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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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In 2018, Joseph “Tiger King” Maldonado-Passage was indicted and later convicted by jury on several counts, including two murder-for-hire schemes. He was sentenced to a 264-month term of imprisonment. He appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming, inter alia, his murder-for-hire counts should have been grouped for purposes of calculating his total offense level. The Court affirmed Maldonado-Passage’s murder-for-hire convictions, but held his 18 U.S.C. § 1958(a) offenses shared a “common criminal objective” and should have been grouped under § 3D1.2(b) of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. On remand, Maldonado-Passage moved for reconsideration of the denial of a pretrial motion to dismiss one of the two § 1958(a) counts as multiplicitous. He proposed his counts be merged and subject to a single penalty. In its denial of the motion, the district court concluded Maldonado-Passage failed to demonstrate adequate grounds for reconsideration. Furthermore, during resentencing, the district court announced it would not exercise its discretion to expand the scope of sentencing beyond the grouping error identified by the Tenth Circuit prior to the remand, Maldonado-Passage I. The district court revised Maldonado-Passages’ total offense level and advisory Guidelines sentencing range and accordingly imposed a reduced sentence of 252 months’ imprisonment. This sentence included two consecutively run 102-month terms for each murder-for-hire conviction. Maldonado-Passage appealed here claiming the text of § 1958(a) prohibited his conduct from being parsed into two offenses with consecutively run sentences. To this, the Tenth Circuit disagreed: the district court did not abuse its discretion by limiting its sentencing scope and refusing to reconsider Maldonado-Passage’s previously denied motion to dismiss for multiplicity. Therefore, no vehicle to challenge the § 1958(a) components of his sentence as multiplicitous remains. Nonetheless, the Tenth Circuit confirmed § 1958(a)’s “plot centric” unit of prosecution permits separate offenses and consecutive sentences when, as here, two unrelated hitmen are hired to kill the same person. View "United States v. Maldonado-Passage" on Justia Law

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Patrol Sergeant Mark Garrett seized a firearm from underneath David Samilton’s passenger seat during a vehicle stop. Based on the firearm, (1) a jury convicted Samilton of being a felon in possession; and (2) the district court revoked his supervised release in an unrelated case. On appeal in both cases, Samilton challenged the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress the firearm. Finding no reversible error in the district courts' judgments, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "United States v. Samilton" on Justia Law

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In April 2019, police found Defendant Felipe Nevarez in possession of approximately 26 grams of methamphetamine and over $16,000 in cash. The Government sought and obtained an indictment charging Defendant with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. Defendant’s case was delayed numerous times, first through a series of pre-trial continuances resulting from motions, counsel withdrawals, and plea negotiations before the onset of the COVID pandemic prompted further delay. When Defendant’s case eventually proceeded to trial in April 2021, Defendant conceded possession of methamphetamine and only put the Government to its burden of proof on the issue of intent to distribute. Unpersuaded by Defendant’s argument that the Government’s investigation failed to produce many of the traditional hallmarks of drug dealing, the jury convicted Defendant as charged. Thereafter, the district court sentenced Defendant to 120 months’ imprisonment. Defendant appeals, asking the Tenth Circuit to reverse his conviction and dismiss the indictment based on a violation of the Speedy Trial Act or, in the alternative, remand his case for resentencing on the grounds that the district court erred by denying him an offense level reduction for acceptance of responsibility. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence. View "United States v. Nevarez" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Tenth Circuit's review centered on whether 42 U.S.C. § 1983 clearly established Defendant Utah Highway Patrolman Blaine Robbins violated Heather Leyva’s Fourteenth and Fourth Amendment rights by pulling her over without reasonable suspicion to do so and by sending her flirtatious texts about the administration of a commercial towing relationship between her employer and the Utah Highway Patrol. Leyva served as the liaison between the Utah Highway Patrol (“UHP”) and West Coast Towing (“WCT”)—one of three towing companies in the Heavy Duty Towing Rotation (“HDTR”). Over time their professional relationship developed into a personal one. Defendant texted Leyva one night asking about work-related matters. In response to one question, Leyva told Defendant to “standby” because she was on the freeway. Defendant asked where and said he would pull her over. Defendant spotted her, turned on his lights, and initiated an apparent traffic stop. Leyva pulled over, not knowing Defendant was the driver of the patrol car, and got her identification ready. Defendant claimed he pulled Leyva over as “a joke between friends.” A month later, Leyva reported to her boss she felt Defendant was sexually harassing her. Her boss contacted UHP to report Leyva’s complaints of sexual harassment. As a result, UHP conducted an investigation. Relevant to the issues on appeal, the investigation found Defendant did not improperly administer the HDTR but concluded his conduct revealed his desire to further his personal relationship with Leyva. It also determined that Defendant lacked reasonable suspicion when he stopped Leyva. The district court found that Defendant did not violate clearly established law. Defendant did not dispute for purposes of this appeal that he violated Leyva’s constitutional rights. He argued only that the district court correctly determined the law was not clearly established for either alleged violation. Plaintiff alleged, and the district court found, that a jury could find Defendant violated Leyva’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court erred by granting summary judgment on Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment claims insofar as they related to Defendant’s traffic stop of Leyva. But the Court agreed with the district court that Plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment rights arising in connection with the administration of HDTR, were not clearly established at the time of the violation. View "Shepherd v. Robbins" on Justia Law

