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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Defendant-Appellant Michael Bacon appealed a district court’s decision to keep the supplement to his plea agreement filed under seal. In 2015, Bacon pleaded guilty to two counts of bank robbery and one count of robbing a credit union, pursuant to a written plea agreement. At his combined plea and sentencing hearing, the district court asked Bacon if he had signed the documents relating to his plea agreement. After responding that he had not, Bacon’s counsel explained that Bacon was “concerned about the [plea] supplement” and asked “for permission to file the plea agreement without the [plea] supplement. The district court responded that under Utah local rules, supplements were sealed in every case, “and we do that to protect the rare person who does cooperate.” Plea supplements describe the nature of the defendant’s cooperation with the government or lack thereof. Bacon ultimately refused to sign his plea supplement, explaining to the court that “[w]hen you go off to prison and you’ve got something sealed inside your paperwork and the yard gets the paperwork and they see you’ve got a sealed document, they think you cooperated, and they want to hurt you.” His counsel signed it on his behalf. At Bacon’s resentencing, the parties did not dispute that Bacon’s supervised release term should have been reduced to 36 months, however, a dispute emerged over the sealed plea supplement. Bacon addressed the court himself, regarding the sealed plea supplement, stating, “If I don’t wan’t [sic] to place my life in jeopardy, I don’t see how the federal government can force me to do that.” Bacon contended the district court erred by failing to consider the common law right of access to court documents and by failing to make case-specific findings regarding sealing on the record. The Tenth Circuit determined defendant was challenging the district court’s decision to keep a specific document under seal, not its authority to enact a local rule. “A presumption of openness must be overcome for a judicial record to remain under seal. The record demonstrates that the district court did not consider this presumption of access to judicial records.” Because the Court determined the district court failed to articulate a case-specific reason for its sealing decision, its decision was vacated and the matter remanded. View "United States v. Bacon" on Justia Law

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Defendant Bruce Bradley appealed a federal district court’s order denying his motion to dismiss a suit brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 based on qualified immunity. Plaintiff Susan Ullery alleged Defendant violated, among other things, her Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by using excessive force against her in the form of sexual assault and abuse. Plaintiff was a former inmate at the Denver Women’s Correctional Center, which was a prison in the Colorado state prison system. Between early 2014 and April 2016, Plaintiff worked in the canteen services at the prison under the direction of Defendant, a corrections officer and supervisor of inmates who worked in the department. During this time, Defendant sexually harassed, abused, and assaulted Plaintiff. On appeal, Defendant did not challenge the district court’s determination that he violated a constitutional right. Rather, Defendant argued he was entitled to qualified immunity even if he violated the Constitution because Plaintiff’s asserted Eighth Amendment right to be free from sexual abuse was not clearly established at the time of the alleged violations. After review of the district court record, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court erred to the extent it held the contours of the asserted constitutional right were clearly established before August 11, 2015. But the Court further concluded any reasonable corrections officer in Defendant’s position since August 11, 2015, would have known the alleged conduct violated the Eighth Amendment based upon the clearly established weight of persuasive authority. “Because any actionable constitutional violations in this case would necessarily have occurred after this date, the law was clearly established for all relevant purposes; the district court therefore correctly denied Defendant qualified immunity.” View "Ullery v. Bradley" on Justia Law

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Defendant Donald Blackbird attempted to sexually abuse his fifteen-year-old granddaughter. He pleaded guilty to the offense, and the district court sentenced him to sixty months’ imprisonment. At sentencing, the district court applied a sentence enhancement, which increased his base offense level because “the minor was in the custody, care, or supervisory control of the defendant” at the time of the attempted sexual abuse. Defendant appealed, arguing the government presented no evidence he had custody, care, or supervisory control of his granddaughter at the time of the attempted abuse. The Tenth Circuit concurred with this reasoning, finding that because the government failed to show that Defendant exercised “custody, care, or supervisory control” over the victim, it vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Blackbird" on Justia Law

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Defendant Rodolfo Gonzalez-Fierro, a Mexican citizen, challenged his conviction for unlawfully re-entering the United States after a prior removal. That conviction was based in part on Gonzalez-Fierro’s prior expedited removal from the United States in 2009. Due process required that, before the United States can use a defendant’s prior removal to prove a 8 U.S.C. 1326(a) charge, “there must be some meaningful review” of the prior administrative removal proceeding. In light of that, Congress provided a mechanism in section 1326(d), for a defendant charged with a section 1326(a) offense to challenge the fundamental fairness of his prior unreviewed removal. But, pursuant to 8 U.S.C. 1225(b)(1)(D), the section 1326(d) mechanism applied only to prior formal removal orders, and not to prior expedited removal orders like Gonzalez-Fierro’s. "Expedited removals apply to undocumented aliens apprehended at or near the border soon after unlawfully entering the United States. Different from formal removals, expedited removals are streamlined - generally there is no hearing, no administrative appeal, and no judicial review before an expedited removal order is executed." Applying the Supreme Court’s reasoning in United States v. Mendoza-Lopez, 481 U.S. 828 (1987), the Tenth Circuit concluded section 1225(b)(1)(D) was unconstitutional because it deprives a defendant like Gonzalez-Fierro of due process. Without section 1225(b)(1)(D), the Court reviewed Gonzalez-Fierro's 2009 expedited removal order, and concluded he failed to establish that removal was fundamentally unfair. On that basis, the Court affirmed Gonzalez-Fierro's section 1326(a) conviction. View "United States v. Gonzalez-Fierro" on Justia Law

