Recent Circuit Cases

The Federal Docket

United States v. Katie Boll (8th Cir. July 2021)

The Eighth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s sentence and the sentencing court’s application of the enhancement for an offense involving a “large number” of vulnerable victims. The Court held that the defendant’s actions in stealing pain medication from 14 patients warranted the application where the district court found that this was a “large number” relative to similar offenses.

United States v. Alfred Velazquez (9th Cir. July 2021)

The Ninth Circuit vacated a defendant’s conviction for importing drugs based on the prosecutor’s statements in closing regarding the standard of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court held that the prosecutor’s comparison of the standard to the confidence a person might need to have in eating a meal without fear of sickness or traveling to court without worrying about a car accident mischaracterized and “trivialized” the standard and caused substantial prejudice.

United States v. Andrew Sarchett (8th Cir. July 2021)

The Eighth Circuit vacated a defendant’s sentence for distributing methamphetamine based on the sentencing court improperly calculating the defendant’s drug quantity. The Court held that drugs found in the defendant’s girlfriend’s car should not have been included in the defendant’s total drug quantity where the additional quantity was based solely on a stipulation in the plea agreement that the girlfriend had made certain statements about the drugs. The stipulation did not establish that her statements were true, and there was no additional evidence tying the defendant to the drugs.

United States v. Laneesha Colston (11th Cir. July 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a defendant’s drug convictions after she was arrested picking up a package for someone that contained cocaine. The Court held that, notwithstanding the Government’s concession at trial to the contrary, the government only had to prove that the defendant knew the package contained some kind of controlled substance, not the specific type alleged in the indictment. Here, the Court held there was sufficient circumstantial evidence proving the defendant knew there were illegal drugs in the package. The Court also declined to review whether sufficient evidence supported the deliberate ignorance instruction and held the trial court did not err in admitting evidence of the defendant’s unrelated illegal pill sales under Rule 404(b).

United States v. Jerome Stancil (11th Cir. July 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a defendant’s conviction and sentence under the ACCA. The Court held that his prior convictions under a Virginia law that criminalized the mere “sharing” or “giving away” of drugs were predicate prior convictions under the ACCA. The Court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the magistrate judge improperly credited the officers’ testimony at his suppression hearing where the alleged inconsistencies in their testimony were not material.

United States v. Pedro Nunez, et al (11th Cir. June 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed defendants’ drug smuggling convictions under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. The Court held that the U.S. had jurisdiction over the defendants because they were in a “vessel without nationality.” The four defendants were found in a small motor boat, without any identifying flag, documents, registration, serial numbers, or other sign of nationality, and none of the defendants identified themselves as the vessel’s master. The Court’s ruling on this point creates a circuit split with the Second Circuit. Moreover, the Eleventh Circuit held that a district court is not required to conduct an evidentiary hearing on jurisdiction absent evidence showing a need for a hearing.

United States v. Christopher Henry (11th Cir. June 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the sentence of a defendant after the sentencing court declined to grant the defendant a downward departure under USSG 5G1.3 based on his time served on a state sentence for relevant conduct. The Court reasoned that Booker rendered all Guidelines advisory, including 5G1.3. Judge W. Pryor dissented, arguing that 5G1.3 was binding notwithstanding Booker, since the Guideline did not address the sentencing range but rather the kinds of sentences a judge can impose. The opinion was also contrary to prior panel precedent in US v. Knight.

United States v. Michael Anderson (11th Cir. June 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the conviction of a defendant who argued that the trial court violated his right to testify by asking him whether he would testify or waive his right and that the trial court violated Rule 30(b) of the federal rules of criminal procedure by sua sponte amending the jury instructions after defense counsel’s closing arguments. The Court held that district courts are not required to get a defendant’s choice to testify or waiver on the record but noted this can be beneficial to defendants as long as district court’s do not interfere with the defendant’s decision. The Court also held that the district court’s violation of Rule 30(b) did not warrant reversal where the court was amending a misstatement of law and defense counsel was not subjected to undue surprise or prejudice based on that correction.

United States v. Mario Alberto Montenegro (11th Cir. June 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s application of the 2-point enhancement for possessing a firearm or dangerous weapon during a drug offense. Although the Government conceded at sentencing that it could not meet its burden and the defendant objected to the enhancement, the Court held that the district court, not the parties, apply the guidelines, and there was sufficient evidence to apply the enhancement here where the defendant’s rifle was found in a “very small trailer,” where the defendant sold and kept drugs, and the rifle was in “very close proximity” to the drugs.

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.”

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