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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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In November 2018, Joseph Hoskins was stopped by a Utah state trooper, Jared Withers, because his Illinois license plate was partially obscured. The situation escalated when Trooper Withers conducted a dog sniff of the car, which led him to search the car and find a large amount of cash. Mr. Hoskins was arrested, and his DNA was collected. Mr. Hoskins sued Trooper Withers and Jess Anderson, Commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety, alleging violations of the First and Fourth Amendments and state law.The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that Trooper Withers had reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop because Utah law requires license plates to be legible, and this applies to out-of-state plates. The court also found that the dog sniff did not unlawfully prolong the traffic stop, as Mr. Hoskins was searching for his proof of insurance at the time. The court ruled that the trooper's protective measures, including pointing a gun at Mr. Hoskins, handcuffing him, and conducting a patdown, did not elevate the stop into an arrest due to Mr. Hoskins's confrontational behavior.The court further held that the dog's reaction to the car created arguable probable cause to search the car and that the discovery of a large amount of cash provided arguable probable cause to arrest Mr. Hoskins. The court found that Trooper Withers did not violate any clearly established constitutional rights by pointing a gun at Mr. Hoskins in retaliation for protected speech or as excessive force. Lastly, the court found no violation of Mr. Hoskins's due process rights related to the handling of his DNA sample, as neither the Due Process Clause nor state law created a protected interest in a procedure to ensure the destruction of his DNA sample. View "Hoskins v. Withers" on Justia Law

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In this case, the defendant, Donald Alvin Tolbert, appealed against the denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) opening his emails and attachments without a warrant. These emails contained child pornography and were detected by AOL's software, which reported them to the NCMEC. The NCMEC, state law enforcement in New Mexico, and the federal government subsequently conducted investigations leading to Tolbert's conviction.Tolbert argued that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated by the warrantless search of his emails and attachments. The court, however, ruled that even if Tolbert's Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, the evidence would still be admissible under the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule. This exception allows illegally obtained evidence to be admitted if it would have inevitably been discovered by legal means.The court found that the investigations by the NCMEC and law enforcement would have proceeded in the same way, even if the emails and attachments had not been opened, based on their routine practices. They would have used information available in the CyberTips, such as IP addresses and email addresses, to link the CyberTips to Tolbert and conduct further investigations. Thus, the evidence against Tolbert would have been discovered even without opening his emails and attachments.The court, therefore, affirmed the district court's denial of Tolbert's motion to suppress and motion to reconsider. View "United States v. Tolbert" on Justia Law

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In the case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the defendant, Jody Rufino Martinez, a member of the Syndicato de Nuevo México (“SNM”), a violent New Mexico-based prison gang, was convicted of murder under the Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering (“VICAR”) Act, racketeering conspiracy, and unlawful possession of a firearm. The convictions were related to the 2008 murder of David Romero and the 2018 shooting of Donald Salazar. On appeal, Mr. Martinez argued that the district court erred in three ways: (1) denying his motion to dismiss under the Speedy Trial Act, (2) admitting unduly prejudicial evidence during trial, and (3) denying his motion for a new trial after evidence emerged that he was involved in threats to kill the presiding district court judge. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's decisions. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Mr. Martinez's motion to dismiss under the Speedy Trial Act, as the court's finding that Mr. Martinez did not oppose a motion to continue the trial was plausible given the record as a whole. The court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence of SNM's violent acts, as that evidence was probative of SNM's use of violence to maintain and augment organizational respect and played a critical role in the government's case. Lastly, the court held that the district court did not err in failing to recuse itself, as the judge had no knowledge during the trial that Mr. Martinez was connected to threats against him. View "United States v. Martinez" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In this case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit overturned the United States District Court for the District of Utah's decision to dismiss the charge against Jonathan Alexander Morales-Lopez, who was accused of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3). This statute prohibits any person who is an unlawful user of a controlled substance from possessing a firearm.The district court held that the phrase "unlawful user" in the statute is unconstitutionally vague, both on its face and as applied to the facts of Morales-Lopez's case. However, the appellate court disagreed on both counts.First, the appellate court held that the district court erred in considering whether § 922(g)(3) was unconstitutional on its face. The court cited longstanding precedent that a defendant whose conduct is clearly prohibited by a statute cannot pose a facial challenge to it.Second, the appellate court held that the district court erred in finding § 922(g)(3) unconstitutional as applied to Morales-Lopez's conduct. The appellate court found that there was sufficient evidence of a temporal nexus between Morales-Lopez's drug use and his possession of a firearm.The facts of the case are as follows: Morales-Lopez and another man were caught stealing firearms and ammunition from a store in Utah. Morales-Lopez was found with a stolen gun and methamphetamine. He also admitted to using drugs regularly in the month prior to his arrest.The appellate court concluded that the phrase "unlawful user" in § 922(g)(3) is clear in its application to Morales-Lopez's conduct and that the district court should reinstate the jury’s verdict. The case was remanded back to the district court with instructions to proceed accordingly. View "United States v. Morales-Lopez" on Justia Law

