Simpson" on Justia Law

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Petitioner-appellant Marcus Washington sought to set aside his Kansas-state-court murder conviction. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a certificate of appealability (COA) so that he could appeal the denial of four claims raised in his application for relief under 28 U.S.C. 2254. In his petition, petitioner claimed: (1) the State exercised peremptory jury challenges against African Americans in violation of "Batson v. Kentucky," (476 U.S. 79 (1986)); (2) his rights under "Miranda v. Arizona," (384 U.S. 436 (1966)), were violated by the use of statements he made while in custody; (3) his trial attorney was ineffective in not calling him as a witness on the Miranda issue to show that he was in custody; and (4) the prosecutor’s closing argument improperly challenged his mental-disease defense. The United States District Court for the District of Kansas rejected petitioner's claims and dismissed his petition. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Washington v. Roberts" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Matthew Vogt was employed as a police officer with the City of Hays. In late 2013, Vogt applied for a position with the City of Haysville's police department. During Haysville's hiring process, Vogt disclosed that he had kept a knife obtained in the course of his work as a Hays police officer. Notwithstanding this disclosure, Haysville conditionally offered Vogt the job only if he reported his acquisition of the knife and returned it to the Hays police department. Vogt satisfied the condition, reporting to the Hays police department that he had kept the knife. The Hays police chief ordered Vogt to submit a written report concerning his possession of the knife. Vogt complied, submitting a vague one sentence report. He then provided Hays with a two-week notice of resignation, intending to accept the new job with Haysville. In the meantime, the Hays police chief began an internal investigation into Vogt's possession of the knife, including requiring a more detailed statement to supplement the report. Vogt complied, and the Hays police used the additional statement to locate additional evidence. Based on Vogt's statements and the additional evidence, the Hays police chief asked the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to start a criminal investigation, supplying Vogt's statements and the additional evidence. The criminal investigation led the Haysville police department to withdraw its job offer. Vogt was ultimately charged in Kansas state court with two felony counts related to his possession of the knife. Following a probable cause hearing, the state district court determined that probable cause was lacking and dismissed the charges. This suit followed, with Vogt alleging his constitutional rights were violated because his statements were used: (1) to start an investigation leading to the discovery of additional evidence concerning the knife; (2) to initiate a criminal investigation; (3) to bring criminal charges; and (4) to support the prosecution during the probable cause hearing. Vogt argued that these uses of compelled statements violated his right against self-incrimination. Based on the alleged Fifth Amendment violation, Vogt also invoked 42 U.S.C. 1983, suing: (1) the City of Hays; (2) the City of Haysville; and (3) four police officers. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, reasoning that: the right against self-incrimination was only a trial right, and Vogt's statements were used in pretrial proceedings, not in a trial. The Tenth Circuit, after review, concluded: (1) the Fifth Amendment is violated when criminal defendants are compelled to incriminate themselves and the incriminating statement is used in a probable cause hearing; (2) the individual officers were entitled to qualified immunity; (3) the City of Haysville did not compel Vogt to incriminate himself; (4) Vogt stated a plausible claim for relief against the City of Hays. The Court therefore affirmed dismissal of claims against the four officers and Haysville, and reversed dismissal against the City of Hays. View "Vogt v. City of Hays" on Justia Law

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The government appealed defendant-appellee John Walker's sentence. Walker was a serial bank robber who pleaded guilty to two counts of bank robbery. Walker attributed his criminal history to an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Hoping to overcome this addiction, Walker asked for an opportunity to attend in-patient treatment before he was sentenced. The district court agreed and the treatment program appeared to be successful. Walker's success in the treatment program led the district court to impose a sentence of time served, giving credit for the 33 days spent in pretrial detention. The Tenth Circuit found this sentence was "unreasonably short" based on the statutory sentencing factors and its precedent. As a result, the Court reversed. View "United States v. Walker" on Justia Law

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In 2004, Michael Harris pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. The maximum sentence for a felon-in-possession conviction is typically ten years. But because the sentencing court found Harris had three qualifying "violent felonies" or "serious drug offenses," as defined by the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), the court applied the section 924(e)(1) enhancement and sentenced Harris to the fifteen-year mandatory minimum. Harris moved to vacate his sentence due to a change in the law, particularly with regard to what then constituted a "violent felony." Statutory robbery was a "violent felony" under the ACCA. But the Tenth Circuit found that eleven circuit-level decisions reached varying results on the narrow question of whether robbery was considered a "violent felony." In examining various state statutes, five courts found no violent felony and six found a violent felony. Upon independent examination of the Colorado robbery statute here, however, the Tenth Circuit believed Colorado robbery qualified as a violent felony. "Although requiring more analysis than needed at first blush, we, in the end, return to the obvious: Statutory robbery in Colorado is a violent felony under the ACCA" because it had as an element the use or threatened use of "physical force" against another person that is capable of causing physical pain or injury. Accordingly, the Court affirmed Harris' sentence. View "United States v. Harris" on Justia Law

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The property at issue here was a backpack owned by defendant-appellant Nicolas Juszczyk, who was repairing his motorcycle in the backyard of Tina Giger. A concerned neighbor contacted police, who came to investigate. When they did, Juszczyk threw the backpack onto Giger's roof, where the backpack was later retrieved by police and searched. Methamphetamine, a firearm, and documents bearing Juszczyk's name were found inside. The issue this case presented for the Tenth Circuit's review was whether Juszczyk lacked an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy after throwing his backpack onto the roof. The Court concluded that any expectation of privacy was not objectively reasonable; as a result, Juszczyk abandoned the backpack and the search was lawful. View "United States v. Juszczyk" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jasonn Gonzales pleaded guilty to four counts of mail fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and one count of aggravated identity theft, arising out of a scheme to obtain unemployment benefits from three state agencies. On appeal his sole argument was that the district court erred in calculating his sentencing-guidelines offense level by including as victims those persons whose identities had been stolen even though they suffered no financial loss. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the sentence. View "United States v. Gonzales" on Justia Law