Major Cases

The Federal Docket

United States v. Wilson (9th Cir. September 2021)

The Ninth Circuit reversed a defendant’s conviction for child pornography. The district court should have suppressed evidence where the Government engaged in a warrantless search of the defendant’s email attachments, which had been forwarded to the government by Google’s automated system. Since the government was the first to review these files, the private search exception did not apply.

United States v. Pérez-Rodríguez (1st Cir. September 2021)

The First Circuit vacated a defendant’s conviction for enticing a minor after the defendant arranged with an undercover agent to have sex with a minor. The Court held that the defendant was entitled to an instruction on entrapment where there was evidence of improper inducement based on the agent offering to “bundle” legal sex with an adult with illegal sex with a minor, and where the agent downplayed the potential harm. There was also evidence that the defendant was not predisposed, given the lack of evidence of similar transactions and the defendant’s initial hesitation.

United States v. James Braddy (11th Cir. August 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence from a traffic stop. The Court held that the officer’s mistaken interpretation of Alabama traffic law was reasonable, the officer did not unlawfully prolong the stop by asking the driver about his plans and itinerary or allowing his dog to sniff near the car, and there was probable cause to search the vehicle based on the dog’s change in behavior near the car, though the dog did not give a “final response” indicating the presence of drugs.

United States v. Ronald Hunter (6th Cir. August 2021)

Limiting the discretion district courts have grant motions for compassionate release or sentence reductions, the Sixth Circuit held that a district court cannot base a finding of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” on non-retroactive changes in the law or facts that existed when the defendant was sentenced, even taken together.

United States v. Latecia Watkins (11th Cir. August 2021), EN BANC

Sitting en banc, the Eleventh Circuit reversed prior precedents regarding the “Inevitable Discovery Doctrine” and held that, to preclude suppression of unlawfully obtained evidence, the Government must show by a “preponderance of the evidence” that law enforcement would have ultimately discovered the evidence through lawful means anyway. In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit abandoned the “reasonable probability” standard.

United States v. Brandon Royce Phillips (11th Cir. July 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a defendant’s conviction for enticing a minor to produce pornography, holding that the district court did not constructively amend the indictment when it instructed the jury that the government did not have to prove the defendant had knowledge of the victim’s age, as the language in the indictment alleging that the defendant acted “knowingly and intentionally” only applied to the “acts barred in the statute.” Moreover, the Court emphasized that a district court is free to ignore language in the indictment that alleges a “higher mens rea” than the statute requires as “mere surplusage. The Court vacated the defendant’s conviction for possessing child pornography, however, since he had also been convicted of receiving child pornography based on the same conduct, thus violating the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Roderick Lewis v. Dushan Zatecky (7th Cir. April 2021)

In a 2-1 opinion, the Seventh Circuit reversed the denial of Roderick Lewis’s 2254 motion and remanded his case for re-sentencing. The Court held that the defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel when his lawyer at sentencing only said he was “going to defer to Mr. Lewis if he has any comments. I don’t have anything to add.” The Court further held that this was one of those rare instances where prejudice is presumed pursuant to SCOTUS’s decision in U.S. v. Cronic, since trial counsel’s silence at sentencing “went beyond a failure to conduct adversarial testing; it was an announcement of abandonment.”

United States v. Abdulaziz (1st Cir. June 2021)

The First Circuit vacated a defendant’s sentence which had been enhanced based on a 2014 conviction under state law for distributing marijuana, which the sentencing court held was a “controlled substance offense” under the Guidelines. The First Circuit held that convictions under state laws that do not distinguish between marijuana and hemp, as defined and legalized under federal law, cannot serve as “controlled substance offenses” under the Guidelines.

Ninth and Eleventh Circuits Split Over Amended Safety Valve Relief

The Eleventh Circuit and Ninth Circuit created a circuit split concerning the proper interpretation of the safety valve under 18 USC 3553(f), particularly as it was amended by the First Step Act. The courts disagreed over the proper interpretation of the word “and” in the list of requirements a defendant must meet for their criminal history to allow them to qualify for the safety valve. The Ninth Circuit’s interpretation would allow far more defendants qualify.

Edwards v. Vannoy (U.S. Supreme Court. May 2021)

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that the unanimous verdict rule announced in Ramos v. Louisiana was not retroactive for inmates convicted on split verdicts. The Court also effectively overruled the “watershed exception” from Teague v. Lane that held that a new rule of criminal procedure can be applied retroactively if it is a “watershed” rule pertaining to “basic due process.”

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