Justia U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

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The Eighth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence for three counts of wire fraud, two counts of mail fraud, and one count of money laundering. The court held that the district court did not err in failing to sua sponte revoke defendant's right to self-representation on the first day of trial or to hold a competency hearing, and the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to grant a new trial on that basis. The court also held that the district court did not err by terminating defendant's self-representation during the third day of trial and in directing standby counsel to take over his defense. In this case, the totality of defendant's behavior supported the district court's decision to terminate defendant's self-representation. Finally, the court held that the district court adequately explained the basis for the upward variance in light of the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors; defendant's sentence was not substantively unreasonable; and the district court did not abuse its discretion in sentencing defendant. View "United States v. Luscombe" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Eighth Circuit reversed defendant's sentence imposed after he pleaded guilty to distributing methamphetamine. The court held that the district court erred in finding that defendant's prior Arkansas conviction for terroristic threatening was a crime of violence under USSG 4B1.1(a). In this case, the available materials suggest that the "injury to persons" and "injury to property" components of the Class B felony's mens rea requirement are different means of satisfying a single mens rea element and not alternative elements defining different crimes. Therefore, the court concluded that the categorical approach's "demand for certainty" has not been met. However, the court held that the district court did not err in finding defendant's conviction for second degree battery qualified as a crime of violence under section 4B1.1(a). Accordingly, the court remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Harris" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Plaintiff filed suit against current and former members of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, alleging that adverse employment actions were taken against him in retaliation for his protected First Amendment speech. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to defendants, holding that plaintiff's non-testimonial speech was not entitled to First Amendment protection. In this case, although it was undisputed that plaintiff spoke as a private citizen and his speech was of public concern, the highway patrol has shown sufficient evidence of disruption to the efficiency of its operations. Under the Pickering balancing test, the court held that the factors weighed in favor of the highway patrol's interest in efficiency and indicated that plaintiff's speech activity was more likely than not impeding his ability to perform his job duties as a police officer. Therefore, defendants were entitled to qualified immunity regarding plaintiff's speech to the family of the victim of a drowning accident, on social media, and to the news reporter. The court also held that the remaining testimonial speech was not a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment actions against plaintiff. Finally, plaintiff's civil conspiracy and failure to supervise claims failed as a matter of law. View "Henry v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Ali shot and killed three people during an attempted robbery in Minneapolis. He was given three consecutive life sentences, each permitting his early release after 30 years so that Ali must remain in prison for at least 90 years. Relying on recent Supreme Court precedent, Ali argued that the Eighth Amendment forbids life-without-parole sentences for juvenile defendants unless they are irreparably corrupt and that a sentencing court must conduct a hearing to consider the juvenile defendant’s youth as a mitigating factor before imposing a life-without-parole sentence. Ali claimed his sentence was the “functional equivalent” of life-without-parole. The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected Ali’s argument. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the denial of Ali’s petition for habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2254. Ali’s case is distinguishable from the Supreme Court cases; Ali received three life sentences for three separate murders, each permitting possible release. Ali does not face a life-without-parole sentence and the Supreme Court has not “clearly established” that its ruling apply to consecutive sentences functionally equivalent to life-without-parole. View "Ali v. Roy" on Justia Law

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Russell, Daniel, and Carson co-owned a business. Under a succession plan, the company was to purchase life insurance. If a shareholder died, the company would use the proceeds to buy the deceased shareholder’s stock. Daniel died. The company received insurance proceeds and kept the money. Elizabeth, Daniel’s widow, sued Russell and Carson for conversion and breach of fiduciary duty. A Kansas court issued a judgment against Russell for $822,900.77. Russell and Carson had expected Liberty to defend and indemnify them under their Directors, Officers and Company Liability Coverage and Fiduciary Liability Coverage. Liberty cited a “Personal Profit Exclusion” for claims based upon "gaining ... any profit, remuneration or financial advantage” to which they are “not legally entitled” and a “Contract Exclusion” regarding claims "attributable to any actual or alleged liability under or breach of any contract.” Russell and Carson sued Liberty in Missouri state court for bad-faith. Elizabeth joined the suit. Liberty, a corporate citizen of Massachusetts and Illinois, removed the case to federal court. Russell and Carson sought remand, arguing that in “direct action[s]” against insurers, the insurer takes the citizenship of those it insures, 28 U.S.C. 1332(c)(1); if the Trust’s equitable garnishment claim was a direct action, Liberty shared Russell’s Missouri citizenship. The district court held that the equitable garnishment claim required Russell as a defendant, but Russell’s bad-faith claim required him as a plaintiff. The court severed the suit: Russell and Carson could sue for bad-faith failure to defend and indemnify; the Trust could separately sue Liberty and Russell. The Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment on the bad faith claim. Because the Missouri statutory claim is not a direct action, complete diversity exists. The district court had jurisdiction over the bad-faith claim. The policy exclusions applied. View "Russell v. Liberty Insurance Underwriters, Inc." on Justia Law

