Circuit Court Opinions

The Federal Docket

United States v. Ian Owens (6th Cir. May 2021)

The Sixth Circuit held that the disparity between a defendant’s actual sentence and the sentence that he or she would have received if the First Step Act’s amendments applied can, along with other factors, constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons warranting a sentence reduction.

Carlos Granda v. United States (11th Cir. March 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the denial of a defendant’s motion under 2255. The trial court in the defendant’s case had erroneously instructed the jury that the defendant’s charge for Hobbs Act conspiracy could be a predicate offense for finding the defendant guilty of conspiracy to possess a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence under 924(o). However, the defendant had procedurally defaulted on this claim by not bringing it up in front of the trial court or on direct appeal, and he could not show prejudice or actual innocence because the jury found him guilty of other predicate offenses that were “inextricable intertwined” with the Hobbs Act conspiracy count.

United States v. Dontiez Pendergrass (11th Cir. March 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a defendant’s convictions for armed robbery of five businesses. Among its holdings, the Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying a motion to continue, it did not err in declining to excuse a juror for cause who was a probation officer, admission of geo-location data that was gathered as fruit of an unlawful search was harmless, an agent’s testimony regarding out-of-court statements was not hearsay since it was helpful to describe investigative tactics, and there was sufficient evidence to convict the defendant based on a modus operandi and pattern reflected in each of the five robberies.

United States v. Tony Dewayne Williams (6th Cir. March 2021)

The Sixth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s sentence which was enhanced based on a prior felony conviction under Tennessee law involving marijuana. The Court held that the sentencing court erred in enhancing the defendant’s sentence based on that conviction because the Tennessee law at issue included hemp under the definition of marijuana, while hemp was distinguishable and legal under federal law. Therefore, the Tennessee conviction was not a “controlled substance offense” under the Guidelines. However, since the defendant had only objected generally at sentencing and did not articulate grounds for his objection, plain error review applied, and the sentencing court’s error here were not clear or obvious given the complexity of the issue.

United States v. Robert Paul Rundo, et al. (9th Cir. March 2021)

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of an indictment charging the defendants with violating the Anti-Riot Act. The Court held that the provisions of the Anti-Riot prohibiting an “overt act” in furtherance of inciting a riot were not overbroad since it satisfied the imminence requirement under Brandenburg. While the Court held that the provisions of the Act prohibiting the “urging,” “organizing,” “promoting,” encouraging,” and “advocating” a riot were overbroad, the language prohibiting the “instigating” of a riot was not, and regardless, the Act was severable.

United States v. Precias Freeman (4th Cir. March 2021)

The Fourth Circuit vacated a drug defendant’s sentence for two reasons. First, it held that, despite there having been no hearing where sentencing counsel testified, the record was sufficient to establish that defendant received ineffective assistance when her counsel waived meritorious objections to the guidelines that would have resulted in a lower range and where he put his efforts into getting her in a drug program despite not knowing the program’s requirements for admission. The Court also held that the defendant’s 17-year sentence was substantively unreasonable where the sentencing court failed to consider her severe opioid addiction and that her sentence was significantly longer than those of similarly-situated defendants across the country.

United States v. Tremayne Drakeford (4th Cir. March 2021)

The Fourth Circuit reversed a district court’s denial of defendant’s suppression motion. The officers had conducted a stop and frisk of the defendant at a store, and found drugs, after receiving information from an informant, witnessing the defendant during two suspected drug interactions, and seeing the defendant meet another person outside the store and engage in two handshakes, which the officers believed was a hand-to-hand drug deal despite not seeing drugs or money change hands. The Court held this was not enough to establish reasonable suspicion because the information from the informant was generalized, there was little testimony regarding the informant’s reliability, the officers had not seen any drugs or found any drugs relating to the two interactions they previously witnessed the defendant in, and the two handshakes were not suspicious where the defendant was outside a store in broad daylight and otherwise not acting suspiciously. The Court warned that “the Fourth Amendment does not allow the Government to label a person as a drug dealer and then view all of their actions through that lens.”

Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits Join Majority of Circuits Holding that Courts Have Broad Discretion in Granting Sentence Reductions

The Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have issued opinions over the past few weeks holding that district courts have broad, independent discretion in determining whether an inmate has established “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting a sentence reduction under 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A). The courts join the Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits in recognizing the broad discretion of district courts, creating a substantial majority of the circuits. The other circuits have not yet addressed this issue.

United States v. James Philip Lucero (9th Cir. March 2021)

The Ninth Circuit reversed a defendant’s conviction under the Clean Water Act based on the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury that the defendant had to have knowledge that he was discharging pollutants “into water.” The error was not harmless because it was unclear whether the defendant knew that the area in question was inundated with water when he discharged the pollutants. The Court also held that waters being “of the United States” is a jurisdictional element, that “waters of the United States” is not unconstitutionally vague, and that revised regulatory definitions of the phrase are not retroactive unless explicitly made so.

United States v. Simha Furaha (9th Cir. March 2021)

The Ninth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s sentence after the defendant challenged the district court’s application of an enhancement based on the defendant’s prior conviction under 924(c), which the sentencing court considered a “controlled substance offense” warranting an enhancement. The Court held that a sentencing court may apply the modified categorical approach to determine whether a defendant’s underlying “drug trafficking crime” under 924(c) was a “controlled substance offense” under 4B1.2.

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