August 22, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Within-Guidelines Sentence Presumably Reasonable Even if it Contains Serious Flaws

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Wireman on February 28, 2017.

The issue in this case was whether the Defendant’s sentence was procedurally reasonable when the district court failed to address Defendant’s non-frivolous arguments for a downward variance from his within-Guidelines sentence.

Defendant pled guilty to five counts of distributing child pornography and one count of possessing child pornography. Defendant had also emailed a friend non-pornographic images of children that he personally knew and claimed at the time he had sexually abused. Defendant had prior sexual offenses that involved children, including being convicted of five different sexually based crimes involving minors, four of which included physical sexual conduct with a minor.

Section 2G2.2 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG), set Defendant’s base level offense for his crimes and applied several other Specific Offense Characteristics (SOCs) under § 2G2.2 to Defendant, which increased his offense level. These SOCs included increases because (i) the material involved prepubescent minors; (i) he distributed material involving the sexual exploitation of a minor; (iii) the material involved sadistic or violent depictions; (iv) he engaged in a pattern of activity involving sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor; and (v) because he used a computer to distribute the material. The corresponding USSG range for Defendant’s crimes and the added SOCs was 210-262 months’ imprisonment.

In his sentencing memorandum to the district court, Defendant argued that he was entitled to a downward variance from the USSG range because § 2G2.2 was inherently flawed. Defendant argued that the Sentencing Commission did not depend on empirical data when drafting § 2G2.2, that the range for his crimes was “harsher than necessary,” and that the SOCs in § 2G2.2 were utilized so often that they applied in nearly ever child-pornography case and therefore fail to distinguish between various offenders. The district court never specifically mentioned this memorandum at sentencing, but alluded to it.

The district court ultimately sentenced Defendant to concurrent terms of 240 months’ imprisonment on each of the six counts against him. The district court addressed the personal nature of the non-pornographic images the Defendant emailed to his friend as well as Defendant’s prior criminal history. After handing down the sentence, the district court asked Defendant if they had “anything further,” to which Defendant’s counsel stated that they did not.

On appeal, Defendant claimed that his sentence was procedurally unreasonable because the district court did not adequately address his critiques of § 2G2.2. Because Defendant did not contemporaneously object in the district court to the method by which the district court arrived at a sentence, including that the sentencing court failed to explain adequately the sentence imposed, the Tenth Circuit applied the plain error standard of review, rather than de novo review. The Tenth Circuit explained that it finds plain error only when there is “(1) error, (2) that is plain, which (3) affects substantial rights, and which (4) seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.”

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the first prong of the plain error standard, whether the district court committed error. The Tenth Circuit first noted that a district court must explain its reasons for rejecting a defendant’s non-frivolous argument for a more lenient sentence. Further, the Tenth Circuit held that Defendant’s critiques of § 2G2.2 were non-frivolous. In fact, the Tenth Circuit addressed how many of its sister circuit courts, along with itself, have described arguments criticizing § 2G2.2 as “quite forceful.”

However, the Tenth Circuit stated the principle that whether a district court can functionally reject or instead must explicitly reject a defendant’s arguments depends on whether the sentence imposed is within or outside of the USSG range. If the sentence is varied upwards of the USSG range, the district court must specifically address and reject the defendant’s arguments for a more lenient sentence. If it is within the USSG range, then the district court does not need to specifically address and reject each of the defendant’s arguments, so long as the court somehow indicates that it did not rest on the guidelines alone, but considered whether the USSG sentence actually conforms in the circumstances to the statutory factors.

In the Tenth Circuit, a within-guideline range sentence by the district court is entitled to a rebuttable presumption of reasonableness on appeal. The Tenth Circuit stated that this was true even if the USSG at issue arguable contains serious flaws or lacks an empirical basis.

In this case, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court was at least aware of Defendant’s arguments because the district court explicitly referenced Defendant’s sentencing memorandum at the sentencing hearing. Because the district court’s ultimate sentence was within the USSG range, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not need to explicitly reject Defendant’s arguments. The district court needed only to indicate that it did not rest on the guidelines alone, which the district court did. The district court stated that it relied on the USSG as well as Defendant’s extensive criminal history and the personal nature of the emailed images in determining Defendant’s sentence. The Tenth Circuit held that this acted as a functional rejection of Defendant’s policy disagreement with § 2G2.2. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err by not explicitly responding to Defendant’s arguments for a more lenient sentence. Because the district court did not err, the Tenth Circuit did not address the three remaining prongs of the plain error review.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s sentence of Defendant.

Tenth Circuit Judge McKay wrote a concurrence to this decision. Judge McKay expressed his view that precedence requires a district court rejecting a defendant’s non-frivolous arguments to provide at least a general statement of its reasons for rejecting such arguments. If the defendant’s arguments are that the USSG reflect an unsound judgment, Judge McKay states that the sentencing judge should go further to explain why he rejected those arguments. Here, the district court did not do as much.

Further, Judge McKay questioned the wisdom of applying the “reasonable” presumption to within-Guidelines sentences, regardless of a particular Guideline’s alleged lack of empirical support. The Sentencing Commission did not use an empirical approach when developing § 2G2.2, and therefore Judge McKay believes that the Tenth Circuit should not presume the sentence’s reasonableness. Regardless, he agrees that the Majority followed the rules of the Tenth Circuit in applying the “reasonable” presumption as it stands.

Judge McKay believed that the district court erred, but he concurred in judgment because the Defendant still could not satisfy the requirement that the error affected his substantial rights. There was nothing on the record to suggest that the district court would have imposed a different sentence even if he explicitly considered Defendant’s arguments.

Tenth Circuit: Appeals Council Required Only to “Consider” New Evidence of Disability

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Vallejo v. Berryhill on February 28, 2017.

Vallejo applied for supplemental security income benefits alleging that she had been disabled for several months. The US Social Security Administration denied her claim. She received a hearing with an administrative law judge (ALJ), who issued a decision adverse to Vallejo. The next day, Vallejo’s treating physician, Dr. Ratner, completed his opinion, which stated that Vallejo was bipolar with an extreme level of impairment. Vallejo requested the Appeals Council to review the ALJ’s decision and submitted Ratner’s opinion with her request. The Appeals Council denied review, stating that it considered Ratner’s opinion and additional evidence but found the evidence did not provide a basis for changing the ALJ’s decision. This rendered the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision.

Vallejo sought judicial review of the Commission’s final decision. The district court found that the Appeals Council erred in not properly articulating its assessment of Ratner’s opinion in denying Vallejo’s request for review. The court reasoned that the Appeals Council was required to either assign Ratner’s opinion controlling weight or articulate reasons for assigning it a lesser weight. Because neither the ALJ nor the Appeals Council expressly evaluated Ratner’s opinion, the district court reversed the Commissioner’s decision and remanded to the Appeals Council to either determine what weight to give Ratner’s opinion or to remand to an ALJ with directions to make such a determination.

The Tenth Circuit held that it had jurisdiction to hear this appeal because the district court’s remand was a sentence-four remand. The Tenth Circuit held this because the district court did not retain jurisdiction and the remand was not solely for consideration of new evidence that was not before the Commissioner.

The Tenth Circuit addressed the issue of whether the district court’s determination that the Appeals Council failed to apply the correct legal standard was an error.

The Tenth Circuit held that the Appeals Circuit was not required to expressly analyze the new evidence of Ratner’s opinion. Rather, the statutes or regulations only require the Appeals Council to “consider” the new evidence. The Tenth Circuit acknowledges that an express analysis from the Appeals Council would be helpful to judicial review. But, further states that nothing in the statutes or regulations requires the Appeals Council to provide that analysis.

Therefore, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s order reversing the Commissioner’s final decision and remanding to the Appeals Council. The Tenth Circuit remanded to the district court with directions to address Vallejo’s remaining arguments and determine if the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and if substantial evidence in the administrative record supported the Commissioner’s final decision.

Tenth Circuit: Jury Instructions Sufficient to Apprise Jury of Elements of Crime

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Wright on Tuesday, February 21, 2017.

Bruce Carlton Wright was convicted on one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1349 and 1344, and on eleven counts of bank fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1344. Wright was sentenced to thirty-three months imprisonment and ordered to pay restitution to the bank involved. Wright appealed, claiming the district court erred by: (1) not including intent to defraud as an element of conspiracy to commit bank fraud in the jury instruction; (2) responding to a written question from the jury by directing the jury to consider each count of the indictment separately; (3) denying Wright’s motion for new trial based on a Brady violation; (4) improperly calculating of the bank’s loss amount under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(1); and (5) improperly calculating of the restitution amount.

Because Wright did not properly object during his original trial in relation to his first, second, fourth, and fifth claims on appeal, the court reviewed them under the plain-error standard, which requires a plaintiff to establish an “error, that is plain, which affects substantial rights, and seriously effects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” The court stated that a plain error affects a defendant’s substantial rights if there is a reasonable probability that, if the error had not occurred, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Concerning Wright’s first claim, that the court erred by not including the necessary element of intent to defraud to convict on a charge of conspiracy to commit bank fraud in the jury instruction, the court reviewed the jury instructions in light of the context of the entire trial to see if the instructions accurately stated the law and provided the jury with a correct understanding of the facts of the case. The court rejected this claim, saying that Wright could not show error because, while the court did not list intent to defraud in the instruction, the omission was cured because the instruction relating to committing bank fraud did incorporate “intent to defraud” by requiring an agreement to commit bank fraud.

During deliberations, the jury asked the judge if it they had to find Wright guilty on count 1 in order to convict him on any of the subsequent counts. Over objection of counsel, who agreed with the legal answer provided by the court but requested different phrasing, the judge responded, “No, you must consider each count separately.” On appeal, Wright contends that the answer should have been “Yes,” because, citing Pinkerton v. United States, the conviction would have been based on the acts of a co-conspirator and not his own acts (as his co-conspirator was testifying at his trial). The court stated that Wright had waived his ability to assert error under Pinkerton by failing to object on that basis at the district court level.  Instead, because Wright had generally objected to the instruction, the court reviews for plain error. However, because Wright argued under an abuse of discretion, and not plain error he waived his right to argue the claim.

In support for his motion for new trial, Wright argued that the government withheld a victim impact statement that the bank president had prepared for his coconspirator’s sentencing. Wright claimed that the information would have helped him to impeach his co-conspirator at his own trial. In their assessment of Wright’s motion, the court stated that Wright would have to show the prosecution suppressed material evidence that was favorable to Wright.  While the court determined the statement was not given to Wright prior to the trial, and that it was favorable to him, he failed in showing that the information included in the impact statement was material enough that it could have undermined confidence in the outcome of the case because Wright already attacked his co-conspirator’s credibility extensively at trial.

In calculating Wright’s sentence and amount of restitution he would be required to pay to the victims, the district court looked to the amount of Wright’s fraudulent draw requests, and determined he owed to be $1,094, 490. Wright was provided the sum in the presentencing report, which he accepted. Because the Bank recovered sums due to its sale, the sales price should be subtracted from the outstanding loan balance to calculate restitution to avoid a windfall to the victim. However, because the amount of restitution and sentence is a factual question, Wright was required to object at the district court level for it to rise to the level of a plain error reviewable on appeal. Wright accepted the amount in the pre-sentencing report, and the court held that Wright had accepted the calculation of restitution and his sentence as correct.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s rejection of Wright’s motion for new trial and rejected Wright’s other claims as to the amount and length of his sentence.

Tenth Circuit: Officers Executing Warrant Acted in Objectively Reasonable Reliance

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Russian on Tuesday, February 21, 2017.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals had to determine if the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule was properly applied in the case where police searched two cell phones belonging to the appellant after his arrest without first obtaining a valid search warrant. At trial, Mr. Russian moved to have evidence obtained from the phones suppressed for lack of particularity. The district court denied the motion, and sentenced Mr. Russian to 137 months’ incarceration. Mr. Russian appealed, claiming that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress the phone evidence, and claiming that the 137-month sentence was above the maximum permitted by statute.

The case stems from an incident beginning in Missouri, where police received a 911 call concerning a man matching Mr. Russian’s description threatening two women with a machete and handgun. When police arrived, Russian fled, beginning a high-speed chase into Kansas. Upon Russian’s arrest, Deputy Wilson searched Russian, and found a red and black phone in his possession. Deputy Wilson then found a second phone in Russian’s vehicle, both of which he entered into evidence. Deputy Wilson later applied for a warrant to search Russian’s residence, as well as both the contents of both phones already in police possession, The state district court warrant authorized the search of cell phones that could be used to commit the crimes, and described the locations to be searched, but did not authorize the search of the phones already in police possession.

The Fourth Amendment provides that no citizen will be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure. However, the court added, that even these protections are subject to the harmless error rule, where a search may be upheld if the error is so unimportant and insignificant that they may be deemed harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, not requiring the automatic reversal of the conviction. The court stated that a search warrant must, in addition to probable cause, describe with particularity the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. In this case, the court said that there is little doubt that the search warrant was invalid for lack of particularity, as it did not identify the phones or the data on those phones to be searched.

Although the warrant was invalid, the court still upheld the denial of Mr. Russian’s motion to suppress under the good faith exception. The good faith exception applies to an otherwise invalid search warrant where the officer’s reliance on the warrant was objectively reasonable under the circumstances, and asks if a reasonably well-trained officer would have known the search was illegal despite the warrant’s authorization. However, the court noted that the government is not entitled to the exception when the warrant is “so facially deficient—i.e., in failing to particularize the place to be searched or the things to be seized—that the executing officer cannot reasonably presume it to be valid.” In analyzing Deputy Wilson’s search, the court determined that because his affidavit specifically described the phones, the warrant referenced the affidavit, and the exclusion of the evidence would not serve the purpose of the exclusionary rule (to prevent police misconduct) the good faith exception applied.

As to Russian’s second claim, the court agreed that district court erred in relying on a guidelines range that improperly took into account a fifteen year old felony conviction that was too old to be included in the sentencing range. The court also agreed with Russian that the court erred in imposing a 76-month sentence, as it is above the 60-month maximum imposed by statute.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed Russian’s convictions, but remanded for resentencing for three of the counts based on the improperly calculated guidelines range.

Tenth Circuit: Contents of Vehicle Search Suppressed Where Search Illegal at Inception

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Lopez on February 27, 2017.

On June 21, 2013, Angela Lopez was driving eastbound in Kansas. Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Robert Krause pulled the vehicle over for going 79 miles per hour in a 65-mile-per-hour zone. Adrienne Lopez was in the passenger seat. Throughout the encounter, Adrienne, rather than Angela, did almost all of the talking, which Krause said could be a sign of nervousness. Krause asked Angela for her license, insurance, and car-rental paperwork. Krause then looked in the back seat of the car. Upon doing so, Adrienne said, “Don’t look back there, it’s a mess.” Krause asked about their travel plans. Adrienne told him that they were going form California and headed to “Kansas City or Nebraska” to rescue her sister “because she was getting beat up by her boyfriend.” Angela provided Krause a receipt from the California Department of Motor Vehicles that was issued to her when she reported losing her license, rather than her actual license.

Krause asked both occupants if they had drugs in the car, to which both replied no. Krause relayed Angela’s information to the dispatcher and learned that she had a valid driver’s license and no criminal history. Krause warned Angela for speeding and turned to walk away. He immediately turned back and asked Angela if she would answer a few more questions, which she consented to. Krause asked where they were heading. Adrienne answered that she did not know the exact city because her phone did not have reception.

Krause then asked the Defendants if he could search the vehicle. They refused. Krause then detained them until a drug dog could be brought to the vehicle, which took about twenty minutes. The dog alerted Krause to the front seat where Adrienne’s purse was located. Adrienne admitted having some marijuana in her purse, which Krause found and then searched the rest of the car. He found four packages in a cooler in the back seat of methamphetamine. The packages totaled 1,766 grams of methamphetamine.

The United States District Court for the District of Kansas denied Defendants’ motions to suppress the evidence of methamphetamine found in the car. The two were convicted of possessing more than 500 grams of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, and of conspiracy to do the same. The Defendants appealed.

The Tenth Circuit first established that a traffic stop must be justified at its inception and that the officer’s actions during the stop must be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that initially justified it. A stop may be extended beyond that scope if the person stopped consents to the extension or if the police have a reasonable suspicion that other illegal activity has occurred or is occurring.

Here, the Defendants did not consent to the extension of the stop by Krause beyond its initial purpose. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit addressed whether Krause had reasonable suspicion that the Defendants were engaged in criminal activity, which the government bears the burden of proving.

The government put forth three suspicious factors that justified detention: (1) Adrienne was nervous; (2) Adrienne asked Krause not to look at the backseat because it was messy, even though it was not; and (3) Defendant’s travel plans were implausible.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Adrienne’s nervousness. It stated that it consistently assigns that factor limited significance because innocent people can be nervous in wide varieties. In order to contribute to reasonable suspicion, the Tenth Circuit held that there must be extreme nervousness, which the district court did not find, and Krause did not so testify.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that Adrienne’s comments about the backseat gave little support for reasonable suspicion. It stated that in hindsight, the comments seemed revealing. But at the time, there was nothing incriminating in view on the backseat. Further, nothing stopped Krause from taking a closer look through the back window.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit addressed the government’s argument that the Defendants’ travel plans were implausible. The government pointed to the fact that the two only rented the car for two days, which was not enough time to drive to their destination and return. The Tenth Circuit held that the travel plans might have been overly ambitions, but they could reasonably have been done. First, the Tenth Circuit pointed to the fact that they were driving through the night, which was why two drivers were necessary. Next, because they were rescuing Adrienne’s sister from an abusive boyfriend, it was reasonable to assume they would not stay at the destination very long. Finally, because it was understandable that the sister needed to move to protect herself from her abusive boyfriend, it was reasonable that the Defendants did not need a more precise location until they were closer to the destination. Further, the Tenth Circuit stated that it has generally been reluctant to give weight to the reasonable-suspicion analysis to unusual travel purposes, except in extreme cases.

The Tenth Circuit held that the circumstances did not suffice to justify the continued detention of the Defendants. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the evidence seized from the car must be suppressed.

The Tenth Circuit then quickly dispatched with the governments two remaining arguments. First, the government argued that the evidence was admissible against Adrienne because the discovery of the drugs was not the fruit of her unlawful detention. The Tenth Circuit held that because Krause seized the marijuana from Adrienne’s purse, and the detention of Adrienne’s personal property led to the search of the car and discovery of the methamphetamine, Adrienne did have standing to challenge the admission into evidence of the drugs.

Second, the government argued that the detention was lawful as to Angela because there was probable cause to arrest her for driving while not in possession of her driver’s license. The Tenth Circuit held that there was no probable cause to arrest Angela. First, the documents Angela gave Krause would likely be a “driver’s license” under the Kansas statute. Further, even if not a “driver’s license,” Krause learned from the dispatcher that she had a valid driver’s license in California, and therefore had enough information to know that she could not be convicted for the offense under the statute. The Tenth Circuit held that an officer does not have probable cause to arrest a person for a crime he know she could not be convicted of.

In sum, the Tenth Circuit reversed the Defendants’ convictions and remanded to the district court for proceedings consistent with its opinion.

Tenth Circuit: Sexual Assault Victim’s Prior Mental Health History Not Even Marginally Relevant to Assault at Issue

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. John on February 27, 2017.

Defendant and the victim were related. At trial, the victim testified to the following facts: The victim was in the shower when Defendant showed up at her house. He started undressing in front of the shower door while the victim was still in the shower. Defendant moved towards the victim and the victim struggled to get away. Defendant pulled the towel away from the victim and pushed her head toward his “private parts.” The victim was able to get away from Defendant and grabbed a blanket before running outside. When outside, the victim called the police. Officers arrived after Defendant had left. The officers found the shower door tilted and the bathroom trashcan turned over. No forensic testing occurred. Defendant was convicted on one count of attempted aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country and one count of abusive sexual contact in Indian county after a jury trial.

At trial, Defendant wanted to cross-examine the victim about an incident that occurred in Phoenix. The district court did not allow the line of questioning and the Defendant challenged the courts ruling on appeal claiming it violated his Confrontation Clause rights under the Sixth Amendment and his right to present a complete defense under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

The Tenth Circuit summarized the facts of the Phoenix incident that it obtained from police reports. The victim had visited her sister in Phoenix. She alleged that her sister pressured her to drink. After the two argued, the victim tried to cut her writs. She was then taken to the hospital where she was transferred to an inpatient behavioral-health unit after telling the staff that she had been having suicidal thoughts for two years. During intake, she denied using any illicit substances, even though she told emergency staff that she used marijuana. The intake staff determined she had a mood disorder, but she was discharged without any medication needed. The victim’s sister denied to police that she gave the victim alcohol or coerced her to drink. Because the police could not determine how the victim got the alcohol, they closed the case.

On appeal, the Defendant argued that the Phoenix incident showed that the victim would falsely accuse him of sexual assault given her poorly controlled behavior and drug use revealed by the incident. It also would show her propensity to lie and accuse family members. These facts could have led the jury to draw “vital inferences” in his favor.

The Tenth Circuit held that because the Defendant only argued at trial that the Phoenix incident would show that the victim had an impaired ability to perceive events, and not the reasons given on appeal, Defendant was precluded from arguing such reasons on appeal. In fact, the Tenth Circuit points to the fact that Defendant’s counsel rejected the possibility of using the Phoenix incident for the reasons stated on appeal, which the Tenth Circuit held was an “intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right.”

The Tenth Circuit held that Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation was not violated because that right is not unlimited. The Supreme Court has held that trial judges retain wide latitude to impose reasonable limits on cross-examination based on concerns about harassment, prejudice, and confusion of the issues. The Tenth Circuit held that the Phoenix incident was not even marginally relevant to the victim’s ability to remember or relate the shower incident. It would not show that the victim was on drugs at the time of the shower incident. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that no lay person could draw those inferences.

Next, the Tenth Circuit addressed the Defendant’s challenges to three jury instructs concerning the assessment of evidence.

The first challenged instruction stated: “The testimony of the complaining witness need not be corroborated if the jury believes the complaining witness beyond a reasonable doubt.” Defendant argued that the instruction did no accurately reflect the government’s burden of proving each element of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving this instruction because it properly informed the jury that it could convict on the basis of the testimony of a single witness, only if they believed that witness. Further, another instruction told the jurors that they could not convict unless they found each element of each offense beyond reasonable doubt.

The second challenged instruction stated: “An attorney has the right to interview a witness for the purpose of learning what testimony the witness will give. The fact that a witness has talked to an attorney does not reflect adversely to the truth of such testimony.” Defendant argued that this instruction insulated from the jury’s scrutiny the cross-examination of the victim about being improperly influenced by the prosecutor. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving this instruction because it did not prevent defense counsel from making a commonsense suggestion that inappropriate coaching influenced the witness, which the counsel actually made.

The final challenged instruction stated: “You may infer, but you are certainly not required to infer, that a person intends the natural and probably consequences of acts knowingly done or knowingly omitted.” Defendant argues that this instruction was ambiguous, because it was not stated which element the instruction was meant to modify, and that it was confusing because it created uncertainty as to the requisite level of intent. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by issuing this instruction because the court made clear to the jury that the burden was on the government to prove the requisite intent beyond a reasonable doubt.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err in declining to instruct the jury that it could consider the lesser-included charge of simple assault, rather than just the charges of attempted aggravated sexual abuse and abusive sexual contact. The district court held that there was no evidence that the encounter was anything but sexual. The Tenth Circuit affirmed this decision holding that the jury could reasonably have found that the alleged incident did not occur, but that there was no reasonable grounds for believing that Defendant assaulted the victim but with no sexual intent.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Tenth Circuit: Defendant’s Appeal of Motion to Reconsider Untimely Where Not Appeal of Qualified Immunity Denial

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Powell v. Miller on March 7, 2017.

Powell was released from death row and sued the prosecutor responsible for his overturned conviction, Miller. Powell charged that Miller had suborned perjury from a key witness at his trial, Derrick Smith, and had hidden from the defense evidence of Miller’s agreement to help Smith with his own criminal charges. Miller filed a motion to dismiss. The district court granted the motion in part, but denied qualified immunity on certain claims. Miller did not appeal the ruling.

Three years later, Miller filed a motion to reconsider the denial of qualified immunity. The district court denied that motion because Miller did not present a substantive basis for the court to change its opinion. Miller appealed the denial of his motion to reconsider.

The Tenth Circuit held that a district court’s pretrial denial of a qualified immunity defense, to the extent it turns on an issue of law, is an appealable final decision. But here, the Tenth Circuit held that Miller did not appeal from the district court’s order denying his qualified immunity defense. Instead, Miller appealed from the district court’s order denying reconsideration of that ruling almost three years later. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the district court’s order denying Miller’s motion to reconsider. It held that Miller could not use his motion for reconsideration to resurrect his right to appeal the district court’s order denying him qualified immunity.

Therefore, the Tenth Circuit dismissed Miller’s appeal due to lack of jurisdiction.

Tenth Circuit: Unofficial Head of Small Town Police Department Did Not Have Final Policymaking Authority for Department

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Patel v. Hall on March 1, 2017.

On April 20, 1011, Officers Bubla and Hall arrived at Mr. Austin’s auto-repair business pursuant to a call from Ms. Austin regarding suspicious activity by their landlord, Plaintiff Chetan Patel. The officers were informed that several cars that Plaintiff brought in were missing their Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Additionally, Mr. Austin told the officers that he suspected the VINs had been switched on certain vehicles.

The officers contacted the County Attorney’s Office after speaking with the Austins and were informed that the officers could permit the Austins to remove their belongings from the premises and seal the building pending a search warrant. The officers also photographed the trucks with missing or replaced VIN plates which Mr. Austin had pointed out to them. The officers sealed the building. The next morning, Mr. and Ms. Austin and their son submitted written statements to the police and swore to their truthfulness in front of a notary. The statements included instances where the Plaintiff told Mr. Austin he needed to remove Plaintiff’s vehicles off the premises “because they were starting to draw the state’s attention.”

Officer Hall was unable to immediately obtain a search warrant, as none of the judges in Big Horn County were available. Officer Hall contacted the County Attorney’s Office to inquire whether there was probable cause to arrest Plaintiff because Officer Hall believed Plaintiff might remove evidence from the premises. The County Attorney determined that there was probable cause to justify a warrantless arrest for felony VIN fraud. Plaintiff was arrested and the county court issued an arrest warrant the next day, along with a search warrant for the premises.

Pursuant to the search warrant, the officers discovered a syringe and white powder on a table in the premises. The officers left the building and obtained a new warrant to search for drugs as well as VIN plates inside the building. In total, the officers seized two loose VIN plates, a truck with switched VIN plates, a truck with a missing VIN plate, and an empty insurance envelope which was found laying on the floor with a claim number written on it. The officers also photographed several documents with VIN numbers written on them.

The charges against Plaintiff for felony VIN fraud were dismissed on October 4, 2011. In April 2014, Plaintiff filed the §1983 complaint. Defendants argued they were entitled to qualified immunity. Plaintiff supplied an affidavit purportedly signed by Mr. Austin. Plaintiff’s two attorneys also submitted affidavits stating they met with Plaintiff and Mr. Austin when Mr. Austin allegedly made statements that differed from his original sworn police witness statement.

The district court granted summary judgment for Defendants and refused to consider the purported Mr. Austin affidavit. The district court also disregarded Plaintiff’s attorneys’ affidavits holding that the affidavits would make the attorneys material witnesses to the case in violation of Rule 3.7 of the Wyoming Rules of Professional Conduct. The district court held that Plaintiff had not shown a constitutional violation relating to the search and seizure because (i) Mr. Austin consented to the initial search, (ii) the officers had probable cause to seize the shop while they obtained a search warrant, (iii) the subsequent search was conducted pursuant to a search warrant, and (iv) there was sufficient probable cause for Plaintiff’s arrest. The district court also rejected Plaintiff’s claim that the search was beyond the scope of the search warrant because Plaintiff had not shown the officer’s actions violated clearly established law. Finally, the district court dismissed Plaintiff’s state law claims with prejudice based on a procedural deficiency by Plaintiff and the state defense of qualified immunity.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Officer Hall on Plaintiff’s official-capacity claim. The claim requires evidence that the municipality “caused the harm through the execution of its own policy or customs or by those whose acts may fairly be said to represent official policy.” The police department at the time had no chief of police, and Officer Hall was the senior officer. The Tenth Circuit laid out the test to decide whether a government employee is a final policymaker whose actions can give rise to municipal liability. First, the employee must be constrained by policies not of his own making. Second, his decisions must be final. Finally, the policy decisions and actions must fall within the realm of the employee’s grant of authority.

The Tenth Circuit held that there was no evidence to indicate whether or not Officer Hall was meaningfully constrained by policies not of his own making, whether or not his decisions were final, or whether his actions fell within the realm of his grant of authority. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff failed to satisfy the municipal liability test. Simply because Hall was “in charge” before the new chief took office was not enough. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Plaintiff’s official-capacity claims.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed the claims against Defendants in their individual capacities. The Tenth Circuit held that because Defendants asserted qualified immunity, the burden shifted to Plaintiff to establish that the Defendants violated a constitutional right and that the right was clearly established at the time of the violation.

Plaintiff’s first claim was against Officers Hall and Bubla for violation of his Fourth Amendment right when they initially searched the shop without a warrant. The Tenth Circuit held that the search was conducted pursuant to consent. The Austins had actual or apparent authority to consent as both worked at the auto-repair business. Ms. Austin contacted police and both she and Mr. Austin were present when the officers were shown around the shop. Mr. