Stale Traffic Violation Zuniga Drug Case

Does a 15-Minute Delay Render a Traffic Violation Stale? | U.S. v. Zuniga

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How Long Can an Officer Wait to Pull a Vehicle Over After Observing a Traffic Violation?

Stale Traffic Violation Zuniga Drug CaseUnited States v. Zuniga (US Court of Appeals, 5th Cir. 2017)

In this case, a San Antonio police detective, who was working with an informant, suspected that Appellant Zuniga was transporting methamphetamine in his vehicle and followed it. The detective witnessed the driver of the vehicle fail to engage the turn-signal as required. He did not pull the vehicle over at that time, but radioed the traffic violation to other officers. Approximately fifteen minutes later, an officer who had received the radio dispatch but had not witnessed the turn-signal violation, stopped the vehicle. During the stop, the officer encountered Appellant, who was riding in the passenger seat, and his girlfriend, who was driving the vehicle. The officer arrested Appellant on outstanding warrants and his girlfriend for driving without a valid driver’s license.

The arresting officer conducted a search of Appellant incident to arrest and found methamphetamine on his person. The officer also searched Zuniga’s car and found a backpack containing methamphetamine, a handgun, and other evidence related to drug trafficking.

As a result, the federal government charged Appellant with several drug-related offenses.

Motion to Suppress for Unreasonable Traffic Delay

Appellant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the stop, arguing that the fifteen-minute delay in conducting the stop for the turn-signal violation rendered the information provided by the detective who observed the violation stale.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress, holding that the delay in conducting the stop was not enough to render the information stale or the stop unlawful. The court did not state a specific time limitation to which officers must adhere when conducting a traffic stop. Instead, the court stressed that stops following traffic violations must be reasonable in light of the circumstances. In this case, the court found that the fifteen-minute delay was reasonable. As soon as the officer observed the turn-signal violation, he immediately relayed this information to other officers, although none of those officers were in position to stop the vehicle at that time.

Collective Knowledge Doctrine Allows an Officer to Make a Stop for a Violation He Did Not Observe

The trial court further held that the collective knowledge doctrine allowed the arresting officer to lawfully stop the vehicle even though he did not personally observe the traffic violation. The collective knowledge doctrine allows an officer, who does not observe a criminal (or traffic) violation, to conduct a stop when that officer is acting at the request of another officer who actually did observe the violation. Here, the detective who observed the turn-signal violation communicated this information to the traffic officer who ultimately stopped the vehicle; therefore, the detective’s knowledge transferred to the officer who conducted the stop and made the arrest.

The 5th Circuit upheld the search and the conviction, holding that reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle continued to exist despite the 15-minute lapse between the original observation of the traffic offense and the stop. The court explained:

“We make no attempt to articulate a specific time limitation to which officers must adhere in effecting a stop following a traffic violation. Rather, we stress that, consistent with our holdings in similar contexts, stops following transportation violations must be reasonable in light of the circumstances. See, e.g., United States v. Robinson, 741 F.3d 588, 598 (5th Cir. 2014) (emphasizing that “[s]tale information cannot be used to establish probable cause”). To reiterate, we hold only that the elapsed time between an observed violation and any subsequent stop must be reasonable upon consideration of the totality of the circumstances.”

License Plate Scanner BROCA MARTINEZ

Whether “Unconfirmed” Insurance Creates Reasonable Suspicion to Stop

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Is “Unconfirmed” Insurance Enough to Justify a Traffic Stop?

License Plate Scanner BROCA MARTINEZWhile conducting surveillance on an illegal immigration investigation, Homeland Security agents saw a vehicle leave a residence suspected of harboring undocumented immigrants. The agents notified local police officers to be-on-the-lookout for the vehicle. While on patrol, an officer began to follow the defendant’s vehicle because it matched the description of the vehicle from Homeland Security. While following the vehicle, the local officer entered its license plate number into a computer database designed to return vehicle information such as insurance status. The computer indicated the insurance status was “unconfirmed.” Based on his experience using this system, the officer reasoned that the vehicle was most likely uninsured, which is, of course, a violation of Texas law. The officer then conducted a traffic stop of the vehicle and learned that the defendant was in the United States illegally. The officer issued the defendant citations for violating the insurance requirement and driving without a license while he waited for the Homeland Security agents to arrive.

Defendant Challenges the Stop, Arguing that the Officer Lacked Reasonable Suspicion.

The United States government charged the defendant with conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens. The defendant argued that the “unconfirmed” insurance status obtained from the state computer database did not provide the officer reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant. The trial court was unconvinced by this argument.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that it had not yet addressed whether a state computer database indication of insurance status establishes reasonable suspicion as a matter of law. However, the court commented that the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits have found that such information may give rise to reasonable suspicion as long as there is either some evidence suggesting the database is reliable or at least an absence of evidence that it is unreliable. In this case, the court followed the other circuits that have decided this issue and held that a state computer database indication of insurance status may establish reasonable suspicion when the officer is familiar with the database and the system itself is reliable.

5th Circuit Upholds the Stop, Finding that “Unconfirmed” Insurance Creates Reasonable Suspicion.

Here, the court found that the officer’s testimony established the reliability of the database. First, the officer explained the process for inputting license plate information. Second, the officer described how records in the database are kept and stated that he was familiar with these records. Finally, the officer testified that based on his knowledge and experience as a police officer, he knows a suspect vehicle is uninsured when an “unconfirmed” status appears because the computer system will either return an “insurance confirmed,” or “unconfirmed” response. As a result, the court held that the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant.

Read the court’s full opinion in UNITED STATES V. BROCA-MARTINEZ, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 7612 (5th Cir. Tex. Apr. 28, 2017)

Terry Stop Officer Pat Down Search

“Acting Suspicious” is Not Enough to Justify a Pat Down Search

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Does an Officer’s Testimony That a Person was “Acting Suspicious” Establish Reasonable Suspicion to Support a Terry Stop?

