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

Articles Posted in Criminal 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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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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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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Joseph Maldonado-Passage a/k/a Joe Exotic, the self-proclaimed "Tiger King," was indicted on 21 counts: most for wildlife crimes, and two for using interstate facilities in the commission of his murder-for-hire plots against Carole Baskin. A jury convicted Maldonado-Passage on all counts, and the court sentenced him to 264 months’ imprisonment. On appeal, Maldonado-Passage challenged his murder-for-hire convictions, arguing that the district court erred by allowing Baskin, a listed government witness, to attend the entire trial proceedings. He also disputed his sentence, arguing that the trial court erred by not grouping his two murder-for-hire convictions in calculating his advisory Guidelines range. On this second point, he contended that the Guidelines required the district court to group the two counts because they involved the same victim and two or more acts or transactions that were connected by a common criminal objective: murdering Baskin. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal determined the district court acted within its discretion by allowing Baskin to attend the full trial proceedings despite her being listed as a government witness, but that it erred by not grouping the two murder-for-hire convictions at sentencing. Accordingly, the conviction was affirmed, but the sentence vacated and remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Maldonado-Passage" on Justia Law

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Between August 2010 and January 2011, Defendant Armando Cervantes prepared for trial on two charges: (1) conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine; and (2) possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. On the eve of trial, defense counsel filed a last-minute motion to continue premised on a breakdown of communication. The district court denied the motion and commenced with jury selection. After jury selection but before opening statements, Defendant absconded. The district court proceeded with trial in Defendant’s absence, and the jury returned a guilty verdict on both counts. Nine years later, Defendant was apprehended and sentenced. This appeal followed. Defendant argued the district court abused its discretion by: (1) denying his motion to continue; and (2) trying him in absentia. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed defendant's convictions. View "United States v. Cervantes" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Joshua Mjoness challenged his conviction under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) for using and carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of transmitting threats in interstate commerce under 18 U.S.C. 875(c). The question on appeal was whether 18 U.S.C. 875(c) constituted a crime of violence such that it could serve as a predicate for the 18 U.S.C. 924(c) charge. The Tenth Circuit found that section 875(c) provided separate elements in the form of threats to kidnap or, alternatively, threats to injure, so the Court concluded Mjoness’s offense of transmitting threats to injure in interstate commerce met the definition of a "crime of violence." The Court therefore affirmed the district court’s order, but on alternate grounds. View "United States v. Mjoness" on Justia Law

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Petitioner-appellee Karl Fontenot was twice tried and found guilty of the 1984 kidnapping, robbery, and murder of Donna Haraway in Ada, Oklahoma. Almost no evidence connected him to the crime other than his own videotaped confession, a confession that "rang false in almost every particular." Nearly thirty years after his second conviction, Fontenot brought a petition for habeas corpus in federal district court, arguing the actual innocence gateway allowed for his constitutional claims to be heard on the merits. The district court agreed, and granted relief on all of Fontenot’s claims, including his assertion that the prosecution suppressed material evidence prior to his trial. The district court ordered the State of Oklahoma to release Fontenot or grant him a new trial. The State appealed, but the Tenth Circuit found its arguments for reversing that order lacked merit. "Mr. Fontenot has brought forth new evidence that is sufficient to unlock the actual innocence gateway and to allow his substantive claims to be heard on the merits. And Mr. Fontenot has also established that evidence suppressed by the State prior to his new trial in 1988 led to a violation of his constitutional right to due process." Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s grant of Fontenot’s petition for habeas relief. View "Fontenot v. Crow" on Justia Law

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Defendant Nickie Nathanial Rico asserted he was acting in self-defense when he fired several shots in the late hours of the night across a busy downtown Denver street. As a result of his actions, the government charged Defendant with one count of possessing a firearm as a felon in possession under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), and he pleaded guilty. At sentencing, the Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”) applied a cross-reference for attempted murder. Over Defendant’s objection, the district court concluded the PSR appropriately applied the cross-reference and sentenced Defendant to 97 months’ imprisonment. The Tenth Circuit held that for a defendant to invoke self-defense, one must face imminent danger that he did not cause. Defendant contended the district court incorrectly found that he did not act in self-defense, and therefore erred in applying the Guideline enhancement for attempted murder. Defendant also contended that Colorado, and not federal, self- defense law applied. The Court found defendant failed to support his assertions with record evidence: "In fact, the record supports the district court’s factual finding that the evening’s events did not trigger a reasonable belief that Defendant needed to use deadly force in self-defense." Judgment was affirmed. View "United States v. Rico" on Justia Law