Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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On August 17, 2004, Randall opened fire on Copeland’s vehicle while Copeland drove by. Copeland’s car was struck by gunfire. No one was injured. Armfield and Nelson were present. Later that evening, Randall spotted Copeland again. Armfield and Nelson armed themselves. They tracked down Copeland. As Copeland approached an intersection, Randall gave the signal. Armfield and Nelson sprang from their car and fired into Copeland's vehicle, killing him.The state charged the three with first-degree murder. Two separate trials occurred simultaneously before the same judge, with the juries and defendants shuffling in and out depending on the evidence presented. During deliberations, the Armfield/Randall jury requested a transcript of certain witnesses’ testimony. The court, by mistake, tendered a transcript containing the prosecutor’s opening statements from Nelson’s case. The Armfield/Randall jury had not heard this version, in which the prosecutor referenced a videotaped statement from Nelson that purported to implicate all three defendants in the murder. In Armfield's trial, the state leaned primarily on two witnesses. The jury convicted Armfield of first-degree murder. Illinois courts rejected Armfield’s appellate argument that disclosing the reference to Nelson’s confession deprived him of a fair trial and a collateral attack, arguing that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of federal habeas relief. Armfield’s Confrontation Clause claim failed because the state’s strong case against him renders any constitutional error harmless. Armfield cannot show trial counsel’s shortcomings resulted in prejudice. View "Armfield v. Nicklaus" on Justia Law

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In 1996, Higgs, Haynes, and Gloria picked up three women. They ultimately drove the women to the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, federal land. Haynes shot and killed the women with Higgs's gun. Higgs and Haynes were charged with three counts of each: first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree murder committed in the perpetration of kidnapping, kidnapping resulting in death, and using a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence.The court imposed concurrent life sentences on Haynes. Higgs’s jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts and recommended a death sentence for each murder and kidnapping count under the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act. The court imposed nine death sentences, with 45 consecutive years for the 924(c) convictions. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Higgs unsuccessfully pursued post-conviction relief.In 2016 Higgs unsuccessfully asked the Fourth Circuit for permission to file a new 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion, seeking to invalidate his section 924(c) convictions based on the Supreme Court’s 2019 “Davis” holding that 924(c)(3)(B), providing enhanced penalties for using a firearm during a “crime of violence,” is unconstitutionally vague.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a subsequent petition in the jurisdiction in which Higgs is incarcerated. Higgs cannot satisfy the 28 U.S.C. 2255(e) savings clause and therefore may not pursue habeas relief under section 2241. There is nothing structurally inadequate or ineffective about using section 2255 to bring a Davis-based claim. View "Higgs v. Watson" on Justia Law

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The plaintiffs challenged Indiana’s Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) as it applies to offenders who have relocated to Indiana from other states. A 2006 SORA amendment applied the statute’s requirements to any “person who is required to register as a sex offender in any jurisdiction.” Indiana does not require any person to register if the offense occurred prior to SORA, provided that person remains a resident of Indiana. Persons with pre-SORA convictions who relocate to Indiana from another state where registration was required must register in Indiana, even if Indiana would not have required them to register had they committed their offenses in Indiana and never left.The Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding that this application of SORA violates the plaintiffs’ right to travel. The amendment relies exclusively upon another state’s decision to require an offender to register and is necessarily using an offender’s travel as the trigger for its registration requirement. Indiana has created two classes of otherwise similarly-situated citizens based on whether they previously lived (or were otherwise present) in a state that required them to register. The distinction is purposeful; it expressly looks to what obligations have been imposed on a person elsewhere to determine what obligations he will now have in Indiana. The Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits this differential treatment. View "Hope v. Commissioner of Indiana Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Ramirez crashed his car