Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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An assistant district attorney (the “DA”) in Fulton County, Georgia obtained a material witness warrant requiring Plaintiff to appear as a witness at trial. Plaintiff voluntarily appeared at trial, making execution of the warrant unnecessary. After the trial ended, the DA failed to inform the trial judge that the warrant needed to be recalled. A few months later, a police officer arrested Plaintiff and placed him in jail because of the outstanding warrant. A judge eventually ordered Plaintiff’s release.   Plaintiff brought a 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 action alleging, among other things, that the DA’s failure to initiate the warrant’s cancelation violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The DA moved to dismiss the suit arguing that as a prosecutor she was entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. The district court agreed and dismissed Plaintiff’s claims against her.   The Eleventh Circuit reversed and held that absolute prosecutorial immunity does not extend to DA’s failure to take action to cancel the warrant. The district court thus erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s complaint.   The court wrote that determining whether prosecutorial immunity applies requires the court to take a fact-specific functional approach. Here, the court found that applying Third Circuit precedent from Odd v. Malone, 538 F.3d 202 (3d Cir. 2008), results in the conclusion that the DA is not entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. Thus the DA has failed to show that absolute immunity protects her post-trial conduct here. View "Kidanemariam Kassa v. Antionette Stephenson" on Justia Law

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In a jury trial before District Judge Bruce, Shannon was convicted of 19 counts of sexually exploiting a child, 18 U.S.C. 2251(a) and (e), and one count of distributing child pornography, sections 2252A(a)(2)(A) and (b)(1). The charges arose from Shannon’s relationship with J.W., a minor; the two originally met when J.W. was around eight years old. Shannon was in his forties at the time. Judge Bruce sentenced Shannon to 720 months in prison.Shannon challenged those convictions under 28 U.S.C. 2255, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective and that he did not receive a fair trial before an unbiased judge. The motion was assigned to District Judge Shadid, who denied relief. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Given the extensive and powerful evidence against Shannon, even if his trial counsel’s performance was deficient, he has failed to show that he was prejudiced by any deficiency. On the judicial-bias claim, the court found that ex-parte communications between Judge Bruce and staff of the U.S. Attorney’s office do not warrant a new trial on guilt or innocence. Based on those ex parte communications and comments by Judge Bruce at Shannon’s sentencing that implicitly discouraged an appeal, the court concluded that Shannon must be resentenced before a different judge. View "Shannon v. United States" on Justia Law

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Defendant is an inmate serving a sentence in federal custody after he was convicted in 2007 for unlawful possession of a firearm as a convicted felon. After a hearing, the district court ordered Defendant committed to the custody of the Attorney General for treatment of a mental disease or defect at the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri. Defendant filed a notice of appeal on his own without counsel, and the clerk of this court appointed the federal public defender to represent Defendant on appeal. Counsel filed a motion to withdraw from representing Defendant and a separate motion to file counsel’s motion to withdraw under seal.   The Eighth Circuit denied the motion to file under seal as overbroad. The court explained that a proper motion to seal should be narrowly drawn and accompanied by a proposed redacted filing for the public docket. Here, counsel’s present motion seeks to seal the entire motion to withdraw without any proffered justification. Further, counsel failed to state any cited authority or developed an argument as to why a court’s decision to commit a person against his will for mental health treatment should be made and reviewed in secret.   However, the court granted the the motion to withdraw and will not require a brief of the sort described in Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967). The court wrote that on review of the motion and the record, the court is satisfied that counsel’s ethical obligation to refrain from prosecuting a frivolous appeal justifies his motion to withdraw. View "United States v. David Garner" on Justia Law

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Petitioner appealed the district court’s denial of his 28 U.S.C. Section 2255 motion to vacate his 293-month prison sentence and convictions. Petitioner argued to the district court that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically, Petitioner asserted that his attorney told him if he pled guilty to five counts of mail fraud, he would serve no more than 10 years in prison because she had a deal with the government that his sentencing range would be 97–121 months’ imprisonment under the Sentencing Guidelines   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment and found that Petitioner’s attorney did not provide Petitioner with ineffective assistance by telling him she had an agreement with the government about his guideline range. Further, the court concluded that Petitioner’s attorney did provide ineffective assistance by underestimating Petitioner’s guideline range.   The court explained that to show deficient performance, the movant must establish that his attorney’s representation “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” The “petitioner bears the heavy burden of showing that no competent counsel would have taken the action that his counsel did take.” Gissendaner v. Seaboldt, 735 F.3d 1311 (11th Cir. 2013).   Here, the court concluded that there was no clear error in the district court’s finding that Petitioner’s attorney reviewed each provision of the plea agreement with him at some point before the change-of-plea hearing. Further, the court held that the district court did not clearly err in finding that Petitioner’s attorney reviewed the plea agreement with Petitioner before the change-of-plea hearing. View "Michael Riolo v. USA" on Justia Law

