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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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Clark was convicted under 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), having been found in a hotel room with more than 80 grams of a mixture of heroin and fentanyl, a digital scale, and cellophane bags. He appealed the denial of his motion for a Franks hearing challenging the search warrant; the denial of his motion to suppress without an evidentiary hearing; the guideline treatment of his conviction for drug distribution that occurred in Illinois seven months after his Wisconsin arrest and one condition of supervised release. The Seventh Circuit vacated Clark’s conviction and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on his Franks challenge. Merely to obtain a Franks hearing, a defendant need only make a substantial preliminary showing that the warrant application contained a material falsity or omission that would alter the issuing judge’s probable cause determination and that the affiant included the material falsity or omitted information intentionally or with a reckless disregard for the truth. Clark asserted that the police investigator who applied for the warrant deliberately or recklessly omitted critical information affecting the credibility of the unidentified informant who told police about drug distribution at the hotel. Here, the foundation for probable cause independent of the credibility of the informant was so meager that the informant's credibility was material for Franks purposes. The police had provided no information about the informant’s credibility. The court rejected Clark's other claims. View "United States v. Clark" on Justia Law

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While Giles was in solitary confinement following state robbery convictions, FBI agents questioned Giles about another bank robbery. DNA recovered from a glove found next to dye-stained stolen money matched Giles’s DNA. Giles agreed in writing to be questioned without an attorney present. After he was shown the DNA report, Giles confessed to the robbery and agreed to a cheek swab after being advised of his right to refuse. Giles was indicted for bank robbery, 18 U.S.C. 2113, and using a firearm in relation to a crime of violence 18 U.S.C. 924(c). He unsuccessfully moved to suppress the confession, arguing that neither his Miranda waiver nor his confession were voluntary, given his long-term confinement in a “small windowless cell” with little opportunity for human interaction. A psychiatrist who had conducted a forensic psychiatric evaluation and reviewed medical records testified that prolonged isolation could result in impaired function and that Giles's history of psychological disorders and head trauma made him particularly vulnerable to the effects of isolation. A fellow inmate testified that he spoke to Giles regularly. Bacha testified that Giles showed no signs of mental distress. The Seventh Circuit affirmed and upheld his sentence, which effectively added 18 years to the term he was serving, reasoning that there was enough evidence to convict Giles without the confession. His conduct and statements reflected a clear, intelligent, and knowledgeable thought process. View "United States v. Giles" on Justia Law

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In 1996, Higgs murdered three women at a Maryland federal property. He was convicted in federal court and sentenced to death. Higgs claimed that the government failed to turn over exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland. His 2012 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Park Police sought a complete copy of everything pertaining to the convictions. The Park Police produced some information, then referred the request to the FBI. Higgs filed suit, challenging the FBI’s decisions to redact or withhold information under FOIA Exemptions, 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(6), (b)(7)(C), and (b)(7)(D). Exemptions (6) and 7(C) cover materials that would invade personal privacy; Exemption 7(D) covers information that “could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source, … and, in the case of a record or information compiled by criminal law enforcement authority in the course of a criminal investigation … information furnished by a confidential source.” The district court concluded that the FBI properly withheld certain documents under Exemption 7(D), but did not justify the invocation of Exemption 7(C), and had to release all of the names of still-living people, contact information, reports of interviews, fingerprints, and rap sheets. T. The Seventh Circuit reversed in part. The court erred when it found that the public interest prevailed over the privacy interests of the persons involved under Exemptions 6 and 7(C). The court affirmed with respect to Exemption 7(D) materials. View "Higgs v. United States Park Police" on Justia Law