into a truck and fled from the police. Speeding off, he hit a passenger who had jumped from his car. He ran a red light, drove around other cars in parking lots “at a high rate of speed,” then fled on foot. A search of his car revealed a loaded revolver and ammunition, which Ramirez confessed were his. Ramirez pleaded guilty (without an agreement) to possessing a firearm as a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g). The PSR factored in Ramirez’s flight and acceptance of responsibility and his criminal history, which included a drive-by shooting from 19 years earlier, burglary, theft, drug use, aggravated battery, resisting arrest, and parole violations, resulting in a guidelines range of 46-57 months’ imprisonment.The court addressed the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors and concluded a two-level enhancement for reckless endangerment during his flight did not adequately account for the severity of his conduct, which endangered many people, and that Ramirez’s criminal history score understated his true history because it excluded some older convictions. Ramirez argued that he had aged out of crime at age 44, but admitted that he had spent much of his life in prison. The court concluded that a sentence within the guidelines range would not effectively deter him from endangering others. The Seventh Circuit affirmed his 72-month sentence. The district court appropriately handled the “aging out” argument as no data supported it, and reasonably justified its above-guidelines sentence. View "United States v. Ramirez" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Barrera sold a handgun to a fellow Latin Kings gang member, who was actually a government informant wearing a wire. Barrera, who had prior felonies, was indicted for unlawful possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). An order barred Barrera from disclosing any discovery because of the risks that the video’s dissemination posed to further law-enforcement efforts and the informant’s safety. Barrera, while released on bond, posted the video to Snapchat, naming the informant and sending the posts to fellow Latin Kings. The government moved to revoke Barrera’s pretrial release. The defense argued that Barrera would not receive adequate treatment for his skin and lung cancer and a recent stroke and relayed Barrera’s intent to plead guilty. The court advised Barrera of the potential guideline range, explained that the range was only advisory, accepted his guilty plea, and, given assurances that the corrections facility could care for Barrera’s medical conditions, revoked his release. The court subsequently imposed a 110-month prison term, based on a 110-120 months guideline range.The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The court adequately explained the sentence in light of the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors, noting Barrera’s post-arrest conduct; that trafficking guns to gang members often leads to the deaths and injuries of innocents; and Barrera’s history and characteristics, including his medical needs. The judge’s comments were relevant in assessing the nature and circumstances of Barerra’s offense and the need to protect the public and deter unlawful conduct. View "United States v. Barrera" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Stamps sold methamphetamine to police informants. Police executed a search warrant at his apartment. In one bedroom, police found two bags of methamphetamine, each containing over 25 grams. In the other bedroom, police found a loaded handgun under Stamps’s mattress with his wallet and $1,079 in cash. Stamps confessed to having sold drugs for five years. Stamps later admitted owning a handgun, but for self-defense after receiving threats based on his wrongful implication in a murder investigation. Someone had fired shots into his apartment. Stamps pled guilty to one count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute 50 grams or more (21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1)). The PSR recommended a two-level increase under U.S.S.G 2D1.1(b)(1) based on the firearm and did not recommend Stamps receive safety-valve relief (18 U.S.C. 3553(f)). The court agreed, stating that “it is not clearly improbable that ... handgun … was connected with the defendant’s relevant drug trafficking conduct,” calculated a 70-87-month guideline range with a 60-month mandatory minimum, and sentenced Stamps to 60 month's imprisonment.The Seventh Circuit vacated. Rather than evaluating whether Stamps had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the gun was unrelated to his drug offense, the court found only that Stamps could not prove that it was “clearly improbable” that the gun was connected to his drug offense, imposing a higher burden than required for Stamps to prove safety valve eligibility. The error was not harmless. View "United States v. Stamps" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The defendants played active roles in a cross-country drug organization: Castro-Aguirre served as the head of operations; Ramirez-Prado handled logistics, including providing cars and