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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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The Eighth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction for three counts of transmitting a threatening communication in interstate commerce based on a series of tweets he directed at United States Senator Joni Ernst. The court held that the evidence was sufficient to support the conviction where defendant's admission, the threatening content of his tweets, and the warning from the police officer were enough to allow a reasonable jury to find that he intended his tweets as threats or knew they would be viewed that way.The court also held that the district court should have required both a subjective finding of knowledge or intent and also an objective finding that the communication was threatening. Nevertheless, defendant's tweets were objectively threatening and it was clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury would have found defendants guilty absent that error. Finally, the court held that the district court did not err by permitting testimony from an officer about the meaning of the internet slang used in the tweets, and in refusing to admit an exculpatory tweet where it was not contemporaneous enough with his charged tweets. View "United States v. Dierks" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Eighth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of habeas relief to petitioner based on the ineffective assistance of counsel. Petitioner was convicted for two counts of first degree murder among other things and was sentenced to death. Petitioner claims that counsel at his third penalty-phase trial was ineffective for failing to argue that the passage of time had undermined his mitigation case.The court held that petitioner's claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel is not "substantial enough" to excuse his procedural default. The court explained that when postconviction counsel filed petitioner's petition in 2010, the law was far from settled that a 10-year delay between conviction and sentencing would give rise to a constitutional claim, much less that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to raise the argument two years earlier. The court stated that failing to make an argument that would require the resolution of unsettled legal questions is generally not outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance. In this case, postconviction counsel's performance was reasonable and the Martinez exception—the only conceivable basis for excusing petitioner's procedural default—is unavailable to him. Finally, the court held that petitioner is not entitled to an evidentiary hearing. View "Deck v. Jennings" on Justia Law

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The Eighth Circuit affirmed Defendants Woods and Shelton's convictions for crimes involving bribes and kickbacks using public funds. The court held that the district court did not err in denying defendants' motion to dismiss based on an FBI agent's misconduct in destroying evidence. In this case, there is simply nothing to connect the dots between the agent's destruction of his computer data and the underlying cases against defendants and others as proven largely through records held by third-party custodians unrelated to and unaffected by the agent. Furthermore, in granting the government's motion to exclude evidence of the agent's bad acts, there was no error in the district court's assessment of potential prejudice, confusion of issues, wasting of time, or in the balancing of these issues.The court also held that the district court did not abuse its substantial discretion in denying a motion for a continuance. To the extent Woods and Shelton argue Instruction 7 as originally given, or as amended, misstated the law, the court rejected their argument; to the extent Woods and Shelton argue the district court violated their Sixth Amendment rights by engaging in ex parte communication with the jury, the court rejected their argument due to a lack of prejudice; and the court rejected the remaining challenges to the jury instructions. Finally, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for recusal. View "United States v. Woods" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Eighth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence for six counts of interference with commerce by robbery. The court held that the district court did not err in denying defendant's motion to suppress cell site location information (CSLI) obtained under the Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. 2703(d). In this case, when the officers obtained the information, the Supreme Court had not yet decided Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018), which held that an individual maintains a legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of his physical movements as captured through CSLI. Therefore, the evidence was admissible under the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule because the officers acted with reasonable reliance on section 2703(d) and were not on notice that the statute was unconstitutional.The court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by admitting evidence of uncharged robberies as intrinsic evidence and in admitting evidence regarding a Mississippi robbery to show defendant's identity. Finally, the court held that the district court did not err by applying a sentencing enhancement under USSG 3C1.1 for obstruction of justice where defendant perjured himself at trial and attempted to coach a witness' testimony. View "United States v. Reed" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Eighth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction for threatening a federal law enforcement officer (Count I), forcibly resisting a federal law enforcement officer (Count 2), and being a felon in possession of a firearm (Count 3). The court held that the district court did not err in denying