Terry Stop Officer Pat Down SearchThe Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently handed down an opinion concerning the reasonable suspicion standard required for law enforcement officers to conduct a Terry stop—an exception to the warrant requirement. The issue facing the Court was whether merely “acting suspicious” is enough to establish reasonable suspicion to justify a law enforcement officer to initiate a Terry stop.

United States v. Monsivais, 848 F.3d 353 (5th Cir. 2017)

The Facts — District Court Found the Terry Stop to be Lawful Based On the Defendant’s Demeanor, Remarks, and for Officer-safety Reasons

While on patrol in a marked police car, two officers observed Monsivais walking down the side of the I-20 interstate away from an apparently disabled truck. The officers stopped in front of Monsivais and activated the car’s emergency lights in order to ask Monsivais if he needed roadside assistance. As Monsivais approached, he ignored the officers and walked past their patrol car. At this point, the officers exited their vehicle, and asked Monsivais where he was going and if he needed any help. Monsivais told the officers he was heading to Fort Worth (even though his vehicle was pointed towards Abilene). During questioning, Monsivais appeared nervous and repeatedly placed his hands in his pockets; however upon the officer’s request, Monsivais removed his hands. Additionally, Monsivais responded politely to all of the officers’ questions. After approximately four minutes, one of the officers advised Monsivais that he was going to pat Monsivais down for weapons because of his behavior, inconsistent statements and for officer safety reasons. Shortly thereafter, Monsivais told the officer that he had a firearm in his waistband. The officer seized the firearm and Monsivais was later charged with possession of a firearm while being unlawfully present in the United States.

Monsivais filed a motion to suppress the firearm and other evidence, arguing that the officer violated the Fourth Amendment because he did not have reasonable suspicion to believe Monsivais was involved in criminal activity when he detained him. The district court denied Monsivais’ motion to suppress, holding only that the “consensual encounter was transformed into a lawful Terry frisk due to the Defendant’s demeanor, remarks, and for officer-safety reasons.”

The Court of Appeals Reversed the District Court’s Decision—Holding the Officers Lacked a Basis to Reasonably Suspect Monsivais of a Criminal Act

The Court first determined that the officer seized Monsivais for Fourth Amendment purposes when he told Monsivais that he was going to pat him down. At this point, the officer converted the roadside assistance “welfare check” into an investigative detention—otherwise known as a Terry stop.

“The Fourth Amendment generally requires officers to obtain a warrant before searching or seizing an individual.” However, pursuant to a narrow exception announced in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 (1968), police officers may briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if under the totality of relevant circumstance they can point to “specific and articulable facts” that give rise to reasonable suspicion that a particular person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. United States v. Hill, 752 F.3d 1029, 1033 (5th Cir. 2014).

Here, the Court found that while Monsivais’ behavior might not have been typical of all stranded motorists, the officers could not point to any specific and articulable facts that Monsivais had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime before seizing him.

The court explained that Monsivais’ nervous demeanor alone was insufficient to create reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to justify a Terry stop. In fact, the Court gives little or no weight to an officer’s statement that a suspect appeared nervous. United States v. Portillo–Aguirre, 311 F.3d 647, 656 (5th Cir. 2002). Moreover, the Court held that evidence of Monsivais placing his hands in his pocket is of little significance. The Court noted that any number of people walking down the street might have their hands in their pockets. Additionally, the Court determined there were no inconsistencies in Monsivais’ story; and, even if there were, the inconsistencies would not connect Monsivais with any reasonably suspected unlawful conduct. Moreover, Monsivais’ choice to ignore the officers’ presence by merely walking past them, not fleeing, did not give rise to criminal activity.

In conclusion, the officer testified that he never suspected Monsivais was involved in any criminal activity, but rather that Monsivais was just acting “suspicious.” As such, the court found that the officer seized Monsivais without reasonable suspicion and that the evidence obtained from the unlawful seizure should have been suppressed.

“Smith Triple Murder” Crime Spree Defendants Appeal Convictions on Evidentiary Grounds

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Case law Update: United States v. Barnes, et al (5th Circuit Court of Appeals – 2016)

Defendants Martel Barnes, Randale Jones, and Kentorre Hall were each charged with (1) conspiracy to possess illegal drugs, (2) maintaining a drug-involved premises, (3) conspiracy to possess firearms in furtherance of drug crimes, and (4) possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime for their involvement. In 2012, law enforcement grew suspicious of the group when investigating a triple murder where circumstantial evidence linked the Defendants to a network of drug trafficking in Mississippi, based out of a home rented by Hall. After interviewing witnesses and corroborating stories of informants, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics executed a search warrant on the home which netted firearms, digital scales, and plastic baggies. Law enforcement linked the drug trafficking to the triple murder by analyzing shell casings from the murder scene and comparing them with casings found during the search. In addition to the murders and the drug distribution ring, the men were eventually linked to a string of armed robberies.

At trial, the Government called thirty-four witnesses in total. After hearing testimony for over a week, the jury found the Defendants guilty on all counts, and they were each sentenced to life in prison, followed by five years of supervised release. The Defendants appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing insufficient evidence for each charge in the indictment. The Fifth Circuit had to determine whether a reasonable jury would have found that the evidence established the guilt of the Defendant(s) beyond a reasonable doubt. Below, we examine each charge and discuss the Court’s analysis of conclusions reached on appeal.

Charge #1: Conspiracy to Possess Illegal Drugs

Each Defendant was charged with conspiracy to possess illegal drugs, a violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846. Under the law, it is unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance; any person who attempts or conspires to commit any offense [herein] shall be subject to the same penalties as those prescribed for the offense, the commission of which was the object of the attempt or conspiracy.

