Major Cases

The Federal Docket

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.

United States v. Begay (9th Cir. May 2022), EN BANC

Sitting en banc, the Ninth Circuit held that federal second degree murder (18 USC 1111(a)) is a “crime of violence” under 18 USC 924(c) where, employing the categorical approach, a conviction requires acting “deliberately or recklessly with extreme disregard for human life.” The Ninth Circuit distinguished reckless disregard for human life from mere recklessness but otherwise emphasized that “anything less than intentional conduct does not qualify as a crime of violence.”

Hemphill v. New York (U.S. Supreme Court, January 2022)

In a 8-1 opinion, the Supreme Court reversed Hemphill’s conviction and remanded his case for a new trial. The Court held that the admission of a transcript from another suspect’s plea allocution implicating Hemphill violated Hemphill’s Sixth Amendment confrontation right. The Court rejected its previous “reliability” exception to the confrontation requirement—drawn from Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56 (1980)—clarifying that the only real exception permitted was in the case of an unavailable witness whom the defendant had already had an opportunity to cross-examine on the same matter. The Court also rejected the assertion that the “opening the door rule” applied in the context of the Confrontation Clause.

United States v. Sadler (6th Cir. January 2022)

The Sixth Circuit vacated a defendant’s sentence and remanded for new trial on the limited issue of whether he was within the “chain of distribution” of the drugs that resulted in the victims’ deaths.

United States v. Nicholson (11th Cir. January 2022)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a defendant’s conviction and life sentence for federal child sex crimes and rejected his Fourth Amendment challenges. At issue was whether undisputed negligence by the FBI in its investigation, which involved the FBI waiting over six months to execute a warrant, well after the warrant’s deadline for the search, warranted suppression. The Court held that the violation of that deadline was akin to a violation of Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, not a violation of the Fourth Amendment, so the defendant would have to show prejudice and a deliberate disregard of the rule by law enforcement, which the Court held the defendant did not do here. The Court emphasized that the good faith exception also applied to another search because the exclusionary rule was intended to apply only to “deliberate, reckless, or gross negligent disregard for Fourth Amendment rights,” and the FBI’s negligence in this case did not rise to that level.

United States v. Campbell (11th Cir. February 2022), EN BANC

In an en banc opinion, the Eleventh Circuit held that the Government’s failure to raise the good faith exception did not foreclose the appellate panel from affirming the district court’s denial of a motion to suppress on those grounds. The Court concluded that the government’s silence on the good faith exception in a direct appeal is a forfeiture, not a waiver, and thus an appellate panel can consider the issue sua sponte in extraordinary circumstances. The opinion includes a notable concurrence by Judge W. Pryor suggesting a willingness to overrule the exclusionary rule as an act of judicial intervention.

United States v. Ruvalcaba (1st Cir. February 2022)

The First Circuit held, as a matter of first impression, that a district court considering a motion for compassionate release is not bound by U.S.S.G. 1B1.13. In doing so, the Court joined every other circuit to consider the issue, except the 11th Circuit, in recognizing that district courts have broad discretion to determine whether an inmate presents “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting relief. Here, the defendant was serving a mandatory life sentence, and the Court added that district courts are free to consider “non-retroactive changes in sentencing law on an individual basis, grounded in a defendant’s particular circumstances…” Even among the circuits that agree 1B1.13 is not binding, there is a split regarding whether non-retroactive changes in sentencing laws may be considered towards an inmate’s release.

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