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The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) “three strikes” provision, 28 U.S.C. 1915(g), specifies that a prisoner may not proceed in forma pauperis if she “has, on [three] or more prior occasions, while incarcerated or detained in any facility, brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States that was dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Many courts require prisoner‐litigants to identify their entire litigation histories. The Northern District of Illinois’s form requires 42 U.S.C. 1983 inmate-plaintiffs to list the name of each case, assigned judge and court, docket number, filing date, all plaintiffs (with aliases), all defendants, a description of claims made, the disposition and date of disposition. In cases consolidated on appeal, the district court concluded that inmate-plaintiffs committed fraud. The Seventh Circuit vacated. District courts must ensure that a prisoner’s negligent or even reckless mistake is not improperly characterized as an intentional and fraudulent act. Even prisoners with no incentive to lie may not have ready access to their litigation documents and may not remember all of the details. When viewed in the liberal light appropriate for pro se pleadings, one inmate’s explanation of his mental health issues and illiteracy indicated he did not fully understand what was being asked of him; the omissions were inadvertent. None of the cases omitted by the inmates met applicable standards for materiality. View "Johnson v. Dalke" on Justia Law

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Marchan was convicted of possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) and 846, and distribution of 500 grams or more of cocaine, section 841(a)(1). The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting an argument that he was denied a fundamentally fair trial. The district court judge diligently presided over the trial; to the extent that any errors were made, they were harmless. Allegedly hearsay testimony was cumulative and corroborated; the few objections that were made at trial were largely sustained and the court instructed the jury to disregard the questions and answers. The testimony of a cooperating witness was sufficient to expose his bias against Marchan and illustrate the benefits he might receive in connection with his testimony. Giving the jury a recording it requested during deliberations was not error; the recording was properly admitted into evidence, provided additional information not present in the transcript (e.g., tone and clarity), and the district judge gave a proper limiting instruction. View "United States v. Marchan" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law

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Paul Koh, 22, was found in a pool of blood next to a knife in his home, having been stabbed in the throat and chest. Officers initially noted a possibility of suicide. Paul's parents' requests to see Paul, get medicine and cell phone, and to go to the hospital were denied. They were taken to the police department and not allowed to make calls. Officer Kim, who spoke Korean socially, served as a translator but did not translate everything. Mr. Koh was questioned for 150 minutes. Koh claims Officer Graf “told me that the only person I could see was a lawyer... I didn’t have any phone numbers, so that was the end” and that Kim advised that he did not need an attorney. His Miranda warnings were in English. Some of Koh's responses were confusing or nonresponsive. Koh denied any involvement in Paul’s death. There was evidence suggesting a struggle and of tension in the family. During a second interview, officers pressed harder, stating, “We can be here for days” and asking questions at a rapid pace, with mistranslations. Koh gave short responses that could be interpreted as agreeing with Graf’s self-defense theory. Koh, acquitted on state murder charges after four years in the Cook County Jail, sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court denied the defendants summary judgment on false arrest claims, but held that Koh’s false arrest ended when the officers later had probable cause to arrest him; denied summary judgment on Koh’s coerced confession, conspiracy and failure to intervene, and municipal liability false arrest claims. The court granted the defendants summary judgment on Koh’s malicious prosecution, substantive due process, evidence-fabrication. and pretrial detention (Fourth Amendment) claims. The Seventh Circuit dismissed appeals on the issue of qualified immunity concerning coerced confession as inseparable from the questions of fact identified by the district court. View "Koh v. Ustich" on Justia Law

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In 2015, Brazier, Fields, and Mzembe kidnapped, shot, and ruthlessly beat Harris as he left his home. Charged with federal kidnapping and firearms crimes, the three were tried and sentenced separately. Their appeals were consolidated. The defendants did not challenge their convictions for the underlying crimes of kidnapping or holding Harris for ransom; the two defendants convicted of being felons in possession of firearms did not challenge those convictions. Defendants Fields and Mzembe challenged their convictions and sentencing under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) for using and discharging firearms during a crime of violence. The Seventh Circuit reversed those section 924(c) decisions, citing later decisions by the Supreme Court, establishing that the underlying offenses do not qualify categorically as crimes of violence. Under the categorical analysis that applies to both the elements and residual clauses of section 924(c)'s definition of crimes of violence, Mzembe’s and Fields’ convictions for kidnapping and demanding ransom cannot support the mandatory consecutive sentences. The categorical method focuses on the essential elements of the counts of conviction, requiring courts to focus on the least culpable conduct that could violate the relevant statutes, without considering the actual facts of the defendants’ conduct. In resentencing Mzembe and Fields on the remaining charges, however, the court can consider their actual conduct in exercising its discretion under 18 U.S.C. 3553(a). View "United States v. Mzembe" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law