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Following a guilty plea to possession of heroin with intent to distribute, the court sentenced Hamilton to 81 months imprisonment. Hamilton’s PSR criminal history score, used to calculate his Guidelines range, included a previous Illinois felony conviction for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. The Eighth Circuit vacated Hamilton’s sentence because part of the Illinois statute of conviction had been declared unconstitutional. At resentencing, the district court stated that the scope of resentencing was limited to Hamilton’s previous Illinois conviction and concluded that this conviction was properly part of Hamilton’s criminal history score because Hamilton was convicted under a statutory provision that remained in effect. The court reimposed the 81-month sentence. The Eighth Circuit vacated. The court rejected Hamilton’s argument that, in determining his criminal history score, the court relied on documents that did not satisfy precedent to determine that Hamilton had a valid conviction for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. The court examined an Order Assessing Fines, Fees and Costs, and the official charging document, which conclusively demonstrated that Hamilton was not convicted under the invalidated subsection. The district court was not limited on remand to consideration of only the Illinois conviction. Failure to understand the scope of authority and discretion at sentencing is a significant procedural error. The district court was not prohibited from considering Hamilton’s attempt to challenge the PSR’s statement of relevant conduct and the government’s original request for an upward departure or variance. View "United States v. Hamilton" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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A “confidential reliable informant” told police that Oliver and his co-conspirators would mail packages of cocaine to Minnesota from Maricopa, Arizona. The postal inspector found one package from Maricopa, Arizona and another with similar handwriting from Chandler, Arizona. With a search warrant, officers found cocaine inside each. The informant stated that Oliver would be transporting cocaine in a BMW that would arrive in Minneapolis on November 30, 2014. On that date, police stopped and impounded a BMW that belonged to Oliver. Days later, with a warrant, police searched the vehicle and discovered six kilograms of cocaine, and executed a warrant to search Oliver's hotel room, where they recovered cell phones but no drugs. Oliver’s co-conspirator (Williams) testified that he made multiple trips to Arizona at Oliver’s request to transport cash for buying drugs and that in November 2014, he and another co-conspirator each mailed cocaine from different towns in Arizona at Oliver’s direction. Convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, Oliver was sentenced to 204 months' imprisonment. The Eighth Circuit affirmed, rejecting claims that the government’s key witness—Williams—lacked credibility and that the district court erred in denying Oliver's motions to dismiss the second indictment, to disclose the identity of the informant, and to suppress the searches of his BMW and hotel room. Williams also unsuccessfully argued that the court should have given the jury an accomplice instruction regarding Williams’s testimony and that he was prejudiced by ineffective assistance of counsel. View "United States v. Oliver" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The bankruptcy appellate panel dismissed debtor's appeal based on lack of jurisdiction, because debtor failed to show that she was a person aggrieved by the bankruptcy court's order overruling her objection to the trustee's final report. Therefore, debtor did not have standing to appeal the bankruptcy court's order. In this case, debtor did not challenge in her objection, nor on appeal, the amount the trustee reported had been returned to her following dismissal of her case. Furthermore, debtor has not demonstrated that the bankruptcy court's order directly and adversely affected her pecuniarily. View "Marshall v. McCarty" on Justia Law

Posted in: Bankruptcy
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Jesse received a suspended sentence and probation for possession of methamphetamine, second offense. Due to several probation violations and arrests, she spent more than 332 days in custodial settings. She was arrested again in June 2003. A state court imposed a revocation sentence of an indeterminate term not to exceed two years’ incarceration. Jesse’s attorney had consulted with the Iowa Department of Corrections, which indicated that Jesse would fully serve her sentence in no more than 332 days; based on her time in custodial settings, she had already served more than that amount of time. The Department advised that Jesse should not be transported to the Classification Center and that counsel should apply for an order discharging Jesse’s sentence. The court granted that order. At sentencing following her guilty plea to federal methamphetamine charges, the issue was whether the state sentence was for more than one year and one month for purposes of calculating criminal-history points under U.S.S.G. 4A1.1(a); 4A1.2(e)(1). The court found that the state sentence was two years, which resulted in an advisory range of 188-235 months. Applying 18 U.S.C. 3553(a), the court noted Jesse’s personal history and imposed a 175-month sentence. The Eighth Circuit affirmed. Courts should rely on the judgment imposing sentence, rather than evidence of time actually served when calculating criminal history points. The state judge expressly vacated the order regarding Jesse’s transport to prison but did not vacate the sentence and did not believe himself to be amending, retracting, or replacing the sentence. View "United States v. Jesse" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Thomas was charged with a 10-year conspiracy involving kidnapping, forced labor, hate crimes, and racketeering-related violent crimes. The court rejected his guilty plea and ordered competency restoration under 18 U.S.C. 4241(b). Thomas was evaluated at a Medical Center for Federal Prisoners. Clinical Psychologist Chavez concluded Thomas was unlikely to become competent in the foreseeable future; 18 U.S.C. 4246(d) required commitment if, due to Thomas's mental deficiencies, his release would create a substantial risk of bodily injury or serious property damage. A Risk Assessment Panel diagnosed Thomas with an unspecified neurocognitive disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, and adult antisocial behavior, finding that Thomas “show[ed] a pattern of violating the rights of others,” and had previously been convicted of sexual assault, and implied that his professional boxing career suggested violent tendencies. The Panel explained that Thomas was easily manipulated by his domestic partner (the conspiracy’s ringleader). Thomas’s denials of past violence indicated a lack of empathy. The court granted Thomas’s request for an independent examination. Clinical Psychologist DeMier largely agreed with the diagnosis but concluded that Thomas’s dangerousness primarily stemmed from his manipulability, not his mental defects and did not warrant commitment. The court noted Chavez and the Panel spent significantly more time evaluating Thomas and because DeMier’s opinion was inconsistent. Thomas was committed to the Attorney General’s custody. The Eighth Circuit affirmed. That DeMier’s “less-than-robust opinion” is contrary to the court’s conclusion does not warrant clear-error reversal. View "United States v. Thomas" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law