On appeal to the Fifth Circuit, the Defendants argued that the witnesses used by the Government at trial lacked credibility. The Defendants argued that the witnesses were criminals with their own convictions and that their testimonies should not have been used at trial. Here, the Fifth Circuit stated, “this argument holds no weight given the quantity and consistency of the evidence presented at trial.” Moreover, held the Court, “credibility issues are for the finder of fact and do not undermine the sufficiency of the evidence.” United States v. Morgan, 117 F.3d 849, 854 n.2 (5th Cir. 1997). The Court affirmed the district court’s holding regarding the conviction for this charge.

Charge #2: Maintaining a Drug-Involved Premises

Second, each Defendant was charged with maintaining a drug-involved premises pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 856(a) and 18 U.S.C. § 2. Under this section of the code, it is unlawful to knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily, for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance; whoever commits an offense…or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces, or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal. “In determining whether a person maintained a drug-involved premises under Section 856, the Court typically considers whether a Defendant (1) has an ownership or leasehold interest in the premises; (2) was in charge of the premises; or (3) exercised supervisory control over the premises.” United States v. Soto-Silva, 129 F.3d 340, 346 (5th Cir. 1997). Surprisingly, the Fifth Circuit declined to resolve this issue, as the Defendants were “subject to criminal liability for aiding and abetting” Hall, who rented the house where the criminal activity had taken place.

To prove up aiding and abetting, the Government had to have established that (1) the elements of the substantive offense occurred and (2) the Defendant(s) associated with the criminal activity, participated, and acted to help it succeed. United States v. Delagarza-Villarreal, 141 F.3d 133, 140 (5th Cir. 1997).

Here, said the Fifth Circuit, the Government sufficiently proved up that Hall rented the home where the criminal activities were taking place, and that the other Defendants helped him in furtherance of the crimes. The Defendants spent hours a day at the home where the drugs were measured and sorted, “we conclude that a reasonable jury could find that [the Defendants] were guilty of the charged offenses.”

The Defendants also appealed that the word “place” in the statute was ambiguous and therefore, should not have been applied to include their cars and the area surrounding their cars, where more incriminating evidence supporting this charge was eventually seized. The Fifth Circuit stated that according to the Oxford Dictionary, “the definition of ‘place’ is not limited to buildings or structures…[although] the term ‘premises’ is commonly defined as a house or building.” The Fifth Circuit held that the district court did not error when instructing the jury that “place” could mean “house” or the “yard area” [where cars are parked] around a house.

Charges #3 and #4: Conspiracy to Possess and Possession of Firearms in Furtherance of Drug Crimes

Third, each Defendant was charged with conspiracy to possess firearms in furtherance of drug crimes and possession of firearms in furtherance of drug crimes, violations of 18 U.S.C. § 924(o) and 2. At trial, the Government presented extensive circumstantial evidence linking all the Defendants with the triple murder. Some of the evidence included Facebook and text messages with incriminating statements. On appeal, the Defendants argued that the social media and text messaging evidence was irrelevant to prove their involvement with the alleged crimes, and that it was to have been considered improper character evidence. The Fifth Circuit held that “the evidence of the Smith Triple Murder was directly relevant to the conspiracy charges because it showed that the [Defendants] were willing to use firearms in furtherance of their drug trafficking activities.”

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the Defendant-Appellants’ convictions.

Probable Cause Affidavit Franks Hearing

Challenging the Probable Cause Affidavit | Franks Hearing Requirements

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Problems with Probable Cause: Law Enforcement Allegedly Used Conflicting Third Party Statements as the basis for a Search Warrant

Probable Cause Affidavit Franks HearingEvidence obtained by a valid search warrant can be used at trial. But what if the search warrant was based on information provided by a third party who later recants the information he provided? Further, what if law enforcement mischaracterized the evidence when presenting it to the magistrate in the application for the warrant? What legal remedy, if any, exists to support defendants who find themselves in this situation? The Fifth Circuit heard United States v. Minor in August, this article summarizes the Court’s surprising holding.

See the full text of the 5th Circuit’s decision in United States v. Minor (USCA 5th Cir. 2016)

US v. Minor – Rogue Bank Employee Hatches Identity Theft Scheme

Anthony Minor and his friend Katrina Thomas, a Fannie Mae employee, hatched a plan to steal the identities of numerous Fannie Mae clients with the intention of using the personal information to obtain entry into checking and savings accounts. Thomas created a list of client names and personal information while at work, and then provided Minor with the information. Minor was successful in using the data to steal money from those individuals’ bank accounts by contacting banks, pretending to be the individual, and transferring funds to Minor’s personal account.

During the time of these crimes, Minor was frequenting a hotel. Eventually, law enforcement began investigating Minor; the lead investigator assigned to the case was Albert Moore. In a warrant affidavit, Moore states that Will Crain, the director of security at the hotel, reported to law enforcement that he had seen Minor with expensive merchandise. That statement was used to establish probable cause for obtaining a search warrant. Law enforcement used the search warrant to search Minor’s dwellings, and the search rendered evidence of the crimes. Minor was arrested on numerous bank fraud charges.

Minor Goes to Trial on Federal Fraud Charges

At trial, a jury found Minor guilty of bank fraud, aiding and abetting bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, using or trafficking in an unauthorized access device, aggravated identity theft, and aiding and abetting aggravated identity theft. Minor was sentenced to 192 months’ imprisonment, a sentence that incorporated a six-level enhancement, but was set well below the federal Sentencing Guidelines recommendation at the trial judge’s discretion.

Minor appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the search warrant contained false information and that he is entitled to a Franks Hearing to establish the facts surrounding the statements used to support the finding of probable cause for the search warrant.

