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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Defendant-appellant Fernando Duran was convicted by jury on drug charges. On appeal, he argued the evidence was insufficient to convict on three counts, and the district court abused its discretion in admitting certain testimony on prior drug transactions and the interpretations of recorded calls. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Duran’s convictions. View "United States v. Duran" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Robert Harte (“Bob”) was a stay-at-home father; he kept a vegetable garden with his son as part of an education project. Plaintiff Adlynn Harte (“Addie”) enjoyed loose-leaf tea. Discards from Addie's tea would lead the family with no criminal history whatsoever (save a few parking tickets) to become embroiled in a marijuana sting. Armed with a battering ram, firearms, and a warrant, Sheriff’s Deputies detained Plaintiffs for over two hours early on an April 2012 morning after a SWAT-style raid. They found "wet marijuana plant material" discarded in the Hartes' garbage. Had police from the raid sent the discards to a crime lab, it would have been discovered the vegetation was not marijuana but loose-leaf tea. Deputies found the hydroponic tomato garden that was readily visible from the exterior of the home through a front-facing basement window. And after ninety minutes of extensive searching, a couple of the deputies claimed to smell the “faint odor of marijuana” at various places in the residence. A drug-detection dog showed up, but did not alert the officers to any other areas of the house requiring further searches. Before leaving the residence empty-handed, the deputies “strongly suggested” to the Hartes that their 13-year-old son was a drug user. Plaintiffs sued, challenging the original search warrant its allegedly negligent execution. The district court granted summary judgment to the deputy defendants. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a one-paragraph per curiam opinion followed by three separate opinions, affirming in part, reversing in part, and remanding the case back to the district court. The lower court, Plaintiffs, and Defendants, all interpreted the Tenth Circuit's per curiam opinion differently. The issue presented in this case's second trip to the Tenth Circuit centered on how to proceed when two of the three panel judges shared some common rationale, yet ultimately reached different outcomes, and a different combination of two judges reached a common outcome by different rationales. The Court held that, in applying a fractured panel’s holding, the district court need only look to and adopt the result the panel reached. "To hold otherwise would be to go against the result expressed by two of the three panel members. That we cannot do." Accordingly, the matter was remanded again for further proceedings. View "Harte v. Board Comm'rs Cnty of Johnson" on Justia Law

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Defendant Donald Thomas pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. On appeal he did not challenge the validity of his plea; but as permitted by his plea agreement with the government, he raised one challenge with respect to his sentence. Because it was undisputed he had a prior felony conviction for a crime of violence (robbery), his base offense level was at least 20. Whether it was 20 or 24 depended on the characterization of his 2014 Colorado conviction of distribution of an “imitation controlled substance” under Colo. Rev. Stat. 18-18-422(1)(a). The sole issue presented to the Tenth Circuit called for an interpretation of "counterfeit substance" as that term is used in section 4B1.2(b) of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Defendant contended a counterfeit substance was a controlled substance that was mislabeled or misbranded fraudulently or without authorization, a definition that appears in a federal statute, 21 U.S.C. 802(7). The government countered it was a noncontrolled substance that was passed off as a controlled substance. Joining the five other circuits that opined on the subject, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the government. The Court affirmed defendant's sentence. View "United States v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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Defendant Karen McClaflin pled guilty to two counts stemming from the operation of a “fix and flip” real estate Ponzi scheme which defrauded investors of more than $14.5 million dollars. At sentencing, the district court calculated the advisory sentencing guidelines at 135 to 168 months’ imprisonment, applied a 6-level enhancement for substantial financial hardship to more than twenty-five victims, and then determined a downward variant sentence of 96 months was appropriate. On appeal, McClaflin argued the district court: (1) abused its discretion by denying her motion for an additional continuance of the sentencing hearing; (2) procedurally erred by imposing the 6-level enhancement based upon victim impact statements; and (3) failed to consider all of the requisite 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors. The Tenth Circuit determined the district court did not plainly err when it sentenced McClaflin, therefore it affirmed the judgment and sentence. View "United States v. McClaflin" on Justia Law

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Robert Holloway was convicted by jury of four counts of wire fraud, and one count of submitting a false tax return. Holloway was the president and CEO of US Ventures, a company that traded in the futures market. Holloway told investors he had developed a special algorithm that allowed him to trade without losses. He claimed that because of the algorithm he “could trade the markets and make money whether the market went up or the market went down.” Holloway’s grandiose claims were false, and revealed to be a Ponzi scheme. The district court sentenced Holloway to 225 months’ imprisonment, after applying a six-level enhancement for crimes involving 250 or more victims under U.S.S.G. 2B1.1(b)(2)(C) (2014). After unsuccessfully challenging his conviction and sentence on direct appeal, Holloway filed a 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion, arguing: (1) a total breakdown of communication between Holloway and his trial counsel caused his trial counsel to perform ineffectively; (2) his trial counsel acted ineffectively by failing to argue that the evidence did not support the district court’s application of the six-level sentencing enhancement; and (3) the prosecution violated his due process rights by failing to turn over to the defense favorable information possessed by a prosecution witness contrary to Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The district court denied Holloway’s 2255 motion, but granted a certificate of appealability on all three issues. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court judgment. View "United States v. Holloway" on Justia Law