defendant's motion to suppress the firearm found under the driver's seat of the car he drove to the Richard Bolling Federal Building. In this case, officers conducted an inventory search consistent with standardized policies, and the extra thirty minutes between defendant's departure and the order for a tow truck was not an unreasonably long delay. The court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by admitting evidence of recorded phone calls defendant made from jail; the evidence was sufficient to convict defendant of all three counts; and the district court did not commit plain Rehaif error. View "United States v. Everett" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Eighth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. The court held that the evidence was sufficient to support defendant's conviction because it showed defendant knowingly possessed the weapon and ammunition; the district court did not abuse its discretion by admitting a pawn ticket in order to show knowledge and intent to possess the weapon, and the district court's instruction limited any prejudicial effect of the evidence; and the district court did not abuse its discretion by admitting a dashcam video showing defendant escaping from an officer because flight was evidence of consciousness of guilt. Finally, the court held that defendant's prior Wisconsin conviction for armed robbery and North Dakota conviction for conspiracy to deliver ecstasy are qualifying offenses for Armed Career Criminal Act sentencing. View "United States v. Howard" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Eighth Circuit affirmed defendant's sentence imposed after he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. The court held that, although defendant's prior Missouri conviction is not a predicate offense under the Armed Career Criminal Act, his 2003 conviction for possession of cocaine for resale, in violation of Tenn. Code Sec. 39-17-417(a)(4), was a serious drug offense for purposes of applying the ACCA enhancement. Therefore, defendant had the three requisite convictions that the ACCA requires. View "United States v. Coleman" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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At issue in this appeal is what effect, if any, a guilty plea has on later denaturalization proceedings. In this case, defendant had pleaded guilty to violating and conspiring to violate Iraqi sanctions and to misusing his organization's tax exempt status and omitting relevant, material information from tax forms. Eight years after pleading guilty and eighteen years after first becoming a citizen, the government commenced proceedings to denaturalize defendant. The district court agreed with the government that defendant's failure to disclose his criminal activities called for denaturalization.The Eighth Circuit held that all three judicial estoppel factors favored applying the doctrine: first, the court stated that defendant's current position is clearly inconsistent with the one from his criminal proceeding; second, the district court had to accept the plea's factual basis, including defendant's statements during the plea colloquy; and third, defendant would derive an unfair advantage if he were allowed to change his position now. Therefore, the court cannot say that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to consider defendant's lack-of-knowledge defense. Finally, the court rejecting defendant's defense of laches because the doctrine of laches does not apply to the United States when it is acting in its sovereign capacity. View "United States v. Hamed" on Justia Law

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The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of defendant's motions to suppress in a case where defendant entered a conditional plea of guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute heroin and one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.The court held that the GPS vehicle warrants were supported by probable cause and, even if the warrants lacked probable cause, the Leon good-faith exception applies to the warrants where the officers had an objectively reasonable belief in light of the totality of the circumstances; law enforcement needed a warrant based on probable cause to access cell phone location records; even if the cell phone orders lacked probable cause, the good faith exception applies; the evidence gathered over the course of the investigation was sufficient to establish probable cause; and, once the officers found heroin in defendant's car, they had probable cause to arrest him. The court also held that defendant's pre-Miranda statements were admissible because he was not in custody at the time; defendant's statements made while he was in custody were admissible under the public-safety exception; and other statements at issue were voluntary. Finally, the court denied defendant's motion for leave to file a pro se supplemental brief. View "United States v. Thompson" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Eighth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence for sexual abuse of a minor under the age of twelve years old (count I); sexual abuse of a minor between the ages of twelve and sixteen years old (count III); and abusive sexual contact (count V).The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by excluding evidence against the victim where any evidence of the victim's drug use would not have tended to prove the alleged motives of retaliation and avoiding punishment. The court also held that the evidence was sufficient to support defendant's conviction on count I. The court further held that the district court gave due consideration to defense counsel's well-thought-out, well-presented argument for a lesser-than-life sentence, and did not abuse its discretion in determining that defendant's age did not warrant a downward variance from the advisory Guidelines sentence. View "United States v. Free" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law