Major Cases

The Federal Docket

Counterman v. Colorado (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2023)

At issue was whether the First Amendment requires that prosecutors in a “true threats” case show that a defendant’s speech is not only objectively threatening, but that the defendant was subjectively aware of their threatening character. In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment requires that the State prove a defendant had “some subjective understanding of his statements’ threatening nature,” though the State can prove that under a recklessness standard by showing that a defendant consciously disregarded the threatening nature of his communications.

United States v. Mendez (9th Cir. June 2022)

The Ninth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s conviction for employing, using, persuading, inducing, enticing, or coercing a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct under 18 USC 2251(a) where the defendant had placed hidden cameras in a bedroom to capture footage of a minor masturbating. The Court held that the “use” element of 2251(a) is satisfied whenever a defendant causes a minor victim to be the subject of child pornography.

United States v. Taylor (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court held that attempted Hobbs Act robbery does not qualify as a “crime of violence” under 924(c) “because no element of the offense requires proof that the defendant used, attempted to use, or threatened to use force.” Applying the categorical approach, the Court held that a generic defendant could be convicted of attempted Hobbs Act robbery without using or threatening force based simply on their “intent” and their taking a non-forceful “substantial step.”

United States v. Stines (11th Cir. May 2022)

In a matter of first impression, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a defendant’s sentence for illegally exporting firearms. The Court concluded that the lower offense level under USSG 2M5.2(a)(2) did not apply since the defendant’s offense involved more than 2 firearms, where the defendant had exported enough firearm parts to assemble two guns and enough spare parts to service additional firearms.

United States v. Vargas (5th Cir. May 2022)

The Fifth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s sentence as a career offender based on his prior convictions. The defendant argued that his prior convictions did not count as “controlled substances” under the Guidelines since the Guidelines themselves do not include inchoate drug offenses like attempt and conspiracy–only the commentary to the Guidelines does. The Fifth Circuit deepened a circuit split by holding that the commentary are still binding on courts notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Kisor v. Wilkie.

Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez (SCOTUS, May 2022)

In a 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court held that there is no right to counsel in state post-conviction proceedings and, as such, a petitioner’s ineffective assistance claim must be evident on the face of the state court record, rather than developed through an evidentiary hearing.

United States v. Abreu (3rd Cir. May 2022)

The Third Circuit vacated a defendant’s sentence after holding the district court improperly enhanced the defendant’s offense level under the Guidelines based on the defendant’s prior conviction for conspiracy to commit second degree murder. The plain text of the relevant Guidelines provision does not include “conspiracy” under the definition of “crime of violence,” and courts may not rely on commentary to increase a defendant’s Guidelines range when the commentary goes beyond the plain text of the Guidelines.

Fuad Said v. Attorney General (11th Cir. March 2022)

In an immigration appeal that likely affects federal criminal cases, the Eleventh Circuit held that a petitioner’s prior state law conviction for possession of marijuana did not constitute an offense involving a “controlled substance” as defined under federal law. The Court noted that the definition of marijuana under federal law, while still classifying marijuana as a controlled substance, excludes cannabis that falls under the definition of “hemp.” The petitioner’s conviction was under a Florida law that did not make that distinction and thus would ostensibly allow for a conviction based on possession of hemp. Accordingly, the petitioner’s prior offense was not a categorical match with the federal definition of a controlled substance offense.

Seabrooks v. United States (11th Cir. May 2022)

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of a defendant’s motion to vacate their sentence under 28 USC 2255. The Court held that the district court erred in instructing the jury on aiding and abetting in an unlawful possession of a firearm case where the government did not present any evidence that the defendant knew his co-defendant was prohibited from possessing firearms. The Court also held that Rehaif is retroactive to cases on collateral review and discussed the standard for procedural default under 2255 at length.

United States v. Zayas (3rd Cir. April 2022)

The Third Circuit reversed a defendant’s conviction for distributing drugs within 1,000 feet of a playground under 21 USC 841, where the trial court did not instruct the jury in how to define a “playground” as defined under 21 USC 861(e)(1). The Court concluded that whether the facility is a playground is an element of the offense that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, joining the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits.

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