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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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In 2015, the City of Santa Fe, New Mexico amended its Campaign Code to enact disclosure requirements for campaign spending. Plaintiff Rio Grande Foundation was a non-profit organization based in Albuquerque that has engaged in political advocacy since 2000. In 2017, it participated in a Santa Fe election, advocating against a ballot measure concerning a proposed soda tax. Combined spending by advocacy groups on each side of the measure amounted to several million dollars. Plaintiff’s expenditures totaled an estimated $7,700, most of which was attributable to the production of a YouTube video and a website. Those expenditures gave rise to a letter from a City Assistant Attorney informing Plaintiff that it appeared Plaintiff would need to file a campaign finance statement. The day after Plaintiff received that letter, the Santa Fe Ethics and Campaign Review Board (“ECRB”) received a citizen complaint lodged against Plaintiff, triggering an ECRB investigation. Because production of the YouTube video and website was donated in-kind, Plaintiff assumed that it did not need to disclose any information under the Code. The ECRB determined otherwise, citing Plaintiff for failure to comply with the Campaign Code. No penalties or fines were imposed, however. Plaintiff was simply ordered to file the required paperwork. Plaintiff did not think it or advocacy groups like it should have to endure the disclosure requirements in the future. It brought a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action against Defendants, seeking only prospective relief: namely, a declaration that section 9-2.6 of the Campaign Code was unconstitutional, both on its face and as applied to Plaintiff, insofar as it was enforced against speech concerning ballot measures. The Tenth Circuit determined Plaintiff lacked standing to challenge the Campaign Code and its enforcement by the ECRB, and dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. View "Rio Grande Foundation v. City of Santa Fe, New Mexico, et al." on Justia Law

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Von Lester Taylor and an accomplice, Edward Deli, murdered two unarmed women who tragically encountered them burglarizing a mountain cabin in December 1990. Taylor confessed to shooting the women; he never denied he fired the first shot in the brutal attack that lead to their deaths. Taylor pled guilty to two counts of first degree murder and was sentenced to death by a Utah jury. He challenged his convictions through a petition for federal habeas corpus, contending missteps by his trial counsel lead to a defective guilty plea. The Tenth Circuit determined Taylor failed to raise his ineffective-counsel claim in Utah state court, and this would have been a procedural bar to federal habeas relief. This notwithstanding, Taylor argued that despite re-affirming time and again he participated in the murders, he was “actually innocent” of them. Thus, he contended, the Tenth Circuit should consider his underlying claims. At the district court, Taylor presented new ballistics evidence that he alleged called into question whether he fired the fatal shots in the two murders. The court credited Taylor’s claim, set aside the convictions, and considered the merits of Taylor’s claims for habeas relief. In its review, the Tenth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s assessment of Taylor’s actual innocence claim. “To answer the question of whether he can be actually innocent of the crime: He cannot. Mr. Taylor ‘is not innocent, in any sense of the word.’” The district court’s grant of habeas relief was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. View "Taylor v. Powell" on Justia Law

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A Utah state court dismissed Petitioner Jeffery Finlayson’s habeas corpus proceeding for failure to prosecute. After appealing that decision, Petitioner brought a petition in federal court under 28 U.S.C. 2254. But the district court found the state court’s dismissal procedurally barred federal relief. So the district court dismissed the petition and granted judgment for Respondent State of Utah, denying a certificate of appealability. Petitioner appealed, and a Tenth Circuit judge issued a certificate of appealability on two issues: whether dismissal for want of prosecution under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b) is an independent and adequate state ground for denial of habeas relief; and (2) whether Petitioner could establish cause to excuse the procedural bar under Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1 (2012), and its progeny. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that under Utah’s rule, the state court could look to the meritoriousness of the federal claim to gauge the injustice that might result from dismissal. "But the ultimate decision does not rest on the application of federal law or the answer to a question of federal law. For these reasons, we conclude that a dismissal for failure to prosecute under Utah Rule 41(b) is independent." And, the Court concluded, dismissal for failure to prosecute under that rule was an adequate sate procedural default. Further, the Court concluded Petitioner could not demonstrate cause for the default. Accordingly, dismissal was affirmed. View "Finlayson v. Utah" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Raymond Moya was convicted for distributing heroin that resulted in the death of a then-eighteen-year-old Cameron Weiss. The precise question underlying this conviction is whether the heroin was the but-for cause of Cameron’s death. Moya argued that the district court misinstructed the jury about the “death results” element of the heroin-distribution crime and that the jury lacked sufficient evidence to convict on that element. According to Moya (and his expert witness), the heroin that Cameron injected couldn’t have caused his death hours later. Having reviewed the trial record, most notably the competing expert-witness testimony, the Tenth Circuit concluded a rational jury could have found Moya guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the Court affirmed. View "United States v. Moya" on Justia Law

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The elected Sheriff of El Paso County, Colorado, and head of the Paso County Sheriff’s Office (“EPSO”), fired Keith Duda, a patrol sergeant. Duda believed he was fired for supporting candidate Mike Angley, who challenged Sheriff Elder's reelection bid, and for giving an interview to a local newspaper about sexual harassment and other misconduct at the EPSO. Duda brought First Amendment retaliation claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. At summary judgment, the district court denied qualified immunity to Sheriff Elder. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of qualified immunity to Sheriff Elder on Duda’s Angley speech claim. The district court did not err in finding a constitutional violation. On the reporting claim, Sheriff Elder did not contest there was a constitutional violation. Instead, he argued no law clearly established it was unconstitutional to terminate Duda for the reporting speech, contending the district court incorrectly relied on Wulf v. City of Wichita, 883 F.2d 842 (10th Cir. 1989). To this, the Tenth Circuit affirmed because Wulf was substantially similar to the facts of this case. "Under Wulf, it was 'sufficiently clear that every reasonable official [in Sheriff Elder’s position] would have understood' that firing Mr. Duda based on his speech reporting misconduct at EPSO to The Independent was unconstitutional." View "Duda, et al. v. Elder" on Justia Law