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In a criminal appeal, the defendant, Kenneth Devereaux, challenged his sixty-month sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He argued that the district court erred in treating his prior conviction for assault resulting in serious bodily injury as a "crime of violence" and using that conviction to increase his base offense level. The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed with Devereaux and the government that the district court had erred. The court concluded that the differing mental states (intentional or reckless) that could constitute a violation of the assault statute were different means of committing a single, indivisible offense, rather than elements of separate offenses. The court applied the Supreme Court's guidance in Mathis v. United States and its own post-Borden decision in United States v. Benally to reach this conclusion. As a result, because the least criminalized conduct the assault statute proscribes is recklessness, a conviction under the statute does not categorically involve the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against another person. Therefore, the court vacated Devereaux's sentence and remanded the case for resentencing. View "United States v. Devereaux" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit vacated the conviction of John Miguel Swan, who had pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of ammunition. Swan appealed the district court's denial of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing that his plea was unknowing and involuntary due to a material misrepresentation made by his plea counsel. His counsel had told him, just before he decided to plead guilty, that all minorities would be removed from his jury, and his case would be tried before exclusively white jurors. The court held that this misrepresentation about Swan's right to an impartial jury selected through racially nondiscriminatory means rendered his plea unknowing and involuntary. The court found that the misrepresentation was not corrected during the district court’s plea colloquy nor negated by Swan’s prior experience in the criminal-justice system. As such, the court held that the district court abused its discretion in denying Swan’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea, vacated Swan's conviction, and remanded for the district court to allow Swan to withdraw his guilty plea and for further proceedings. View "United States v. Swan" on Justia Law

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In the case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the defendant, Jonathan Kearn, was initially indicted on three child pornography offenses involving his own children. He faced up to 30 years’ imprisonment for these charges. However, the government offered a plea agreement for a 10-year sentence if Kearn pled guilty to one of the counts. Following a six-minute conversation with his trial counsel about the plea agreement, Kearn decided to reject the offer and proceed to trial. He was then convicted on all three counts and sentenced to 24 years in prison. After exhausting his appeals, Kearn filed a pro se motion arguing that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective during the plea-bargaining phase.The district court granted Kearn's motion, finding that his trial counsel provided deficient advice about the proposed plea deal, and that there was a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, Kearn would have pleaded guilty. The court ordered the government to reoffer the plea. It then accepted Kearn’s guilty plea, vacated the prior judgment, and resentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment.On appeal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court found that Kearn's trial counsel's brief discussion with him was inadequate to explain the complexities of the plea and that counsel had given Kearn inaccurate and misleading information. The court also found that given the substantial difference in sentencing exposure—20 years—and the evidence suggesting Kearn was amenable to pleading guilty if he had been adequately advised, the district court reasonably found that Kearn would have accepted a properly presented plea deal and avoided trial. View "United States v. Kearn" on Justia Law

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In this appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the defendant, John Miguel Swan, appealed the district court’s denial of his presentence motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The case originated from a grand jury indictment of Swan for being a felon in possession of ammunition. Swan initially plead guilty, but five months later, the district court allowed Swan's plea counsel to withdraw and appointed new counsel. Swan later wrote a pro se letter to the district court asserting his factual innocence and indicating that his plea counsel had compelled him to plead guilty. This appeal focuses on the claim that plea counsel materially misrepresented the nature of Swan's right to a jury trial, which, Swan argued, rendered his guilty plea unknowing and involuntary.The court found that Swan’s plea counsel informed him that all minorities would be removed from his jury and his case would be tried before exclusively white jurors. This was seen as a material misrepresentation about Swan’s right to an impartial jury selected through racially nondiscriminatory means. The court determined that under these circumstances, Swan’s plea was unknowing and involuntary, and the district court abused its discretion in denying Swan’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Accordingly, the court reversed the lower court's decision and remanded the case back to the district court to allow Swan to withdraw his guilty plea for further proceedings. View "United States v. Swan" on Justia Law

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In this case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit analyzed whether a police officer violated the Fourth Amendment by prolonging a traffic stop to determine whether the driver of a rental vehicle was authorized to drive it. The driver, Jerry Dawson, was pulled over for speeding, and during the stop, the officer discovered marijuana and two pounds of methamphetamine in the vehicle. Dawson argued that the officer had no reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity and therefore had no authority to detain him beyond the time necessary to issue the speeding ticket.The court held that the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment because checking a rental agreement is an ordinary inquiry incident to a traffic stop. The court found that this inquiry is part of an officer's mission during a traffic stop and does not constitute an "unrelated investigation." Therefore, the officer was justified in continuing to detain Dawson to determine whether he was authorized to drive the rental car.Dawson also appealed his 70-month imprisonment sentence, arguing that the district court erred in concluding it could not adjust his sentence to account for his pretrial time served for a relevant offense. The court dismissed Dawson's appeal of his sentence, holding that it lacked jurisdiction to review a discretionary refusal to depart from the sentencing guidelines. View "United States v. Dawson" on Justia Law

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In the case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the defendant Christopher Guinn appealed his convictions for aggravated sexual abuse and assault, arguing that the district court improperly admitted evidence of his prior nonsexual abuse under Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 413. He also contested his 240-month sentence, arguing that the district court miscalculated his criminal-history category, which led to the wrong advisory Guidelines range.The court affirmed Guinn's convictions but vacated his sentence and remanded for resentencing. The court found that the district court did not err in admitting evidence of Guinn’s previous sexual assaults against his former girlfriends under Rule 413. However, the court agreed with Guinn that his sentences for two prior convictions should have been counted as a single sentence because they were not separated by an intervening arrest. This error led to an incorrect calculation of Guinn's criminal-history category, which in turn affected his sentencing range. The court remanded the case for resentencing under the correct criminal-history category. View "United States v. Guinn" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law