Justia U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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In July 2019, the Department of Justice announced a revised protocol for execution by lethal injection using a single drug, pentobarbital. Plaintiffs, federal death row inmates, sought expedited review of three of the district court's rulings, and two plaintiffs with upcoming execution dates moved for stays of execution pending appeal.The DC Circuit held that the district court did not err in granting summary judgment for the government on plaintiffs' Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA) claim. In this case, plaintiffs had pointed to several alleged discrepancies between the 2019 Protocol and state statutes dictating different methods of execution or aspects of the execution process. The court agreed with the district court's conclusion that there was no conflict, either because the government had committed to complying with the state statutes at issue or because no plaintiff had requested to be executed in accordance with them.However, the court reversed the district court's dismissal of plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment challenge for failure to state a claim. The court held that, by pleading that the federal government's execution protocol involves a "virtual medical certainty" of severe and torturous pain that is unnecessary to the death process and could readily be avoided by administering a widely available analgesic first, plaintiffs' complaint properly and plausibly states an Eighth Amendment claim. The court denied Plaintiffs Hall and Bernard's request for a stay of execution based on the Eighth Amendment claim. The court also held that the district court should have ordered the 2019 Protocol to be set aside to the extent that it permits the use of unprescribed pentobarbital in a manner that violates the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA). Finally, the court affirmed the district court's denial of a permanent injunction to remedy the FDCA violation. View "Roane v. Barr" on Justia Law

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On April 22, 2019, the district court denied petitioner's first three claims for habeas relief, but reserved his 18 U.S.C. 924(c) claim for later resolution because, at the time, United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319, 2324 (2019), had not been decided. The district judge explained that his opinion resolves three of petitioner's claims but leaves the 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion open until the court is able to resolve petitioner's fourth claim. In order for petitioner to appeal the final order in a section 2255 habeas case, section 2253(c)(1) requires him to obtain a certificate of appealability. Petitioner moved for a certificate of appealability a week after the district court issued its order and the district judge granted the certificate solely on petitioner's recantation claim without commenting on the finality of the underlying order— which, of course, left one claim pending.The DC Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, holding that the district court's judgment was not final. The court rejected petitioner's claims under Gillespie v. United States Steel Corp., 379 U.S. 148 (1964), which he claims "opens the door a little bit" and allows ostensibly nonfinal orders to be regarded as "practically" final. The court also concluded that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b) and Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33 do not facilitate jurisdiction here. View "United States v. Clark" on Justia Law

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Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to FBI agents, 18 U.S.C. 1001. In May 2020, before sentencing, the government moved to dismiss all charges with prejudice. Flynn consented to that motion and moved to withdraw his pending motions, including a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The district court appointed an amicus curiae to present arguments in opposition to the government’s motion and to address whether the court should issue an Order to Show Cause why Flynn should not be held in criminal contempt for perjury.Flynn filed an emergency mandamus petition. A panel of the D.C. Circuit issued the writ to compel the district court to immediately grant the government’s motion. On rehearing, en banc, the D.C. Circuit denied Flynn’s requests to compel the immediate grant of the government’s motion and to vacate the district court’s appointment of amicus. Flynn has not established that he has “no other adequate means to attain the relief he desires.” The court also declined to mandate that the case be reassigned to a different district judge; Flynn has not established a clear and indisputable right to reassignment. The court noted the interest in allowing the district court to decide a pending motion in the first instance; that Flynn is not in custody; and that “it is simply not the case that the Executive will be irreparably harmed by the procedures." View "In re: Flynn" on Justia Law