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Pretrial detainees at the Lake County Adult Correctional Facility allege that for approximately three days, jail officials shut off all water in their jail without any warning. The shutdown was apparently conducted in order to replace a pump. With no running water, the detainees were provided with five bottles of water for their personal and sanitation uses and with a communal barrel of water for each pod in the jail. As a result, they became ill and feces built up and festered in the jails’ toilets, attracting insects. When plaintiffs asked for more water, they were locked down in their cells as punishment. The detainees filed a putative class action, alleging violations of their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. The district court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The rights that plaintiffs identify—to have enough water for drinking and sanitation, and not to be forced to live surrounded by their own and others’ excrement—are clearly established. Regardless of the legitimacy of the jail’s objective, taking as true the conditions described in the complaint, with plausible inferences, the conditions of confinement were objectively unreasonable and “excessive in relation to” any legitimate non-punitive purpose. View "Hardeman v. Wathen" on Justia Law

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Chicago Officers stopped Martin for non-functioning tail and brake lights. Martin claims he had not committed any traffic violations. Martin explained that he did not have his driver’s license. The officers asked Martin to step out of the car as additional officers arrived. Martin claims the officers forced him from the car, conducted a pat-down search, handcuffed him, put him into a police car, then searched his car, where they recovered a semiautomatic handgun with a defaced serial number and a baggie of crack cocaine. Martin had previously been convicted of first-degree murder and unlawful use of a weapon by a convicted felon. Martin was charged with various crimes under Illinois law and spent 65 days incarcerated. The state court granted Martin’s motion to suppress the evidence. The charges were dismissed. Martin filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The officers argued that even if the stop was unlawful, once officers saw the handgun and cocaine, they had probable cause for Martin’s arrest, which limited Martin’s damages to the period between his stop and his arrest. The district court agreed. The jury awarded him $1.00. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The jury concluded that the officers unlawfully seized Martin without reasonable suspicion, but found against Martin on the claim that officers either arrested him or searched him or his car without probable cause. The only Fourth Amendment injury being redressed is the brief initial seizure before officers asked for Martin's license. View "Martin v. Marinez" on Justia Law

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An informant sent Harper a photograph of a pistol. Harper offered to trade five grams of crack cocaine. The informant and an undercover agent met Harper in a parking lot. The agent opened a toolbox containing the gun and handed the gun to Harper, who held it. Harper promised the crack cocaine would arrive within an hour; he got into the truck to wait. The agent returned the gun to the locked toolbox and placed the toolbox in Harper’s lap. The police arrived and arrested Harper. After Harper's first lawyer withdrew, his court-appointed lawyer unsuccessfully sought leave to withdraw. Harper entered a plea agreement, calling for 96 months’ incarceration—60 months for possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime and 36 months for possession of a firearm by a felon and possession with intent to distribute. The judge explained the sentence to Harper. Harper said that the sentence was acceptable and confirmed that he had no other questions. The judge reviewed all the admonishments for a change of plea, then accepted his guilty plea. Months later, Harper moved to withdraw his plea, arguing that his lawyer was ineffective. Harper obtained new counsel, who argued that Harper did not “possess” a firearm because he never had “full control of th[e] firearm.” The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion. Harper had at least constructive possession of the gun and cannot establish prejudice from any ineffective assistance. View "United States v. Harper" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law