Minor Appeals to the Fifth Circuit Arguing Agents Lacked Probable Cause for Search Warrant

Minor appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing:

  1. that the trial court should have held a Franks Hearing to determine whether law enforcement improperly obtained a search warrant for his car,
  2. that even if Minor’s case does not meet the requirement for a Franks Hearing, that an exception be carved out specifically for his case, and
  3. that his sentence should not have included a six-level enhancement (more prison time).

Minor alleged that Crain, the hotel’s security guard, testified at trial that he did not see Minor carrying merchandise and therefore, law enforcement did not have probable cause to secure a search warrant.

Franks Hearing Requirements—A Supreme Court Precedent

In Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978), the Supreme Court held that

“where the defendant makes a substantial preliminary showing that a false statement knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth, was included by the affiant in the warrant affidavit, and if the allegedly false statement is necessary to the finding of probable cause, the Fourth Amendment requires that a hearing be held at the defendant’s request.”… [Further, if the] “allegation of perjury or reckless disregard is established by…a preponderance of the evidence…the search warrant must be voided and the fruits of the search excluded to the same extent as if probable cause was lacking on the face of the affidavit.”

Id. at 155-56.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Bank Fraud Crimes

“U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1 (2014), provides that “if the defendant’s offense involved 250 or more victims, then § 2B1.1(b)(2)(C) requires the court to increase the defendant’s offense level by 6 levels. U.S.S.G. §2.B1.1(b)(2)(C).

The Fifth Circuit Weighs In; Holds that the Affiant’s statements were not “deliberately false or made with reckless disregard for the truth.”

The Fifth Circuit relied heavily on Supreme Court precedent with regard to the evidentiary appeal and deferred to the reasoning of the trial court with regard to sentencing.

As “Minor concedes that Agent Moore did not intentionally insert false information into the affidavit, or act with reckless disregard for the truth…and because Minor failed to make the requisite substantial preliminary showing, [Minor] is not entitled to a Franks hearing.” Secondly, “[Minor] asks us to hold that in a case where a law enforcement affiant is relying upon information….from other[s]…the challenger should not be required to meet the intentional or reckless requirement to proceed a Franks hearing.” Here, “Minor’s argument is meritless under any standard…[and he] has not cited any authority recognizing his proposed exception to Franks…we decline…to create a new exception to well-established Supreme Court precedent.

Further, the Fifth Circuit said, “we agree with the district court that Minor…actively employed the means of identification of over 250 victims in furtherance of their bank fraud scheme…with the object of unlawfully accessing those customers’ bank accounts without their consent.” Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirms the holding and sentence of the trial court.

Deportation Crime Enhancement

Enhancement for Crimes Committed Deportation Illegal Reentry into the US

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Deportation Crime EnhancementWhat happens when someone who illegally enters the country commits a crime? Further, does it matter is that person was previously deported from the United States? Does federal law provide for sentencing enhancements to extend the prison terms for wrongdoers in this position? The answer is yes—and no. Read on to see how the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals analyzes federal statutes and sentencing guidelines that could support such an enhancement for the defendant, but decides against doing so.

US v. Rodriguez (5th Circuit, 2016)

A 2002 Theft and Deportation Set the Stage

In 2002, Benito Sanchez-Rodriguez, an “undocumented immigrant,” was convicted in Florida for “Dealing in Stolen Property,” a violation of a state law. Pleading guilty at trial, Rodriguez was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, which was suspended for three years’ probation. Six months later, he was deported to Mexico because he had no legal status to remain in the US. Over a decade later, in 2014, Rodriguez was arrested for DWI in Texas. While under arrest, the federal government charged him will illegal entry into the US. Ultimately, Rodriguez was indicted on one count of illegal reentry into the US, a violation of federal statute 8 U.S.C. § 1326(a) and (b)(1).

Rodriguez Faces Criminal Charges, Again

In August of 2015, Rodriguez plead guilty to the illegal entry indictment and the district court accepted his plea. Before the sentencing phase, a US Probation Officer prepared a “pre-sentence investigation report” (“PSR”), relying upon the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“USSG”). The PSR assigned Rodriguez base offense level of 8, which was raised by 8 additional levels because of the 2002 “Dealing in Stolen Property” conviction (an aggravated felony qualifier), for a total base offense level of 16. U.S.C. § 2LI.2(b)(1)(C). The PSR added that because Rodriguez took responsibility by entering a guilty plea, the total base offense level was reduced by 3, for a final total of 13. The PSR recommended that with a base offense level of 13, Rodriguez should face between 24 to 30 months in federal prison. Rodriguez objected both on the record and in writing, arguing that the 2002 conviction was not an aggravated felony qualifier, however, the district court adopted the PSR’s recommendations. Accordingly, he was sentenced to 27 months’ imprisonment.

Rodriguez Appeals to the Fifth Circuit, Argues Florida Statute Overbroad

Rodriguez now appeals to the Fifth Circuit for relief, arguing, that the 2002 conviction is not an aggravated felony qualifier for sentencing purposes because the Florida law “Dealing in Stolen Property” is overly broad. The Fifth Circuit must determine whether Rodriguez’s prior 2002 conviction qualifies as an “aggravating felony offense” under the USSG, because if so, he faces a longer prison term and could potentially set a precedent for the federal “aggravated felony qualifier” status of this Florida law.

Federal Law: Sentencing Enhancements

A defendant’s base offense level will be increased by 8 levels if the defendant previously was deported, or unlawfully remained in the US after conviction for an aggravated felony, without regard to the date of the conviction for the aggravated felony. U.S.S.G. § 2LI.2(b)(1)(C); U.S.S.G. § 2LI.2 cmt. N.3(A); United States v. McKinney, 520 F.3d 425, 429 (5th Cir. 2008). An aggravated felony is defined as a “theft offense, including receipt of stolen property, or burglary offense, for which the prison term is at least one year.” 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(G).