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Under Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156 (2012), for constitutional violations, district courts may require the government to reoffer a rejected plea if the defendant rejected it because of ineffective assistance of counsel. A federal jury convicted Jonathan Kearn of three charges arising from his photographing and distributing pornographic images of his four-year-old daughter. The district court sentenced Kearn to 292 months’ imprisonment, the low end of the advisory range set forth in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Kearn appealed his conviction and sentence, asserting multiple issues, including ineffective assistance of counsel. The Tenth Circuit affirmed after determining that “the evidence of Kearn’s guilt was overwhelming” and doubting that “even absent any of Kearn’s alleged errors, the outcome of the trial would have been different.” But the Court left unresolved Kearn’s ineffective-assistance claims, treating them as premature and properly raised “in collateral proceedings, not on direct appeal.” Kearn then brought his ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to collaterally attack his sentence and seek a resentencing as relief. Kearn’s § 2255 Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence claimed that his trial counsel performed deficiently by inadequately explaining the government’s plea offer to him. In an amended motion, Kearn alleged that he had declined to accept the plea offer because his trial counsel had advised him that he “would essentially be lying to the Court and thus committing perjury by accepting responsibility for criminal actions he had no part of.” The trial court’s limited knowledge about the parties’ plea negotiations spurred it to ask the parties for additional information to better evaluate Kearn’s § 2255 motion. The district court later issued a written order granting Kearn’s § 2255 motion, concluding that “the totality of trial counsel’s legal advice during the plea process fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” The Government appealed, but finding that the Government's appeal was not from a final judgment, the Tenth Circuit concluded it lacked jurisdiction to take on the Lafler issue, and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "United States v. Kearn" on Justia Law

