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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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In 2004, Watkins was convicted of possessing crack cocaine with intent to distribute. He received a mandatory life sentence based on three prior convictions for “felony drug offenses.” After multiple unsuccessful collateral attacks, Watkins filed this 28 U.S.C. 2241 petition, citing the Supreme Court’s 2016 “Mathis” decision and arguing that two of his prior convictions did not qualify as predicate felony drug offenses under 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(A), so his enhanced sentence was unlawful. Following enactment of the First Step Act of 2018, Watkins applied for relief under that statute, was resentenced to time served, and was released from prison. He is currently serving a reduced term of supervised release.The Seventh Circuit remanded with instructions to dismiss the 2241 petition as moot. Watkins can only speculate that Watkins might benefit from a decision on the merits; the mere possibility that a decision might influence the court’s determination on remand concerning his term of supervised release is not enough to keep the case alive. Intervening case law, combined with the government’s concession, should be more than enough to make clear in any future section 3583(e) proceedings that Watkins was not properly subject to a mandatory life sentence. View "Watkins v. United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois" on Justia Law

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Aguirre-Zuniga’s family immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. when he was three years old. He is now raising his own six-year-old daughter, an American citizen in Indiana. He became a lawful permanent resident 15 years ago. His primary language is English, and he has visited Mexico only three times since emigrating. In 2018, he pled guilty to the delivery of methamphetamine in Indiana. DHS concluded that his conviction was an aggravated felony subjecting him to deportation, and the Immigration Judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed.The Seventh Circuit vacated. The Indiana law prohibiting the delivery of methamphetamine criminalizes more conduct than the corresponding federal law given that Indiana defines “methamphetamine” in a way federal law does not. When a state statute is broader than its federal counterpart, a conviction under that statute cannot trigger a noncitizen’s deportation. View "Aguirre-Zuniga v. Garland" on Justia Law

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In 2021, the Seventh Circuit left the door open for prisoners seeking compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A) based on the COVID-19 pandemic to show they cannot receive or benefit from vaccines. Newton’s case was remanded before those cases were decided. On remand, the district court found that Newton did not present an extraordinary and compelling reason for early release. Newton, under 70 and serving a sentence for bank robbery, had argued that hypertension, asthma, and its immunosuppressing corticosteroid treatment put him at risk for serious illness if he contracted COVID-19.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. Although the vaccine and the Seventh Circuit’s exceptions did not exist in 2020 when Newton filed his motion for compassionate release, and the district court invited no briefing on remand in 2021, Newton has not identified any change in the facts that would have changed the outcome. He points only to the original record but the district court already knew Newton was immunosuppressed. Newton did not show that he is in the small minority of federal prisoners within the exception. Newton was free to file a motion to argue under new facts and new law. View "United States v. Newton" on Justia Law

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Westray pleaded guilty to a 1998 murder. He received a death sentence which was later commuted to life imprisonment. In a habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254, he subsequently challenged his confinement, including its duration, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel during sentencing and on remand when he moved to withdraw his guilty plea.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of his claims. The ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim was presented to the Illinois trial court in Westray’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea, which was denied without comment. It is therefore presumed that the claim was adjudicated on its merits and AEDPA deference applies. Westray has not shown that but for his trial counsel’s allegedly deficient performance on remand, he would have been sentenced to a term of years. Westray cannot prove prejudice and his claim for ineffective assistance of trial counsel fails. No evidentiary hearing was required. View "Westray v. Brookhart" on Justia Law

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In 2019, Carnell pled guilty under 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B)(viii), and 846, for conspiring to distribute 50 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing methamphetamine. The PSR concluded that Carnell’s relevant conduct involved 2.37 kg of pure methamphetamine “ice,” not a mixture, for a base offense level of 36, with a criminal history category of III, and proposed a three-point acceptance-of-responsibility reduction. On remand, the district court recalculated both Carnell’s offense level and his criminal history category, increasing the latter from category III to V to account for Carnell’s convictions on two Illinois offenses while the case was on appeal and specifying that Carnell’s federal sentence would be consecutive to any state sentence resulting from several other pending charges. Following a second remand, the court used the guidelines for mixtures and downgraded Carnell’s base offense level to 32, for a new guideline range of 140-175 months, and sentenced Carnell to 165 months to be served consecutively. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding no error in the district court’s recalculation of Carnell’s criminal-history category. Because the state charges were dismissed, the consecutive sentencing issue was moot. View "United States v. Carnell" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Over three weeks in 2002, Santiago participated in a string of armed robberies at Pennsylvania hotels. When he was arrested, Santiago was holding the distinctive firearm that he and his co-defendants used in the robberies. Convicted of three Hobbs Act counts of interference with commerce by robbery, two counts of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, (robbery), 18 U.S.C. 924(c), and two counts of possessing a firearm as a felon (prior state felony convictions for criminal trespass and retail theft), Santiago was sentenced to concurrent terms of 42 months' imprisonment on the three Hobbs Act and two felon-in-possession counts. Under then-applicable law, Santiago also received mandatory consecutive 60-month and 300-month terms for the 924(c) counts. The Third Circuit affirmed. The Seventh Circuit rejected Santiago’s section 2241 habeas petition in which he argued that the Supreme Court’s 2019 “Rehaif” decision, required that his convictions for possessing a firearm as a felon be set aside. Santiago cannot show he was actually innocent of those charges as required to invoke the “saving” clause in 28 U.S.C. 2255(e). In order to use section 2241 to avoid the restrictions on successive 2255 motions, he would need to show that no reasonable juror could find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. View "Santiago v. Streeval" on Justia Law