Federal Cases: Determining Aggravated Felony Qualifiers

A “categorical approach” is used to determine whether a prior conviction is an offense under the USSG. Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 602 (1990); United States v. Rodriguez-Negrete, 772 F.3d 221, 224-25 (5th Cir. 2014). Courts compare the elements of a statute forming the basis of the defendant’s conviction with the elements of the generic crime (the offense as it is commonly understood). United States v. Schofield, 802 F.3d 722, 727-28 (5th Cir. 2015). If the offense of conviction has the same elements as the generic crime, then the prior conviction may serve as the predicate, because anyone convicted under that law is guilty of all of the elements. Descamps v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2276, 2281, 2283 (2013).

Similarly, a “modified categorical approach” is used by courts to analyze the elements of a divisible statute (a criminal statute that is comprised of several varied offenses). In a two-step “modified categorical approach,” the court first reviews indictments and jury instructions, among other documents, to determine which part of a statute formed the basis of a defendant’s prior conviction. Next, the court compares the elements of the crime of conviction with the element of the general crime.

The Fifth Circuit Weighs In

Here, the Fifth Circuit adopted the modified categorical approach to analyze the case. Here, the “generic crime” is a theft offense—the “Dealing in Stolen Property” conviction from 2002. Because the provision does not clearly define “theft offense,” the Fifth Circuit applied the generic definition of theft, “a taking of property or an exercise of control over property without consent with the criminal intent to deprive the owner of rights and benefits of ownership.” United States v. Medina-Torres, 703 F.3d 770, 774 (5th Cir. 2012)(per curiam). Burke v. MuKasey, 509 F.3d 695, 697 (5th Cir. 2007).

The court examined the Florida statute reads, “Traffic means to (a) sell, transfer, distribute, dispense or otherwise dispose of property; (b) to buy, receive, possess, obtain control of, or use property with the intent to sell, transfer, distribute, dispense, or otherwise dispose of property.” Fla. Stat. § 812.012(8). Next, the Court reviewed Rodriguez’s charging document, which read, “Rodriguez knew or should have known that the property was stolen.” The Court examined Florida case law that showed that Florida applies the statute to conduct outside of the generic definition of theft—which created a problem when applying this conviction to the sentencing enhancement provision as outlined in the PSR. Without the enhancement provision, Rodriguez’s sentence would likely not have been as long with a lower base offense level. Accordingly the Fifth Circuit vacates the 27-month prison term and remands the case for resentencing only.

Possesion of a Firearm by a Felon

Defining “Felon in Possession (of a Firearm) in Furtherance of a Crime”

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5th Circuit Holds that Prosecutors need not provide evidence for each one of the Ceballos-Torres ‘Felon in Possession in Furtherance of a Crime’ factors.

Possesion of a Firearm by a FelonUS v Walker (5th Circuit 2016)

At trial, Henry David Walker pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute meth and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime, violations of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1) and 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A). On record at the arraignment hearing and post-plea, Walker admitted to possessing nine firearms, including a 32-caliber firearm, two 22-caliber rifles, two 20-gauge shotguns, two revolvers, and a 9-millimeter semiautomatic gun—all of which were found at the scene of the arrest. US v. Walker, 218 F.3d 415. The district court sentenced Walker to concurrent terms of 151 months in prison for the conspiracy charge, and an additional 60 month statutorily-imposed mandatory sentence for the possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime. Walker appeals to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that “factual basis” established after the guilty plea was insufficient to prove that he possessed the firearms in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime.

The Big Issues before the Fifth Circuit: Did the Government Satisfy the “Felon in Possession” Requirements?

Walker’s plea came before the factual basis for the charge was established on record—was the apple put before the cart? The Court must determine whether a factual basis can be established after a guilty plea, and if so, whether the factual basis for Walker’s conviction was sufficient. The Court must also determine whether prosecutors need to provide evidence for each “felon in possession” factors.

Federal Law Regarding Felon in Possession in Furtherance of a Crime

A guilty plea is insufficient in itself to support a criminal conviction—the court must satisfy itself, through an inquiry of the defendant or examination of the relevant materials in the record, than an adequate factual basis exists for the elements of the offense.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b)(3); United States v. Adams, 961 F.2d 505, 508 (5th Cir. 1992).

Any person who, during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime…uses or carries a firearm, or who in furtherance of any such crime, possesses a firearm, shall, in addition to the punishment provided for such crime of violence or drug trafficking crime …be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than 5 years…” 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(i).

The mere presence of a firearm is not enough—possession of a firearm is ‘in furtherance’ of the drug trafficking offense when it furthers, advances, or helps forward that offense. United States v. Palmer, 456 F.3d 484, 489-90 (5th Cir. 2006); United States v. Ceballos-Torres, 218 F.3d 409, 410-411.

Factors that help courts determine whether the possession of the firearm was in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime include: (1) type of drug activity; (2) accessibility of the firearm; (3) type of weapon; (4) whether weapons are stolen; (5) whether the possession is legitimate or illegal; (6) whether the gun is loaded; (7) proximity to the drugs or money; and, (8) the time and circumstances under which the weapons are found. Ceballos-Torres at 414.
The Fifth Circuit Analyzes the Ceballos-Torres Factors to Determine Walker’s Fate

Walker appeals to the Fifth Circuit, arguing that his case more closely aligns with United States v. Palmer, a case in which the Fifth Circuit reversed a defendant’s conviction based on lack of support under the Ceballos-Torres factors. The Fifth Circuit compares the three cases to analyze the factors.