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Defendant Lamar Stanton was charged with three counts of first-degree sexual abuse and two counts of first-degree sodomy. Because defendant was indigent, the trial court appointed counsel to represent him. Over the course of the trial court proceedings, defendant was represented by several different court-appointed lawyers. Defendant expressed frustration with his last-appointed counsel, Lee-Mandlin, and asked her to move to withdraw. Lee-Mandlin filed two motions to withdraw but told the trial court that she was prepared to represent defendant. The court denied the motions, and, after defendant was evaluated at the state hospital and the trial court determined that he was able to aid and assist in his defense, and the case proceeded to a bench trial. The trial court entered a judgment of conviction and sentence, and defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court had erred by proceeding as if defendant had waived his right to court-appointed counsel. The Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion. The Oregon Supreme Court found three motions had been presented with respect to defendant’s representation, and that the trial court should have addressed the three motions separately because they presented different legal questions. Because the trial court did not expressly address these questions, the Supreme Court surmised the trial court could not have concluded defendant expressly waived his right to court-appointed counsel. Consequently, in the context of the multiple pending motions, the trial court’s question to defendant about whether he wanted Lee-Mandlin to withdraw was too ambiguous for defendant’s answer to constitute an intentional relinquishment of his right to court-appointed counsel. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Oregon v. Stanton" on Justia Law

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At issue in this post-conviction case was petitioner Steve Franke’s attempt to prove that his criminal trial counsel provided constitutionally inadequate and ineffective assistance by failing to object that an expert diagnosis of child sexual abuse was inadmissible in the absence of corroborating physical evidence. Although the objection would have been contrary to controlling Court of Appeals precedent at the time of petitioner’s 2001 criminal trial, the Oregon Supreme Court later held that the rules of evidence required exclusion of a diagnosis of sexual abuse if it was not based on physical evidence, effectively overruling the Court of Appeals precedent. To survive summary judgment, petitioner offered evidence that some criminal defense attorneys in 2001 viewed the Court of Appeals precedent as vulnerable, were raising the kind of challenge to sexual abuse diagnoses that ultimately succeeded, and were recommending that practice to other criminal defense attorneys. Petitioner contended the evidence would have allowed him to establish that the exercise of reasonable skill and judgment obligated his attorney to raise a similar objection, or at least that his attorney’s failure to raise the argument was the product of a failure to adequately prepare and familiarize himself with the state of the law. Both the post-conviction court and the Court of Appeals held that petitioner’s claim failed as a matter of law. The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that the argument that ultimately succeeded in Southard was not so obviously correct in 2001 that the exercise of reasonable skill obligated attorneys to raise the argument, and petitioner’s evidence did not permit a different conclusion. But the Supreme Court disagreed that petitioner’s claim could be resolved on summary judgment; the evidence created genuine issues of material fact that, if resolved in petitioner’s favor, could establish the failure by petitioner’s attorney to raise a Southard-type challenge to the sexual abuse diagnosis was the product of an unreasonable failure to investigate and familiarize himself with the state of the law to the extent appropriate to the nature and complexity of the case. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts' judgments and remanded for further proceedings. View "Jackson v. Franke" on Justia Law

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Jared Cortes-Gonzalez entered into a global disposition that required him to plead guilty in four felony cases, including two in which he faced complaints to revoke his probation. The plea agreement indicated that, while the sentences would be within the court’s discretion, the cumulative prison term would not exceed twenty years. Two weeks later, Cortes-Gonzalez filed a “Motion to Consider 35-C,” alleging that his attorney (the “public defender”) had provided ineffective assistance by failing to accurately advise him of the plea agreement’s potential punishment. In April 2021, alternate defense counsel submitted a supplemental Crim. P. 35(c) motion. The prosecution asked the district court to issue an order finding a “waiver of all confidential attorney-client privileges or relationships affected by the pursuit” of the Crim. P. 35(c) ineffective assistance claim. The court granted the motion, and the prosecution served an subpoena duces tecum (“SDT”) on the public defender to compel the production records in her possession related to Cortes-Gonzalez’s four cases. The public defender objected to the SDT. The issue presented to the Colorado Supreme Court in this case related to the attorney-client privilege in the context of ineffective assistance of counsel. The Supreme Court held: (1) whenever a defendant alleges ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant automatically waives the attorney-client privilege, as well as any other confidentiality, between counsel and the defendant, but only with respect to the information that is related to the ineffective assistance claim; (2) the procedures set forth in Crim. P. 35(c)(3)(V) in no way modify section 18-1-417, C.R.S. (2021); (3) it is improper for prosecutors to request an order or use a Crim. P. 17 subpoena duces tecum (“SDT”) to attempt to access the confidential information covered by section 18-1-417(1); and (4) the prosecution doesn’t have an inherent right to an in camera review of the allegedly ineffective counsel’s case file - even if the purpose of the review is to ensure that all the information subject to the waiver will be produced. After any in camera review, the court must disclose to the prosecution claim-related information not previously produced. View "In re Colorado v. Cortes- Gonzalez" on Justia Law

