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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Roderick Smith was sentenced to death by an Oklahoma state jury for the 1993 murders of his wife and four stepchildren. In the pendency of his case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), prohibiting the execution of the intellectually disabled. Smith filed a successor application in state court for postconviction relief pursuant to Atkins, and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (“OCCA”) remanded the case to the Oklahoma County District Court for a jury trial to determine whether Smith was intellectually disabled. At the subsequent jury trial in 2004 (the “Atkins trial”), the jury found Smith was not intellectually disabled and allowed his execution to move forward. But the Tenth Circuit then granted relief on Smith’s previously filed habeas corpus petition in Smith v. Mullin, 379 F.3d 919 (10th Cir. 2004), entitling him to resentencing. A jury found Smith competent to stand trial in 2009, and he was resentenced to death in 2010. Smith again sought federal habeas relief. The district court denied relief in an unpublished opinion. On appeal again to the Tenth Circuit, Smith argued multiple violations of his constitutional rights following the Atkins resentencing trials. With respect to the district court’s denial of habeas relief on Smith’s Atkins challenge to the constitutionality of his execution, the Tenth Circuit granted relief and did not address Smith’s remaining claims concerning his Atkins proceeding. The Court otherwise affirmed the district court’s denial of Smith’s 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The case was remanded with instructions to grant a conditional writ vacating Smith’s death sentence and remanding to the State for a new penalty-phase proceeding. View "Smith v. Sharp" on Justia Law

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In 2011, Elliott Williams was jailed at the Tulsa Oklahoma County Jail. Shortly after his booking, he severely injured his neck, causing lower body paralysis. No one treated his injury. Despite his frequent complaints of pain and paralysis, no one transported him to a hospital. He remained immobile for five days, lying on his back in various cells at the jail, and died of complications from the neck injury. The administrator of Mr. Williams’s estate, Robbie Emery Burke, filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging detention officers and medical providers at the jail violated Mr. Williams’s Fourteenth Amendment right by acting with deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. It further alleged Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz was liable in his individual supervisory capacity and in his official capacity for his subordinates’ violations. During pretrial litigation, Sheriff Glanz resigned and his successor, Sheriff Vic Regalado, was substituted as the defendant on the official-capacity claim. By the time of trial, Sheriffs Glanz and Regalado (“the Sheriffs”) were the only defendants remaining. A jury awarded Burke $10 million in compensatory damages against Sheriff Glanz and Sheriff Regalado and $250,000 in punitive damages against Sheriff Glanz in his individual supervisory capacity. On appeal, the Sheriffs challenged the verdict, various evidentiary rulings, and several pre- and post-trial decisions of the district court. After careful consideration of all issues raised, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court on all grounds except for its denial of the Sheriffs’ motion for a setoff. The Court reversed and remanded for further consideration of that issue. View "Burke v. Regalado" on Justia Law

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The circumstances that gave rise to this case stemmed from Plaintiff Floyd Bledsoe’s allegedly wrongful conviction for the 1999 rape and murder of fourteen-year-old C.A. C.A> lived with Plaintiff and his wife Heidi, C.A.'s older sister. Plaintiff and Heidi reported C.A. missing when C.A.'s coat and book bag were found, but C.A. was not. The couple spent the next forty-eight hours or so looking for the missing girl. A breakthrough came days later when Tom Bledsoe, Plaintiff’s older brother, confessed that he had killed C.A. Tom led the officers to C.A.’s body, which had been buried under a large amount of dirt and plywood. C.A. had been shot once in the back of the head and several times in the torso. The coroner later found semen in her vagina but could not say whether she had been forcibly raped. Near her body, investigators found three bullet casings, a pornographic video, and a t-shirt printed with the name of the church Tom attended. Tom’s attorney also surrendered a Jennings nine-millimeter handgun—the professed murder weapon—to the authorities. Authorities soon charged Tom with the first-degree murder of C.A. Despite this evidence, authorities switched course and decided to pin C.A.’s death on Plaintiff instead. The issue this case presented for the Tenth Circuit's review centered on whether the prosecutor enjoyed absolute immunity from suit for fabricating evidence against Plaintiff during the preliminary investigation of the crime. The Tenth Circuit determined Supreme Court precedent dictated that the prosecutor did not, the district court’s order denying the prosecutor absolute immunity was affirmed. View "Bledsoe v. Vanderbilt" on Justia Law