 
WALKER PALMER CEBALLOS-TORRES
 Claiming no evidence of proximity of guns to the drugs.  Gun was locked in a safe.  Guns found alongside a substantial amount of drugs.
 Ammo matched the guns; most guns loaded.  Gun was not loaded.  Weapons loaded.
 Claiming no evidence of accessibility of the gun (no easy access). Ammo in the house did not match the gun. Ammo present that matched the guns.
 Walker is not a meth supplier.  Defense claimed he bought the gun for self-defense. Convicted felon in possession of a firearm.
 Nine firearms.  One unloaded firearm.  Multiple firearms.
 Denies weapons used in the furtherance of drug-related activity.  Denied the gun was used in relation to drug trafficking.  Court found weapons were in furtherance of drug-related crimes.

Here, the Fifth Circuit say that “the factual basis need not provide evidence for every single one of the Ceballos-Torres factors for a court to conclude that the defendant possessed a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime,” rather, they are examples a court “might include” in its analysis “to help determine” a judgment. Further, the government need not provide evidence supporting each and every factor to determine guilt.

Because Walker possessed the firearms at his residence alongside the meth he supplied to dealers, he was a convicted felon at the time of the possession of the firearms, and because there were so many weapons present at the scene, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s conviction and sentence.

THC Controlled Substance Analogue Designer Drug

Controlled Substance Analogue Ratio Equates to Higher Federal Sentence

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THC Controlled Substance Analogue Designer DrugSynthetic Cannabinoids became popular in the 2000’s when they were first marketed as “legal herbs.” In 2008, chemical analysis revealed that these designer drugs were more than just herbs.  The military, in particular, had a big problem with Spice and K2 (two forms of synthetic marijuana) in the late 2000’s, because they gave users a similar (or greater) high than marijuana, but they were not included in any federal schedule of controlled substances.  As these substances became more popular and widely consumed, the DEA banned their use in 2010 using emergency temporary powers and then later by placing them on Schedule I of Controlled Substance Act.

How Do Controlled Substances Analogues (Designer Drugs) Fit Into the Federal Drug Control Scheme?

 

United States v Malone (5th Circuit Court of Appeals – 2016)

Thomas Malone and his business partner Drew Green owned NutraGenomics Manufacturing, LLC, a distributor of JWH-018, a synthetic cannabinoid substance, also known as “Spice” and “K2” on the street. However, in 2011 federal and state legislatures banned JWH-018 and other similar designer drugs or synthetic cannabinoids. Malone and Green began selling other synthetic cannabinoids, namely, AM-2201, known as “Mr. Miyagi…a mixture of AM-2201 and vegetable material that visually resemble[s] marijuana.” Eventually, Malone and Green ordered the mass manufacture of Mr. Miyagi, selling in bulk to a distributor in Louisiana. Although labeled as potpourri, Mr. Miyagi was supposed to be smoked like marijuana.

Malone Faced Federal Indictment For Possession and Distribution of Mr. Miyagi

A federal grand jury returned an indictment, charging Malone with one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute AM-2201, and, one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Malone decided to take a plea agreement, pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute a Schedule I Controlled Dangerous Substance, a violation of 21 U.S.C. §§846, 841(b)(1)(c), 813, 802(32)(A). The district court accepted Malone’s guilty plea of distributing not less than 1400 kilograms of AM-2201, and ordered a pre-sentence report. A pre-sentence report “PSR” is a report created by a probation office in anticipation of the punishment phase of a trial—the PSR in this case set out to determine “the base offense level using the marijuana equivalency of the most closely related controlled substance to AM-2201.”

Pre-Sentencing Report’s Mathematical Formula Indicated Severe Penalty

The PSR listed Tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, as the most closely related controlled substance to AM-2201. Further, the federal Drug Equivalency Tables indicated that a 1 to 167 ration be applied to convert the 1400 kilograms of AM-2201 into marijuana for the purpose of sentences under the federal Sentencing Guidelines. Using this mathematical equation, it was determined that Malone should be sentenced for 233,800 kilograms of marijuana—the highest level set forth by the Drug Equivalency Tables. At trial, each side put forth an expert witness arguing for and against the use of the THC and the THC ratio set forth in the PSR.

Battle of the Experts at Trial

The Government’s Expert

The Government called Dr. Jordan Trecki to testify that THC is the most closely related substance to AM-2201. Dr. Trecki relied on a scientific study “showing that both THC and AM-2201 bind to the same cannabinoid receptor” in the brain. Second, he testified about a study on rats where the rats could not tell the difference between THC and AM-2201. Third, he discussed AM-2201’s potency and effects on humans. Dr. Trecki told the court that THC and AM-2201 are close in chemical make-up and in effect on the structures of the brain. Dr. Trecki said, however, that there was no scientific basis for the 1:167 ratio.

Malone’s Expert

Malone’s attorney called Dr. Nicholas Cozzi, who stressed the importance of comparison of the two drug compounds—THC and AM-2201—in humans, not just in animals. Dr. Cozzi criticized Dr. Trecki’s analysis because Trecki “combined the results of several studies” and that the studies were not conducted on humans, rather they were animal studies. Dr. Cozzi stated that marijuana, not THC, was the most closely related substance to AM-2201 because it’s smoked and inhaled, like marijuana, and because both substances are consumed for their effect. Dr. Cozzi agreed with Dr. Trecki on one point—that the 1:167 ratio was not rooted in science.

The Big Issue Before the Fifth Circuit

Relying heavily on Dr. Trecki’s expert testimony, the District Court sentenced Malone to 117 months imprisonment and three years of supervised release following prison. The court noted that “the ratios in sentencing guidelines are often arbitrary… [however] the ratios seek to outline the relative harm of certain drugs.” Malone appeals to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Fifth Circuit must determine whether THC really is the most closely-related substance to the controlled substance analogue, AM-2201, and if so, whether the 1:167 ratio is a reasonable conversion for sentencing purposes.