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Mikulski, a Polish national residing illegally in the United States, initiated a shootout in a public park. Although others shot live rounds, Mikulski shot blanks; no one was injured. After police questioned him about the incident, he instructed his mother (with whom he lived) to hide his gun. Mikulski, who had a prior felony conviction, was apprehended while driving on a suspended license. He eventually pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g), and was sentenced above the 30-37 month guidelines range to 48 months in prison. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting Mikulski’s argument that the court misapplied a sentencing enhancement for obstruction of justice based on his efforts to hide the gun. That Mikulski’s instruction to his mother preceded law enforcement’s decision to search the house was irrelevant. The above-guidelines sentence was more than adequately justified considering the sentencing factors of 18 U.S.C. 3553(a). View "United States v. Mikulski" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Hubbert pleaded guilty to four counts of distributing crack cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B), (b)(1)(C), each reflecting a controlled purchase by a confidential source. The quantities purchased ranged from 12.3 to 49.4 grams. The PSR indicated that Hubbert qualified as a career offender under Sentencing Guidelines 4B1.1(a), based on Hubbert’s state court convictions for aggravated battery, and possession of a controlled substance (cocaine) with intent to deliver. Hubbert’s career offender status dictated that he be placed in a criminal history category VI; his 35 criminal history points independently placed him in the same category. Hubbert argued that his previous conviction for possession with intent to deliver was really part of the same course of drug dealing underlying his current conviction, and was not a “prior” offense and that his criminal history category overstated the seriousness of his record.The judge rejected his arguments, noting a five-year gap between the state offense and 2016-2017 controlled buys underlying the federal charges; the charges involved different customers, drug types, and amounts. Hubbert was not charged with a conspiracy that might have been broad enough to encompass both sets of charges. His Guidelines sentencing range was 188-235 months. The Seventh Circuit affirmed his 188-month sentence. At age 37, Hubbert has a criminal history that includes 27 convictions as an adult; the judge acted within his ample discretion. View "United States v. Hubbert" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Officer Stringer and a confidential informant (Hinkle) appeared before a state court judge and obtained a warrant. Following the ensuing search, Sanford was charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute. 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) & (b)(1)(C), possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime, 924(c)(1)(A)(i), and possession of a firearm as a felon, 922(g)(1). Sanford sought to challenge the warranted search and sought a “Franks” hearing. Sanford presented Hinkle’s Declaration that officers told her that if she did not cooperate they would take away her one-year-old daughter, that she would not be charged with any new offenses, that an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in a misdemeanor case would be “taken care of,” and that she should state that she had not been promised anything for testifying. . The government informed the court that FBI agents had discussed Hinkle’s Declaration with her and that she told them she did not prepare the Declaration and that much of it was false or essentially untrue.After a "pre-Franks" hearing, the district court upheld the search. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Warrant-issuing judges are aware that confidential informants are likely to have criminal histories; Hinkle admitted to criminal conduct. The district court did not err in determining that a Franks hearing was not necessary based solely on the failure to discuss Hinkle’s “unremarkable” criminal history. View "United States v. Sanford" on Justia Law

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While imprisoned in Indiana, Lauderdale-El petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus challenging the loss of good-time credits resulting from a prison disciplinary conviction. His petition asserts that prison officials violated his due process rights in applying an Indiana Department of Correction policy rescinding previously restored good-time credits.The district court concluded that Lauderdale-El could challenge the restoration policy in state court, so it dismissed the case without prejudice for failure to exhaust state-court remedies, 28 U.S.C. 2254(b)(1)(A). Lauderdale-El had exhausted administrative remedies. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, noting that dismissal of a habeas corpus petition without prejudice for failure to exhaust state-court remedies is a final and appealable judgment. Indiana law permits state-court review of Lauderdale-El’s claims. Because Lauderdale-El is still on parole, the court concluded that the matter was not moot. View "Lauderdale-El v. Indiana Parole Board" on Justia Law