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At issue before the Tenth Circuit in this case was whether a special condition of supervised relief, “defendant’s use of computers and Internet access devices must be limited to those the defendant requests to use, and which the probation officer authorizes,” involves a “greater deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary for” deterring criminal activity, protecting the public, and promoting a defendant’s rehabilitation in contravention of 18 U.S.C. sections 3583(d)(2) and 3553(a)(2)(B)-(D). In 2013, the police searched Michael Blair’s home as part of an investigation that was unrelated to this case. During the search, the police discovered a hard drive belonging to Blair with more than 700,000 images of child pornography on it. Ultimately, Blair was charged with and plead guilty to one count of possession of child pornography. After calculating Blair’s sentence, the district court imposed, among several others, the special conditions of supervised release at issue. The Tenth Circuit concluded this special condition violated these provisions because it allowed the probation office to completely ban the defendant’s use of the Internet by failing to place any restraints on a probation officer’s ability to restrict a defendant’s Internet access. Thus, the Tenth Circuit concluded the special condition was impermissibly broad, and the district court abused its discretion by imposing it. The special condition was vacated and the case remanded to the district court to reformulate it to conform with the dictates of the Court's opinion. Blair also challenged the length of his sentence as substantively unreasonable, but the Court disagreed with that challenge and affirmed it. View "United States v. Blair" on Justia Law

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Defendant Michelle Paup was convicted by jury of theft of government property of a value less than $1,000, and removal of theft-detection devices. The charges arose from a shoplifting incident at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service store on Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado (the Exchange). The magistrate judge sentenced Defendant to concurrent sentences on each count of 30-days’ imprisonment and one year of supervised release. The judge also imposed a $1,000 fine and ordered restitution equaling the full retail value of the stolen merchandise ($734.41). Defendant appealed to the United States District Court for the District of Colorado, challenging, as relevant here, the amount of the restitution award, the exclusion of her expert witness, and the application of a two-level enhancement of her offense level because of perjury. The district court upheld her conviction and sentence of imprisonment but vacated the restitution award and remanded to the magistrate judge for further proceedings. Defendant then appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tenth Circuit found it had jurisdiction because the district-court remand order did not disturb Defendant’s conviction or sentence of imprisonment, and the remaining issue on remand was the amount of restitution. The Court affirmed on the merits, finding the magistrate judge did not err in excluding Defendant’s expert or in imposing the offense-level enhancement. View "United States v. Paup" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Anthony Waller appealed a district court’s Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of his municipal liability claim against the City and County of Denver for a Denver deputy sheriff’s use of excessive force against him In 2012, while in pretrial detention, Waller was escorted in handcuffs and other restraints to a courtroom located within the Denver City Jail for a first advisement hearing. After the judge finished the advisement, Waller “politely address[ed] the Court in a normal and subdued voice,” stating that he thought the investigation should have come before his arrest. The judge began to respond, but while she was speaking, Deputy Sheriff Brady Lovingier, who had been standing directly behind Waller, suddenly and “without warning, justification[,] or provocation” grabbed Waller, spun him around, and threw him face first into a nearby glass wall and metal post, causing him to sustain “serious and permanent injuries.” Deputy Lovingier’s assault on Waller was captured on video recorded by the courtroom cameras. Approximately one year later, Deputy Lovingier received a thirty-day suspension for his assault on Waller. In 2014, Waller filed this federal lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging: a claim of excessive force against Deputy Lovingier, and a claim of municipal liability against Denver premised on Deputy Lovingier’s use of force. Arguing against the district court’s dismissal, Waller argued broadly he could prevail because the allegations in his complaint in general established “that Denver has a custom, policy, or practice of tolerating and ratifying the use of excessive force.” Assuming without deciding that this argument was properly preserved and supported on appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found no error: “Deputy Lovingier’s actions, no matter how egregious, cannot in themselves give rise to an inference that the city must have been at fault, ‘for the officer’s shortcomings may have resulted from factors other than a faulty training program’ or other municipal deficiency. ‘To adopt lesser standards of fault and causation would open municipalities to unprecedented liability under [section] 1983.’” View "Waller v. City and County of Denver" on Justia Law