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This case arose out of a fraudulent business scheme involving the sale of the “Scrubbieglove” cleaning product. Defendant Pasquale Rubbo and other co-conspirators lied to investors to solicit money, ultimately defrauding them of more than six million dollars. The conspirators lured potential investors to the “Scrubbieglove” by lying about high returns on investment, potential and ongoing business deals, and how they would use and invest funds. They also misrepresented the Scrubbieglove’s production demand, telling told investors that the Scrubbieglove required substantial financing because of deals with QVC, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and other major retailers. In reality, beyond producing a few samples, the conspirators never manufactured any Scrubbiegloves. Instead, the conspirators transferred investor funds to their own personal bank accounts. Defendant’s primary role in the scheme involved intimidating and threatening investors to ensure their silence. Defendant pleaded guilty to two fraud-related charges, and was sentenced to 106 months’ imprisonment. He appealed his sentence, alleging the government breached the Plea Agreement. Finding no breach, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Defendant’s sentence. View "United States v. Rubbo" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Brian Tony was convicted of first-degree murder for the fatal stabbing of Pat Garcia during a fight. Before trial, Tony sought to introduce evidence that Garcia had used methamphetamine before the fight. The district court excluded the evidence, and Tony argued that the evidence should have been allowed into evidence. The Tenth Circuit determined the district court excluded the evidence for a reason unsupported by the record. Thus, it reversed and remanded for a new trial. View "United States v. Tony" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Mark Berg entered a conditional guilty plea to one count of possession of 100 kilograms or more of marijuana with intent to distribute. Berg appealed his conviction, claiming the district court erred by refusing to suppress evidence seized after a traffic stop. Specifically, Berg argued law enforcement lacked the reasonable suspicion of criminal activity necessary to detain him after the initial stop ended. Taking the totality of the circumstances, including facts indicating Berg was traveling in tandem with two escort vehicles and Berg’s rental car was packed in a manner inconsistent with his assertion he was moving his possessions from one state to another, the Tenth Circuit concluded law enforcement had reasonable suspicion, thus affirming denial of Berg's motion suppress. View "United States v. Berg" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Adam Sadlowski entered a conditional plea of guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, reserving the right to appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress. He was sentenced to 51 months' imprisonment and three years' supervised release. On appeal, he argued the district court erred because: (1) the state metropolitan court lacked jurisdiction to issue a felony-related search warrant; (2) the warrant’s issuance violated Rules 4.1 and 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure; (3) the warrant was deficient for lack of probable cause and particularity; and (4) he was entitled to a Franks hearing. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "United States v. Sadlowski" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Travis Greer, a Messianic Jew housed in an Oklahoma prison, informed prison officials that he kept kosher. At his request, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections agreed to provide Greer with kosher foods. In exchange, Greer agreed not to consume any non-kosher foods. Prison officials concluded that Greer had violated this agreement by consuming crackers and iced tea, which they considered non-kosher. As punishment, authorities denied Greer kosher foods for 120 days. Greer complained about this punishment. Soon afterward, officials saw Greer using a computer. Treating the computer use as an infraction, officials penalized Greer with a disciplinary sanction. The disciplinary sanction led officials to transfer Greer out of a preferred housing unit. Greer sued based on the suspension of kosher foods, the disciplinary sanction for using the computer, and the housing transfer. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants on some causes of action based on Greer’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies and dismissed other causes of action for failure to state a claim. The district court then granted summary judgment to defendants on the remaining causes of action based on qualified immunity and the unavailability of declaratory or injunctive relief. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed in part and affirmed in part. In its first grant of summary judgment, the Tenth Circuit determined the district court correctly held that Greer had exhausted administrative remedies through a grievance addressing the suspension of his kosher foods. But the Tenth Circuit concluded the district court interpreted this grievance too narrowly, viewing it as pertinent only to Greer’s causes of action involving cruel and unusual punishment, conspiracy, retaliation, and deprivation of due process. "In our view, however, this grievance also encompassed Mr. Greer’s causes of action based on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment. As a result, the district court should not have granted summary judgment for a failure to exhaust these two causes of action." Greer also asked the Tenth Circuit to review the district court’s second grant of summary judgment. The Court declined to do so because Greer waived appellate review of this ruling. View "Greer v. Dowling" on Justia Law

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Dr. Kevin Donahue was walking home one night when he saw a woman outside his neighbor’s house. Dr. Donahue thought she was trespassing, and he got into a heated conversation with her. They approached two police officers, Officer Shaun Wihongi and Officer Shawn Bennett, who were investigating an incident a few houses away. The officers questioned them separately. The woman told Officer Wihongi her name was “Amy LaRose,” which later turned out to be untraceable. She claimed Dr. Donahue was drunk and had insulted her. Dr. Donahue refused to provide his name but admitted he had been drinking and said the woman had hit him. The officers eventually arrested and handcuffed Dr. Donahue. Dr. Donahue sued Officer Wihongi, the Salt Lake City Police Department (“SLCPD”), and Salt Lake City Corporation (“SLC”). He alleged Officer Wihongi violated his Fourth Amendment rights by: (1) arresting him without probable cause; (2) using excessive force during the arrest; and (3) detaining him for too long. Officer Wihongi moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion on all three claims and dismissed the case. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. View "Donahue v. Wihongi" on Justia Law