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Utah police officers discovered Defendant Tevita Tafuna sitting in a parked car with a gun he admitted to possessing. Because Defendant had a prior felony conviction, the Government charged him with unlawful possession of a firearm. He moved to suppress the firearm and his confession, arguing that he was detained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights and that his detention led to the incriminating evidence used against him. The district court denied the motion, and Defendant appealed. The issue this case presented for the Tenth Circuit's review was whether officers unconstitutionally seize Defendant before they found the firearm or obtained his confession? The Court concluded no, so it affirmed the district court's judgment. View "United States v. Tafuna" on Justia Law

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Appellants Lorie Smith and her website design company 303 Creative, LLC (collectively, “Appellants”) appealed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Appellees Aubrey Elenis, Director of the Colorado Civil Rights Division (the “Director”), members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (the “Commission”), and Phil Weiser, Colorado Attorney General (collectively, “Colorado”). Appellants challenged Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act (“CADA”) on free speech, free exercise, and vagueness and overbreadth grounds. Consistent with Ms. Smith’s religious beliefs, Appellants intended to offer wedding websites that celebrate opposite-sex marriages but intended to refuse to create similar websites that celebrate same-sex marriages. Appellants’ objection was based on the message of the specific website; Appellants would not create a website celebrating same-sex marriage regardless of whether the customer was the same-sex couple themselves, a heterosexual friend of the couple, or even a disinterested wedding planner requesting a mock-up. Appellants brought a pre-enforcement challenge to CADA in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. After summary judgment briefing had concluded, the district court found that Appellants only established standing to challenge the Communication Clause, and not the Accommodation Clause. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, the district court denied Appellants’ summary judgment motion on its Communication Clause challenges. The Tenth Circuit held Appellants had standing to challenge CADA. As to the merits, the Court held that CADA satisfied strict scrutiny, and thus permissibly compelled Appellants’ speech. The Court also held that CADA was a neutral law of general applicability, and that it was not unconstitutionally vague or overbroad. View "303 Creative, et al. v. Elenis, et al." on Justia Law

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The issue on appeal before the Tenth Circuit in this case involved a pretextual search, in which police impounded a car simply as an excuse to look inside for evidence of a crime. The search at issue stemmed from a call complaining to police about defendant-appellant Evan Woodard. The caller said that Woodard was fighting a huge drug case, may have smoked PCP, had three previous gun cases, and violated a protective order. After talking to the caller, police discovered Woodard had an outstanding warrant for misdemeanor public intoxication. With this information, the police looked for Woodard, planning to serve him with the protective order and execute the warrant. Police officers found Woodard in Tulsa, Oklahoma and initiated a traffic stop. Woodard pulled into a parking lot at a QuikTrip convenience store and stopped there. Police told Woodard to get out of the car, arrested him based on the warrant, and took his cellphone. Woodard then asked if he could call someone to pick up the car. One of the police officers responded “I don’t think so,” and the police decided to impound the car. Two officers then opened the front doors and began to search the car. One officer commented that he was looking for verification of car insurance, expressing doubt that Woodard had insured the car. After seeing no verification in the center console, he eventually found proof of an old insurance policy in the glove compartment. By then, however, another officer had found marijuana, cocaine, a digital scale, and a gun. With that evidence, the police obtained a warrant allowing access to text messages on Mr. Woodard’s cellphone. Those text messages provided evidence of drug dealing. Woodard moved to suppress the evidence found during that stop, arguing the officers ordered impoundment as pretext to investigate suspected crimes. The district court denied the motion, and Woodard was ultimately tried and convicted on all charges. The Tenth Circuit concluded the search was indeed pretextual, and reversed the district court's denial of Woodard's motion to suppress. View "United States v. Woodard" on Justia Law

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Charles Williams was a Colorado prisoner who practiced a Native American religion that used tobacco in sweat lodges. The ceremonies were possible because prison officials specified where inmates could use tobacco in religious services. In 2018, prison officials confiscated tobacco from a prisoner and suspected that it had come from Williams’s religious group. Prison officials responded with a 30-day ban on the use of tobacco for religious services. Weeks later, prison officials imposed a lockdown and modified operations, including an indefinite suspension of Native American religious services. Despite this suspension, prison officials allowed Christian and Islamic groups to continue their religious services because outside volunteers could provide supervision. The complaint implied that the suspension lasted at least nine days. Williams sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging in part that prison officials violated the First Amendment. The defendants moved to dismiss, asserting qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion on the ground that Williams’s allegations had overcome qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit concurred: because Williams adequately alleged the violation of a clearly established constitutional right, he has overcome qualified immunity. So the denial of the defendants’ motion to dismiss was affirmed. View "Williams v. Borrego" on Justia Law

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The federal government sought to encourage delinquent taxpayers to pay up: by threatening to withhold or revoke their passports until their tax delinquency was resolved. No nexus between international travel and the tax delinquency needed to be shown; the passport revocation served only to incentivize repayment of the tax debt. A challenge to the constitutionality of this approach was a matter of first impression; appellant Jeffrey Maehr was one such taxpayer whose passport was revoked for non-payment of taxes. He argued the revocation violated substantive due process, ran afoul of principles announced in the Privileges and Immunities clauses, and contradicted caselaw concerning the common law principle of ne exeat republica. The district court rejected these challenges. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court on each of these arguments. View "Maehr v. U.S. Department of State" on Justia Law