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A.S. was adjudicated a juvenile delinquent under the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act (“FJDA”) after the district court concluded that, when he was seventeen years old, he knowingly engaged in a sexual act with a victim, K.P., while she was incapable of appraising the nature of the conduct. The court ordered A.S. to be committed to eighteen months’ custodial detention to be followed by twenty-four months’ juvenile-delinquent supervision. On appeal, A.S. raised three challenges: (1) the district court erred in limiting cross-examination and excluding extrinsic evidence concerning a prior allegation of sexual assault that K.P. made; (2) the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that he knew that K.P. was incapable of appraising the nature of the sexual conduct, which he says was an element of the offense; and (3) the district court erred in imposing a dispositional sentence on him of custodial detention. The Tenth Circuit concluded: (1) the district court’s actions accorded with the Federal Rules of Evidence and did not violate A.S.’s constitutional rights; (2) there was ample evidence for a reasonable factfinder to determine A.S. engaged in sexual conduct with K.P. while he knew she was asleep and drunk; and (3) the sentence did not constitute an abuse of the district court's broad sentencing discretion. Thus, the Tenth Circuit affirmed judgment. View "United States v. A.S." on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Ashton Malone was convicted on two counts of distributing methamphetamine and sentenced to 151 months’ custody followed by five years of supervised release. At sentencing, the district court imposed all the various conditions of supervised release set forth in the Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”), including a special condition requiring Malone to undergo mental health treatment. Contained within this special condition was the mandate for Malone to “take prescribed medication as directed” by mental health staff or a treating physician. That medication requirement was the issue on appeal to the Tenth Circuit. Malone did not object to this proposed condition in either his written objections to the PSR or at sentencing, but he argued on appeal that the district court’s failure to make particularized findings to support this condition was plain error compelling reversal. The Tenth Circuit agreed and accordingly, reversed. View "United States v. Malone" on Justia Law

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Samuel Elliott pled guilty for producing and possessing child pornography. Each of the four possession counts concerned a different electronic device or medium on which Elliott stored his collection. On appeal, he argued three of the four possession counts were multiplicitous and thus violated the Double Jeopardy Clause. Elliott contends that because he possessed the different electronic devices in the same physical location and at the same time, he could not be convicted of distinct possession counts for each device. To this end, Elliott argued the rule of lenity requires a single possession conviction because the statute was ambiguous as to whether the unit of prosecution was a single device containing child pornography or the simultaneous possession of multiple devices containing child pornography. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed the statute’s unit of prosecution was ambiguous, and thus concluded the rule of lenity required the Court construe 18 U.S.C. 2252A(a)(5)(B) to preclude distinct charges for each electronic device or medium simultaneously possessed. The case was remanded back to the district court with instructions to vacate three of Elliott’s possession convictions and sentences. View "United States v. Elliott" on Justia Law

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Manuel Romero was charged with one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and one count of knowingly possessing a stolen firearm. Romero moved to suppress the firearm that a Las Cruces police officer discovered in Romero’s backpack during a search incident to his arrest for obstructing an officer in violation of New Mexico Statute 30-22-1(D). The officer arrested Romero for obstruction because he failed to immediately comply with the officer’s request that he submit to a pat-down search. Romero argued in his motion that the firearm should have been suppressed because the officer had neither: (1) reasonable suspicion to conduct the pat-down search; nor (2) probable cause to arrest Romero for obstruction. The district court denied Romero’s motion. The Tenth Circuit reversed, agreeing with Romero’s latter argument that there was insufficient probable cause to support an arrest under section 30-22-1(D). Thus, the search of the backpack could not be supported as a search incident to arrest. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Romero" on Justia Law

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Oscar "O" Garcia was charged by indictment with money laundering, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, and possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Following plea negotiations, the government filed an information, charging Garcia with only two counts: conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance and money laundering. The parties entered into a plea agreement with a stipulated sentence of 180 months. Garcia consented to appearing before a federal magistrate judge for his change of plea hearing the same day. After Garcia’s change-of-plea hearing before the magistrate judge, but prior to his sentencing before the district judge, Garcia moved to withdraw his plea. The magistrate judge did not make a written recommendation nor did the clerk of court file a notice as to any objections to the magistrate judge’s recommendation. This case called on the Tenth Circuit to resolve whether federal magistrate judges could accept and enter guilty pleas in criminal proceedings where the parties have consented to appearing before the magistrate judge. Longstanding precedent says they could, but in this case, Garcia argued this precedent was abrogated by subsequent changes to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, and that only district court judges could accept pleas deemed to be dispositive. He contended these changes to the Rules allowed him to withdraw his previously accepted plea of guilty as a matter of right. The Tenth Circuit found Garcia’s argument persuasive, but felt bound by prior precedent. For that reason, the Court affirmed the district court. View "United States v. Garcia" on Justia Law