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Al Bahlul, a Yemeni national, was Osama bin Laden’s head of propaganda at the time of the September 11 attacks. After he was captured in Pakistan, Al Bahlul was convicted by a military commission in Guantanamo Bay of conspiracy to commit war crimes, providing material support for terrorism, and soliciting others to commit war crimes. The D.C. Circuit vacated two of his three convictions on ex post facto grounds. On remand, the Court of Military Commission Review, without remanding to the military commission, reaffirmed Al Bahlul's life sentence for the conspiracy conviction.The D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded. The CMCR failed to apply the correct harmless error standard, In reevaluating Al Bahlul’s sentence, the CMCR should have asked whether it was beyond a reasonable doubt that the military commission would have imposed the same sentence for conspiracy alone. The court rejected Al Bahlul’s remaining arguments. The appointment of the Convening Authority was lawful; there is no reason to unsettle Al Bahlul I’s ex post facto ruling, and the court lacked jurisdiction in an appeal from the CMCR to entertain challenges to the conditions of Al Bahlul’s ongoing confinement. View "Al Bahlul v. United States" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted on all counts related to his involvement in a violent narcotics-distribution conspiracy, except one count of aiding and abetting first-degree murder and a corresponding count of aiding and abetting continuing criminal enterprise (CCE) murder. Defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment.The DC Circuit affirmed defendant's convictions and sentence, holding that the district court did not err by dismissing a juror who, after deliberations began, expressed her disagreement with the applicable law and her inability to apply it. The court held that intent to disregard the law constitutes a valid ground for dismissing a juror and that the district court permissibly dismissed Juror 0552 on that basis. The court also held that the RICO conspiracy count was not time-barred; statements made by witnesses and the prosecution did not deprive defendant of a fair trial; the district court properly gave a Pinkerton instruction; the evidence was sufficient to support the two CCE murder counts; there was no Brady error; and defendant's claim that his indictment unlawfully relied on testimony from a witness obtained in violation of the witness's Fifth Amendment rights was rejected. View "United States v. Wilkerson" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In two related cases under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), Plaintiffs Gorbey and Pinson, both incarcerated three-strikers, seek to bring their appeals in forma pauperis (IFP) on the ground that they face imminent danger. Pinson argued, in the alternative, that the three-strikes rule is unconstitutional.The DC Circuit rejected plaintiffs' requests and explained that, to proceed under the exception, three-strike prisoners must show an imminent danger at the time of their appeal and a nexus between that danger and their underlying claims. The court held that Gorbey has failed to demonstrate a nexus between the danger he faced and the claims he brought, and Pinson has failed to show that she faced imminent danger at the time she noticed her appeal. In regard to Pinson's alternative argument, the court held that even assuming that some prisoners can make out viable as-applied constitutional challenges to the three-strikes rule, she has failed to do so here. View "Pinson v. Department of Justice" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The DC Circuit affirmed Defendant David G. Bowser's conviction for charges related his obstruction of an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) into his work as chief of staff to a Member of Congress, Paul Broun. Bowser hired Brett O'Donnell as a communications and messaging consultant for official duties, but O'Donnell's job included increasingly more work on the Congressman's re-election campaign. The court explained that nothing prevented O'Donnell from assisting the campaign as a volunteer or campaign employee, but House Rules forbade the Congressman's office from paying O'Donnell out of the Members' Representational Allowance (MRA).The court affirmed the judgment of acquittal on the obstruction-of-Congress charge and held that the House has structured its internal procedures such that the Office's reviews precede any investigation by the House or the Ethics Committee; affirmed the concealment conviction because defendant had fair notice that he could be criminally prosecuted by failing to disclose particular information; affirmed the two false-statement charges because the charges are justiciable, the jury had sufficient evidence to conclude that his statements to the OCE investigators were false, and the court declined to adopt defendant's proposed jury instruction; because any error was harmless, the court need not address the merits of defendant's Rostenkowski argument; and affirmed three of defendant's false-statement convictions because any failure to instruct the jury to ignore evidence presented for other counts was harmless. View "United States v. Bowser" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted of distributing child pornography and traveling across state lines to engage in sexual conduct with a nine-year-old girl. The DC Circuit held that a defendant violates 18 U.S.C. 2423(b) by traveling in interstate commerce with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a child, even if the defendant is mistaken in believing that an actual child is involved. Therefore, the district court properly denied defendant's motion to dismiss the charged travel offense. The court also held that the district court permissibly admitted evidence that defendant had molested his own stepdaughter several years earlier, when she was between six and eight years old. View "United States v. Lieu" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The DC Circuit granted the petition for writ of mandamus in part and ordered the district court to grant the government's Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 48 motion to dismiss the charges against Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor to President Donald J. Trump, who pleaded guilty to making false statements under 18 U.S.C. 1001. The court held that the district court's orders appointing an amicus and scheduling a proposed hearing constitute legal error. The court also held that this is not the unusual case where a more searching inquiry is justified, and there is no adequate remedy for the intrusion on "the Executive's long-settled primacy over charging decisions."The court stated that, although Rule 48 requires "leave of court" before dismissing charges, "decisions to dismiss pending criminal charges—no less than decisions to initiate charges and to identify which charges to bring—lie squarely within the ken of prosecutorial discretion." The court reasoned that, whatever the precise scope of Rule 48's "leave of court" requirement, this is plainly not the rare case where further judicial inquiry is warranted. The court explained that Flynn agrees with the government's motion to dismiss and there has been no allegation that the motion reflects prosecutorial harassment, and the government's motion includes an extensive discussion of newly discovered evidence casting Flynn's guilt into doubt. The court stated that the government specifically points to evidence that the FBI interview at which Flynn allegedly made false statements was "untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn." In light of this evidence, the government maintains that it cannot "prove either the relevant false statements or their materiality beyond a reasonable doubt." The court also stated that the government's representations about the insufficiency of the evidence are entitled to a "presumption of regularity," and, on the record before the district court, there is no clear evidence contrary to the government’s representations. Therefore, the court held that these clearly established legal principles and the Executive's "long-settled primacy over charging decisions" foreclose the district court's proposed scrutiny of the government's motion.The court also held that the district court's appointment of the amicus and demonstrated intent to scrutinize the reasoning and motives of the Department of Justice constitute irreparable harms that cannot be remedied on appeal. The court stated that the district court's actions will result in specific harms to the exercise of the Executive Branch's exclusive prosecutorial power, and the contemplated proceedings would likely require the Executive to reveal the internal deliberative process behind its exercise of prosecutorial discretion, interfering with the Article II charging authority. Furthermore, circumstances of this case demonstrate that mandamus is appropriate to prevent the judicial usurpation of executive power.The court denied Flynn's petition to the extent that he seeks reassignment of the district judge where the district judge's conduct did not indicate a clear inability to decide this case fairly. The court vacated the district court's order appointing an amicus as moot. View "In re: Michael Flynn" on Justia Law

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The DC Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction of tax evasion in connection with his 2010 and 2011 individual tax returns. Defendant was a chief executive of a recycling technology company and solicited millions of dollars from investors. Defendant failed to report as income the corporate funds he converted to his personal benefit. The court rejected defendant's evidentiary challenges; held that the evidence was not unduly prejudicial; held that any error in the district court's handling of defendant's preferred theory-of-the-defense instruction was harmless; and, given the extensive evidence of defendant's guilt, held that he has no colorable argument that he was prejudiced by his attorney's decision. View "United States v. Han" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law