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James Gonzales pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm after a felony conviction. The district court sentenced him to 27 months’ imprisonment and 3 years of supervised release. In selecting this sentence, the court enhanced the base-offense level under Sentencing Guideline 3A1.2(c)(1), which applied when the defendant assaults a law-enforcement officer during the course of the offense. The Tenth Circuit concluded the court erred in interpreting 3A1.2(c)(1), so it reversed. View "United States v. Gonzales" on Justia Law

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More than a decade after the crimes occurred, Dale Eaton was tried for and convicted of the kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, and murder of Lisa Kimmell. A Wyoming jury sentenced him to death, and he later sought federal habeas relief from his convictions and death sentence. The federal district court agreed that Eaton was entitled to partial relief and vacated his death sentence. But the district court refused to disturb Eaton’s underlying convictions. And it also refused to bar the state from conducting new death-penalty proceedings. On appeal, Eaton argued the district court erred: (1) by denying relief on the constitutional claims that implicated his convictions; (2) by refusing to modify the conditional writ to bar the state from conducting new death-penalty proceedings; and (3) by subsequently concluding that the state didn’t waive its right to pursue new death penalty proceedings by failing to timely comply with the conditional writ’s requirements. Finding no reversible error in the district court judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Eaton v. Pacheco" on Justia Law

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Louis Hansen was indicted for tax evasion and tax obstruction. Before trial, Hansen purported to waive his right to counsel. The district court held a hearing to determine whether this waiver was made knowingly and intelligently. At that hearing, the district court asked Hansen, among other things, whether he understood he would be required to follow federal procedural and evidentiary rules if he proceeded without counsel. Hansen’s response was at best ambiguous and unclear; at one juncture, he specifically told the court that he did not understand that he would be required to abide by these rules. Without seeking clarification from Hansen, the court accepted the waiver. Hansen represented himself at trial, and the jury convicted him of both tax evasion and tax obstruction. On appeal, Hansen argued that his waiver of the right to counsel was invalid because it was not made knowingly and intelligently. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court incorrectly determined that Hansen’s waiver was knowing and intelligent. In particular, the Court determined the trial court failed to engage in a sufficiently thorough colloquy with Hansen that would properly warn him that if he proceeded pro se, he would be obliged to adhere to federal procedural and evidentiary rules. The district court’s waiver determination was reversed and the matter remanded to vacate Hansen’s conviction and to conduct further proceedings. View "United States v. Hansen" on Justia Law

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Former federal prisoner, plaintiff-appellant Billy May, filed suit under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), claiming he was denied his due process rights as a prisoner when he was quarantined without a hearing during a scabies infestation at the prison. The magistrate judge granted camp administrator Juan Segovia summary judgment on two issues: (1) the exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) applied to May; and (2) there was no genuine issue of material fact as to the availability of administrative remedies. May appealed to contest both conclusions. Segovia opposed May’s appeal, raising two alternative grounds for affirmance that Segovia raised before the magistrate judge, but the judge did not reach. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the magistrate judge’s conclusions that the PLRA exhaustion requirement applied to May and that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether administrative remedies were available to him. Because the Court affirmed the judgment below, it did not reach Segovia’s alternative arguments. View "May v. Segovia" on Justia Law