The Fifth Circuit Weighs In

Here, the Fifth Circuit points out that the district court spent a day holding an evidentiary hearing on the equivalency of AM-2201 to other drugs, “it is significant that the district court gave this matter studied attention.” The court notes that each side had the ability to present an expert witness and to cross examine. “Nothing in the record leaves us with…the conviction that a mistake [was made].”

Second, the Fifth Circuit compares AM-2201 and marijuana, disagreeing with Dr.Cozzi’s assertion that both drugs are smoked and inhaled in the same manner. “Marijuana is not consumed way…there is no evidence that a user would smoke a pure form of AM-2201, just as a user would not smoke pure THC.”

Third, the Fifth Circuit says that the district court did not have to “engage in a piece-by-piece analysis of empirical grounding behind…[the] sentencing guidelines.” United States v. Duarte, 569 F.3d 357, 366-67 (5th Cir. 2009). Accordingly, the Court says that only the Commission on sentencing guidelines can change the guidelines, and therefore, does not rule on this issue. The Fifth Circuit agrees with the holding and reasoning of the district court—Malone’s sentence is affirmed.
*This case consolidates two cases, United States v. Malone and United States v. Green.

Police Knock and Talk Danhach 2016

Knock and Talk Interview Still a Lawful Way for Police to Enter a Premises

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Police Knock and Talk Danhach 2016“Knock, knock!”

“Who is there?”

“The police and the FBI, may we come in please?”

There is a knock at the door. You look out your peep hole and see law enforcement. Do you have to open your door? If you open your door, do you have to let them in? What if they don’t have a warrant, but ask nicely and start talking to you? If you give consent to law enforcement to enter your home, can evidence seized be used against you in court later on?

This article is a summary of United States v. Danhach, a case recently decided in the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Evidence is Seized After Police Politely Ask If They Can Come Inside.

The Houston Police Department and the FBI had been investigating Sameh Danhach and his business associate for possible involvement in organized retail theft. As part of the investigation, law enforcement began surveilling a warehouse that Danhach had been seen entering on multiple occasions and to which a car used in stealing over-the-counter drugs and expensive baby formula had been linked. After several weeks of surveillance, law enforcement approached the warehouse and knocked on the door. Danhach’s business associate permitted the officers to enter, as surveillance cameras rolled capturing the entire conversation.

The officers saw trash bags full of merchandise and other indicators of stolen goods out in the open. Citing this evidence in a probable cause affidavit, law enforcement obtained a search warrant and seized the evidence for trial. Danhach was charged with conspiracy to transport stolen goods in interstate commerce and also with aiding and abetting the interstate transportation of stolen OTC medication and baby formula, violations of 18 U.S.C. § 371 and 18 U.S.C. § 2314, among other charges.

At trial, the jury found Danhach guilty on all counts and the judge sentenced him to 151 months in prison and a three year term of supervised release. Danhach appealed.

The Knock and Talk Procedure, the Plain View Doctrine and Consent Collide.

Courts have recognized the “knock and talk” technique as “a reasonable investigative tool when officers seek to gain an occupant’s consent to search or when officers reasonably suspect criminal activity.” United States v. Jones, 239 F.3d 716, 720 (5th Cir. 2001); Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 469 (2011). Evidence may be cited in support of a search warrant if (1) law enforcement entered the area where the item was located; (2) the item was in plain view; (3) the incriminating nature of the item was immediately apparent; and (4) law enforcement had a lawful right of access to the item.” United States v. Jackson, 569 F. 3d 236, 242 (5th Cir. 2010).

However, if for some reason the “plain view” doctrine does not stand up to the facts of a case, then “consent to enter” may be an alternative argument, but “the government must demonstrate that there was effective consent that was given voluntarily by a party with actual or apparent authority.” United States v. Scroggins, 599 F.3d 433, 440 (5th Cir. 2010).

The Big Issue Before the Fifth Circuit was Whether Officers Lawfully Entered and Remained Inside of Danhach’s Warehouse While Conducting a “Knock and Talk” Interview.

Here, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court and affirmed judgment and sentencing, holding that law enforcement permissibly used the knock and talk technique. The Court pointed out that video surveillance is consistent with law enforcement’s account that consent was obtained before entering. Even after law enforcement entered, Danhach’s business associate gave them permission to walk around the warehouse. The stolen goods were in plain view and were immediately apparent and indicative of criminal activity. Based on this series of events, “even if any evidence cited in the warrant…was not covered by the plain-view doctrine, the record supports the conclusion that the agents asked for and received consent for a full search of the warehouse.” Danhach did not offer any evidence to show that the consent was coerced in any manner, nor did he offer any evidence that the items seized were not in plain view.

Consent to Search + Items of Criminality in Plain View = Probable Cause to Obtain a Warrant

In sum, law enforcement may ask to enter a premises without a warrant and if consent is obtained from a person who is “in charge” or who looks to be “in charge,” then that consent is sufficient according to the Fifth Circuit, citing previous cases. Once lawfully inside a dwelling or premises, if law enforcement officers see, in plain view, objects that are linked or are seemingly linked to a crime, then those items may be the basis of a warrant to seize the items and to conduct an even more extensive search.

Juvenile Sex Offender Conditions

Strict Monitoring of Juvenile Sex Offender Internet Usage is a “Heavy Burden,” says Fifth Circuit

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In United States v. Sealed Juvenile, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals discusses how much oversight is too much when it comes to juvenile sex offenses.