hotels for distributors and couriers; Rojas-Reyes coordinated sales in Indianapolis; and Carrillo-Tremillo conducted sales in the northeast. A jury found each of 12 defendants guilty of conspiracy to distribute the controlled substances (methamphetamine and cocaine), 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) & 846, and conspiracy to launder money., 18 U.S.C. 1956(h)) Castro-Aguirre and Rojas-Reyes were also convicted on several additional charges.The Seventh Circuit affirmed their convictions and sentences, including one life sentence, with the exception of vacating Carrillo-Tremillo’s conviction for conspiracy to launder money. The court upheld the denial of a motion to suppress cell-site location information; the government, following the procedures set forth in the Stored Communications Act, gathered it in good faith. The court also upheld the denial of a motion in limine to suppress evidence of their gang membership and evidence that the Sinaloa Cartel was behind the kidnapping and murder of the defendants’ supplier. Although the evidence of the kidnapping and murder was highly prejudicial and its connection to the charged conduct was tenuous, any error was harmless in light of the other evidence. View "United States v. Rojas-Reyes" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Meza, deep in debt, fell for fraudulent international trading programs promising incredible profits. He then tricked people he knew into investing in these programs. The scam involved ridiculous promises. The district judge called the dupes “the most improbable victims” she had ever seen. Meza was acquitted on one count of wire fraud and acquitted on another The judge sentenced him to 19 months in prison and ordered him to pay $881,500 in restitution. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The trial court adequately explained its reasons for aggregating losses and excluded all losses around the time of the wire supporting the acquitted count: $295,000. The sentencing hearing covered the misrepresentations and losses in detail. Meza’s restitution did not include unconvicted and acquitted conduct. View "United States v. Meza" on Justia Law

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In 2014-2016, Onamuti, a Nigerian citizen, led an identity-theft ring responsible for filing almost 1,500 tax returns and netting $5 million in illicit refunds. Charged with 11 counts of presenting false claims, 18 U.S.C. 287, nine counts of identity theft, section 1028(a)(7), two counts of aggravated identity theft, section 1028A, and conspiracy to defraud the government, section 371, Onamuti pleaded guilty to one count each of false claims, identity theft, and aggravated identity theft. Onamuti expressly acknowledged that, while his plea “may have consequences” for his immigration status, he wanted to accept responsibility. He certified that he had read the agreement, discussed it with his attorney, and understood its terms. Onamuti also “expressly waive[d]” the right to appeal “on any ground” except a claim alleging the ineffective assistance of counsel. During his plea colloquy, Onamuti confirmed under oath that, by pleading guilty, he “may very well be deported” and that he was waiving his appellate rights. The district court sentenced him to 204 months’ imprisonment.Onamuti sought to withdraw his plea, arguing that his lawyer failed to advise him that his convictions would subject him to mandatory deportation. The district court denied the motion without an evidentiary hearing. The Seventh Circuit dismissed his appeal without addressing the merits. Onamuti is bound by the waiver of appeal. The court noted that “almost invariably, defendants are better served by pursuing such claims on collateral review under 28 U.S.C. 2254 or 2255.” View "United States v. Onamuti" on Justia Law

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Banks was charged with conspiracy and aiding and abetting a robbery of the Gary, Indiana Post Office, where she worked, 18 U.S.C. 371, 2114(a). After a five-day trial and four hours of deliberation, at about 8:45 p.m., the jury returned a verdict of guilty on both counts. At the request of Banks’s counsel, the judge polled the jurors. The first four affirmed the verdict. The fifth did not. When asked whether the guilty verdict was in fact his verdict, Juror 32 responded, “Forced into.” The judge repeated the question. Juror 32 responded that he needed more time. The remaining jurors affirmed the verdict, singling out Juror 32 as the lone dissenter. The judge instructed the jurors to continue deliberating and sent them back to the jury room at 9:06 p.m. Twenty-nine minutes later, the jury again returned a guilty verdict. This time the poll confirmed a unanimous decision.The Seventh Circuit vacated and remanded for a new trial. The totality of the circumstances, most notably, Juror 32’s troubling responses to the poll questions, the judge’s decision to complete the poll notwithstanding the juror’s dissent, the lateness of the hour, and the extreme brevity of the jury’s renewed deliberations, were unacceptably coercive. View "United States v. Banks" on Justia Law