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The defendants (collectively, the “New Mexico Courts”) appealed a district court’s entry of a preliminary injunction in favor of plaintiff, Courthouse News Service (“Courthouse News”). Courthouse News was a news service that reports on civil litigation in state and federal courts across the country. The focus of the litigation here was on timely access to newly filed, non-confidential civil complaints in the state district courts of New Mexico. On July 30, 2021, Courthouse News filed a motion for preliminary injunction against the New Mexico Courts, seeking to “prohibit[] them preliminarily . . . from refusing to make newly-filed nonconfidential civil petitions available to the public and press until after such petitions are processed or accepted, and further directing them to make such petitions accessible to the press and public in a contemporaneous manner upon receipt.” The district court concluded that Courthouse News was entitled to a preliminary injunction enjoining the New Mexico Courts from withholding press or public access to newly filed, non-confidential civil complaints for longer than five business hours, but not to a preliminary injunction that provides pre-processing, on-receipt, or immediate access to such complaints. On appeal, the New Mexico Courts argued the district court erred in granting in part Courthouse News’ motion for preliminary injunction. After its review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. Specifically, the Court affirmed the district court’s memorandum opinion and order to the extent that the district court: (1) declined to abstain from hearing this case; and (2) concluded that the First Amendment right of access attaches when a complaint is submitted to the court. However, the Court concluded the district court erred in imposing a bright-line, five-business-hour rule that failed to accommodate the state’s interests in the administration of its courts. Accordingly, the district court’s entry of a preliminary injunction was reversed, the preliminary injunction vacated, and the case remanded for further proceedings. View "Courthouse News Service v. New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, et al." on Justia Law

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Defendant Troy Gregory, a former senior vice president of University National Bank (UNB) in Lawrence, Kansas, was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, four counts of bank fraud, and two counts of making false bank entries. These charges arose from Defendant’s arrangement of a $15.2 million loan by 26 banks to fund an apartment development by established clients of UNB. After a ten-day trial, including two days of deliberations, a jury found Defendant guilty on all counts except the conspiracy count, on which the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. The court sentenced Defendant to 60 months in prison and three years of supervised release. Defendant appealed the district court’s denial of: (1) his motion for a judgment of acquittal; and (2) his motion for a new trial on the ground that the government’s extended hypothetical in closing argument was not based on facts in evidence and constituted prosecutorial misconduct. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court, finding defendant’s conviction was supported by sufficient evidence and the government’s closing argument was rooted in evidence presented at trial or reasonable inferences drawn from that evidence. View "United States v. Gregory" on Justia Law

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Petitioner-appellant Ralph Menzies was convicted of first-degree murder in Utah state court and sentenced to death. The Utah Supreme Court affirmed the denial of his motion for a new trial, and then affirmed his conviction and death sentence. Menzies sought post-conviction relief, but the state courts rejected his claims. The state court decisions led Menzies to seek habeas relief in federal court. The federal district court denied relief, prompting Menzies to appeal. Finding no reversible error in the denial of habeas relief, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the federal district court. View "Menzies v. Powell" on Justia Law

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This case arose from the murder of a state inmate and conspiracy to murder two corrections officials. The government attributed the crimes to a prison gang, Sindicato de Nuevo Mexico (“SNM”), and charged many of its members under the Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering Act (“VICAR”). After a six-week jury trial, three SNM members (Anthony Ray Baca, Daniel Sanchez, and Carlos Herrera) were convicted of: (1) conspiring to murder a fellow SNM member (Javier Molina) (Count 6);and (2) aiding and abetting that murder (Count 7). Baca was also convicted of conspiring to murder two corrections officials (Counts 9–10). The three defendants appealed, advancing eight arguments largely alleging multiple errors on the admission of evidence, the conduct of trial and the constitutionality of VICAR, taken cumulatively, required a new trial. Rejecting each argument, the Tenth Circuit affirmed defendants' convictions. View "United States v. Herrera" on Justia Law

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Michael Winrow pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, which at the time of his plea. carried a maximum sentence of ten years. However, the Armed Career Criminal Act provided for a minimum term of 15 years when a defendant had three prior convictions for a “violent felony or a serious drug offense,” The district court sentenced Winrow to 188 months, concluding that he was subject to the ACCA’s enhancement because he had three qualifying predicates. Winrow argued on appeal the district court erred sentencing him: two of those convictions were for aggravated assault and battery under Okla. Stat. tit 21, § 646 (2011), and aggravated assault and battery, as Oklahoma defined it, was not categorically a violent felony, so his convictions under § 646 should not have counted as predicates. To this the Tenth Circuit agreed, remanded the case for the sentence to be vacated, and that he be resentenced without eh ACCA enhancement. View "United States v. Winrow" on Justia Law