Juvenile Sex Offender ConditionsPlease note: This article discusses sexual abuse of a child. Generally speaking, the reason the court system treats juveniles differently from adults is because of the hope of rehabilitation and restoration of the juvenile offender to society. With everything from school to job searching on the internet these days, should juvenile sex offenders be able to be on the internet? Is strictly monitoring a juvenile sex offender’s internet usage, down to the keystroke, an imposition on constitutional rights, or is society providing oversight to a juvenile defendant with the hope of rehabilitation?

A Juvenile Sexual Assault Occurs on a Military Base

While living with his family on a military base, a fifteen-year-old sexually assaulted a four-year-old. He was charged with violating 18 U.S.C. §§2241(c), 5032 (2012), “engaging in a sexual act with a person who had not attained the age of 12 years.” The juvenile defendant had a history of psychiatric illnesses, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Bipolar disorder. He had a pattern of sending sexually explicit letters to classmates at school. Before sentencing the district court ordered a probation officer to render a special report, which concluded, “in the last year the juvenile’s problems transformed from being anger-oriented to being sexually-oriented.” In a plea agreement, the juvenile pleaded guilty to a lesser offense of “abusive sexual conduct with a minor who had not attained the age of 12 years,” violations of 18 U.S.C. § 2244(a)(5) (2012) and §5032.

The District Court Imposes Strict Sex Offender Conditions to Probation

The district court deemed the defendant a “juvenile delinquent” and sentenced him to eighteen months in a juvenile treatment facility and a term of juvenile delinquent supervision until he turned twenty-one. Further, the district court imposed four special conditions to his supervision

  1. a restriction on the defendant’s contact with children,
  2. choice of occupation,
  3. prohibition on loitering in specific places, and
  4. the use of computers and internet.

The juvenile appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, arguing that the district court had not provided adequate reasons for imposing the special conditions at the sentencing hearing, and failed to explain how the special conditions were reasonably related to the offense.

Under 18 U.S.C. § 3563(b), courts may place discretionary conditions on probation, so long as the conditions are reasonably related to the factors set forth in such deprivations of liberty or property and are reasonably necessary. In doing so, the sentencing court must consider the nature and circumstances of the offenses and the “history and characteristics of the defendant.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1)(2) (2012).

The Big Issue Before the Fifth Circuit | Were the Special Conditions of Probation Reasonably Related to the Offense?

The big issue before the Fifth Circuit was whether the conditions imposed by the district court were reasonably related to the offense, and if so, were they reasonably necessary. Did the district court provide adequate reasons for imposing the four special conditions? As the case was a matter of first impression, the Court examined each special condition and concluded in a surprising manner with regard to the internet and computer use.

Condition One: Restriction on Contact with Children

Under the first special condition, the juvenile was “not to have contact with children under the age of sixteen without prior written permission of the Probation Officer.” Further, he was required to “report unauthorized contact with children to the Probation Officer.” On appeal, the juvenile argued that this special condition was a “much greater deprivation of liberty…than reasonably necessary.” However, the Court disagreed with the juvenile. “Considering the threat posed by the juvenile based on his conviction [and other noted behaviors on record], we affirm this condition.” Also noting that the juvenile could attend school with permission of the Probation Officer, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the lower court.

Condition Two: Choice of Occupation

Under the second special condition, the juvenile was “restricted from engaging in an occupation where he has access to children, without prior approval of the Probation Officer.” On appeal, the juvenile argued that the special condition was not reasonable and necessary because the offense was not related to work and that he would run a risk of never being able to be employed. The Court disagreed because the juvenile would be able to work upon prior permission from his Probation Officer. The Court affirmed the district court’s condition.

Condition Three: Prohibition on Loitering in Specific Places

Under the third special condition, the juvenile was not to “loiter within one-hundred feet of schools, parks, playgrounds, arcades, or other places primarily used by children under the age of sixteen.” The juvenile argued that the special condition was not reasonably related to his offense because his offense did not occur at a school. The Court disagreed. “The juvenile’s history of sending sexually explicit letters to girls at school means that he poses a threat to children at school.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s special condition.

Condition Four: Computer and Internet Use

Under the fourth special condition, the juvenile was (1) not to possess a computer with internet access without the prior approval of the Probation Officer; (2) to submit to searches under the direction of the Probation Officer that could include software scans of his technological devices; (3) to consent to a key logger on his personal devices and to consent to a search of each internet query; (4) to inventory and to provide receipts for all devices and bills pertaining to the internet and technology.

The juvenile argued that the restrictions on his computer and internet use were not reasonably related to his offense, and that the special condition would prevent him from job searching, completing homework, and emailing his therapists. The juvenile argued that even though he could access the internet, to do so would place a heavy burden on him to request permission each time he accessed the internet, or to report any misstep such as an errant search or a “pop up” on the internet.

The Fifth Circuit points out that the juvenile is mentally ill and needs some internet oversight. “We affirm the monitoring provisions because we recognize [they] ensur[e] that the juvenile complies with the restrictions against accessing sexually explicit materials.”

However, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the juvenile on some of the internet and computer usage restrictions. “We must recognize that access to computers and the Internet is essential to functioning in today’s society.” The Fifth Circuit ordered the district court to construe the special condition so that the juvenile does not have to request permission from a Probation Officer each time he accesses the internet, removing what the Court deemed “a heavy burden” on the juvenile. Next, the Court modified the special condition that required the juvenile to provide receipts and payment records to the Probation Officer, “because the purpose is to verify that there have been no payments to an internet service provider, and payment for proper use should be made by the juvenile…there is no other basis to justify the restriction imposed by the [special condition].”

In sum, while the Fifth Circuit mostly affirmed the district court’s holding, it made some significant modifications where technology is concerned. Speaking to the hope of future rehabilitation, the Court added, “the juvenile may seek modification to any of the conditions, and the district court may lessen the burden of the [special conditions] if [his] behavior improves over time.”