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Bell, Hernandez, and Rayas, fraudulently promised victims that they could save their homes from foreclosure or lower their mortgage payments. They targeted monolingual Spanish‐speakers. They charged a $5,000-$10,000 "membership fee" and spent the fees on personal expenses. Their fraudulent entity never prevented a foreclosure. More than 60 homeowners joined, losing almost $260,000.Bell, Hernandez, and Rayas were charged with mail fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1341. Although Bell consistently refused legal representation, the district court assigned an experienced stand-by attorney. On the eve of trial, Bell moved to retain Joyce, who was newly admitted to the Illinois bar, had never tried a case, and had met Bell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center days earlier, at the behest of Eliades, co‐defendant Rayas’s counsel. Later, Eliades and Joyce denied that Eliades asked Joyce to visit Bell. Conflict attorneys from the Federal Public Defender’s Office discussed the situation with Bell and Rayas separately and held a conflict hearing for Hernandez. Rayas and Hernandez chose new attorneys. Bell insisted on Joyce, signing a waiver in which he acknowledged his right to conflict‐free counsel and the potential conflicts associated with Joyce.Convicted, Bell was sentenced to 150 months’ imprisonment and ordered to pay $259,211 in restitution. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Bell’s waiver was knowing and voluntary; he has not demonstrated actual or serious potential for conflict that would have obliged the court to disregard his waiver. View "United States v. Bell" on Justia Law

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Burkhart, the CEO of ASC, a private company that operates Indiana nursing homes and long-term care facilities, orchestrated an extensive conspiracy exploiting the company’s operations and business relationships for personal gain. Most of the funds involved in the scheme came from Medicare and Medicaid. After other defendants pled guilty and Burkhart’s brother agreed to testify against him, Burkhart pled guilty to conspiracy to commit mail, wire, and healthcare fraud (18 U.S.C. 1349); conspiracy to violate the AntiKickback Statute (18 U.S.C. 371); and money laundering (18 U.S.C. 1956(a)(1)(B)(i)). With a Guidelines range of 121-151 months, Burkhart was sentenced to 114 months’ imprisonment.Burkhart later filed a habeas action, contending that his defense counsel, Barnes & Thornburg provided constitutionally deficient representation because the firm also represented Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, a victim of the fraudulent scheme. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. While the firm labored under an actual conflict of interest, that conflict did not adversely affect Burkhart’s representation. Nothing in the record shows that the firm improperly shaded its advice to induce Burkhart to plead guilty; the advice reflected a reasonable response to the “dire circumstances” facing Burkhart. The evidence of Burkhart’s guilt was overwhelming. View "Burkhart v. United States" on Justia Law

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The defendant was convicted for robbery and burglary. In 1996, the trial court sentenced him to 35 years to life in prison, with the bulk of that sentence attributable to the “Three Strikes” law. In 2021, the defendant filed a “Petition for Modification of Sentence (Pursuant to P.C. 1170(d)(1).)” based on “charging and sentencing policies” adopted by Los Angeles County District Attorney Gascón. The defendant quoted Penal Code section 1170(d)(1)1 and argued his 1996 sentence could be modified or recalled because “the district attorney’s office considers that only 15 years of the 25 years [he] already served is more than enough” and the court could consider, under the same statutory provision, his good conduct in prison.The trial court denied relief without appointing counsel for the defendant, “as untimely.” The court of appeal dismissed an appeal for lack of jurisdiction, stating that its independent research uncovered published authority—never cited in the opening brief submitted by counsel—holding that a section 1170(d)(1) ruling is a non-appealable order. A defense attorney has an obligation to disclose known authority holding the court has no jurisdiction to decide an appeal when the prosecution does not cite such authority. View "People v. Williams" on Justia Law