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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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In this case heard in the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit, the defendant, Henry Underwood, had chosen to represent himself in a trial where he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. During the trial, Underwood refused to answer a question during cross-examination and was subsequently held in criminal contempt. He was convicted of the charged offense and appealed against the conviction, arguing that his pretrial waiver of counsel was not knowing and voluntary and that the criminal contempt finding was improper.The court rejected both arguments. First, it found that the defendant's waiver of counsel was knowing and voluntary. It took into consideration the extent of the court's formal inquiry into the defendant's waiver, evidence in the record showing the defendant understood the dangers of self-representation, the defendant's background and experience, and the context of the choice to proceed pro se.Secondly, the court found that the criminal contempt finding was appropriate because the defendant had improperly refused to testify on cross-examination in the judge’s presence, which met the literal requirements of Rule 42(b) that permits summary disposition of criminal contempt. Furthermore, the court held that by choosing to testify, the defendant had waived his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and could not refuse to answer questions relevant to his testimony.The decision of the district court was affirmed. View "USA v. Underwood" on Justia Law

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In this case, the defendant, Miguel Navarrete, a felon, was charged with possessing a firearm, which he could not lawfully do. Navarrete was arraigned, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced by video under the CARES Act, which permitted such proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. He consented to the video proceedings during the arraignment and guilty plea, and all necessary findings were made. He was sentenced to 58 months’ imprisonment, a term below the range calculated under the Sentencing Guidelines. Navarrete appealed the sentence, arguing that he should be resentenced because he did not appear personally in court and did not formally consent on the record to the video sentencing.The United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit held that the defendant's argument did not meet the requirements for "plain error" reversal. The court reasoned that Navarrete had, in fact, enjoyed the substantial part of the entitlement secured by Rule 43(a), and the absence of a formal consent on the record to a video appearance that was evidently voluntary on the defendant’s part did not call the justice system into disrepute. Moreover, the court rejected the argument that failure to obtain on-the-record consent for video sentencing was a structural error that required automatic reversal. The court held such an error to be a "discrete defect," not affecting the entire conduct of the proceedings or necessarily rendering the outcome unreliable. Thus, the court affirmed the lower court's sentencing decision. View "USA v. Navarrete" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Inmate Chadrick Fulks filed a lawsuit against several prison officials at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, alleging constitutionally deficient medical care, the use of excessive force, and a sexual assault. The district court concluded that he had successfully exhausted his administrative remedies with respect to only two claims. During the course of the litigation, the court found that Fulks had knowingly submitted a forged document and provided perjured testimony. As a sanction for this misconduct, the court dismissed the entire action with prejudice.Upon appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court noted that even though dismissal prevented Fulks from litigating his allegation of sexual assault, there were other remedies available to him, such as through the Bureau's Office of Internal Affairs or under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. The court concluded that while the district court's decision was severe, it was not unreasonable given the circumstances. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the entire action as a sanction for Fulks's submission of a forged document and perjured testimony. View "Fulks v. Watson" on Justia Law

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Kibambe Mwendapeke, a permanent resident of the United States and a citizen of the Congo, was convicted of complicity to robbery in the first degree under Kentucky law. Later, the Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings against Mwendapeke based on his conviction. He appealed, arguing that his conviction should not categorize him as an "aggravated felon," which would render him removable. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that Mwendapeke's conviction is indeed a categorical match for an "aggravated felony."The court applied the categorical approach to determine whether Mwendapeke's crime was a "crime of violence" under 18 U.S.C. § 16(a), a requirement for classification as an "aggravated felony." The court found that Kentucky’s first-degree robbery statute, under which Mwendapeke was convicted, meets the level of force and has the required mens rea, or state of mind, for a "crime of violence" under § 16(a). The court also concluded that Kentucky’s complicity statute is not overbroad with respect to generic aiding-and-abetting liability. Therefore, the court ruled that Mwendapeke's conviction constituted an aggravated felony, making him removable. The court denied his petition for review. View "Mwendapeke v. Merrick B. Garland" on Justia Law

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Federal prisoner Sargeant filed a grievance against a prison official, Cruze, after she commented on his sexual preferences and refused to give him books that he had ordered. When Sargeant's case manager, Barfield, showed Sargeant the prison’s response, Sargeant noticed that it was signed by Cruze and pointed out that, under the prison’s rules, Cruze should not have seen a grievance lodged against her. Barfield then told others about the grievance. Sargeant filed a separate grievance against Barfield. In retaliation, Barfield “repeatedly” put Sargeant, who had cooperated with the government, in cells with prisoners known to be violent. This led to fights until Sargeant was transferred to another prison.Sargeant sued seeking monetary damages, alleging that Barfield retaliated against him for filing grievances. He did not identify which of his constitutional rights she had allegedly violated. In screening under 28 U.S.C. 1915A, the judge decided that Sargeant could proceed only on a First Amendment retaliation claim and did not discuss any possible Eighth Amendment claim. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the complaint. Under the Bivens doctrine, a federal prisoner cannot recover damages for a violation of First Amendment rights. Recognizing a failure-to-protect claim in this context would risk intrusion with the federal prison system; the claim presents separation-of-powers concerns and special factors not accounted for by any of the Supreme Court’s Bivens precedents. View "Sargeant v. Barfield" on Justia Law

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Escorted by an officer who had followed him from the scene of a shooting, Hudson entered the Medical Center seeking emergency treatment for a gunshot wound. The officer stood outside Hudson’s hospital room. Medical staff discovered Hudson was concealing “something plastic” in his mouth and spent nearly 20 minutes admonishing Hudson to spit it out before he finally complied, revealing a device used to convert a firearm into a fully automatic weapon. Hudson moved to suppress the device, arguing that the medical staff acted as government agents in conducting a warrantless search.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion. Knowledge and inaction alone are insufficient to establish an agency relationship. There must be some evidence of government participation in or affirmative encouragement of the private search before a court will hold it unconstitutional. Viewed in context, the officer answered questions but did not direct the medical staff to act in any particular way. The facts supported a finding that medical staff acted with the purpose of providing medical treatment, not assisting law enforcement. The court noted that both the officer and the medical staff apparently assumed that Hudson was concealing drugs, voicing concerns that the suspected drugs could cause him to overdose. View "United States v. Hudson" on Justia Law

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Two men buzzed a neighboring unit and explained they were trying to contact Apartment 7’s resident. Neighbors admitted them but moments later heard gunshots. Neighbors called 9-1-1. Police saw bullet holes in Apartment 7’s door, shell casings on the stairs, and an empty gun holster. Considering whether someone inside needed assistance, officers called an ambulance, unsuccessfully tried to contact anyone inside, and attempted to open the door manually. They then used a sledgehammer, which fractured the door, splintered the doorjamb, and overcame the deadbolt 10 minutes after the police arrived. Police immediately smelled raw cannabis and saw loose cannabis. Sergeant Barksdale entered a bedroom, saw a large closet, opened the closet door, and found cannabis. In the living room, he opened another large closet, pushed aside clothing, and found a rifle. The search lasted about 90 seconds. Maxwell arrived. Police determined that it was his apartment and obtained a search warrant. During the subsequent search, they found two guns, more than 10 pounds of marijuana, and $75,000 in cash.After the denial of his motion to suppress, Maxwell conditionally pled guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, possession of firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and possession of firearms as a felon. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. When the police entered Maxwell’s apartment, they had an objectively reasonable basis for believing someone was injured inside, their entrance did not cause excessive or unnecessary damage, and they searched only in places where an injured person could be. View "United States v. Maxwell" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Officers used a confidential source (CS) for two controlled methamphetamine buys from Deeren. The CS met Deeren at a gas station and went to 3243 Brouse Avenue in Dereen's car. The CS handed Deeren cash; Deeren entered the house. Minutes later, Deeren returned and handed the CS meth. The two returned to the gas station, where the CS gave the meth to an undercover officer. Deeren used a different car each time. Officers obtained a warrant to search the residence and any vehicles on its premises. Days later, they arranged another controlled buy and observed Miles using a key to enter the residence. When Deeren and the CS arrived, Deeren approached Miles on the front porch. Officers arrested both men and executed the warrant. After waiving his Miranda rights, Miles admitted to living at the house and owning two vehicles on the premises (not those used during the controlled buys). The officers found 107.3 grams of meth inside a vehicle, 160.5 grams of meth in the house, 124 grams of a mixture containing cocaine, two rifles, and drug distribution paraphernalia.Miles, charged with possession with intent to distribute meth and a mixture containing cocaine and knowing possession of two firearms, argued that the warrant did not establish probable cause and was not sufficiently particular. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of his motion to suppress but vacated Miles’s 240-month sentence, remanding for the purpose of vacating one of his firearm sentences and merging his two firearm convictions. View "United States v. Miles" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In 2010, Sweatt pleaded guilty to five counts of armed bank robbery. The district court ordered him to pay $20,038.52 under the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act, 18 U.S.C. 3663A–3664. In the “Payment Schedule,” the court selected “immediately.” Sweatt declined to participate in the Bureau’s Inmate Financial Responsibility Program, through which the Bureau allocates portions of prisoners’ incomes to their restitution debts. In 2023, the district court authorized the Bureau of Prisons to turn over $600 of $1,100 in Sweatt’s prison trust account to be applied toward his restitution debt. Sweatt then had hip replacement surgery, preventing him from working for about 18 months.Sweatt moved to modify his judgment to halt his restitution payments until he resumes working; 18 U.S.C. 3664(k) provides that once a court receives notification of “any material change in the defendant’s economic circumstances that might affect the defendant’s ability to pay restitution,” the court may “adjust the payment schedule.” The Seventh Circuit vacated the denial of his motion. Sweatt did not ask to alter the fact or amount of restitution or to usurp the Bureau’s exclusive authority to impose a pre-release payment plan. The government assumed that Sweatt was trying to alter his obligations under a Program agreement with the Bureau but no such agreement existed. Generally, district courts lack jurisdiction to modify a sentence, but they can do so when authorized by statute; section 3664(k) permits the court to modify the restitution schedule. View "United States v. Sweatt" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Pemberton sold methamphetamine to an undercover informant and pleaded guilty to distributing drugs, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1). Ordinarily, distributing the quantity of drugs Pemberton admitted to distributing carries a 10-year minimum sentence. The district court ruled that his 2003 conviction for conspiracy to commit robbery under Indiana law was a “serious violent felony” under 18 U.S.C. 3559(c)(2)(F), subjecting him to a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence. Although Pemberton had not agreed that his co-participant would carry a weapon, and his co-participant was never convicted, the court reasoned that the facts of his crime included a dangerous weapon that caused serious harm (his coconspirator fired a gun during the robbery, hitting a bystander), and his plea of guilty to conspiracy to commit armed robbery precluded him from denying his involvement in a conspiracy.On appeal. Pemberton argued that Indiana’s crime of conspiracy is not a categorical match to the federal conspiracy counterpart of section 3559(c)(2)(F) and not a “serious violent felony” meriting the enhanced minimum. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Pemberton raised his argument for the first time on appeal and therefore forfeited it. He has not demonstrated that the district court plainly erred when it determined his prior conviction was a serious violent felony, View "United States v. Pemberton" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law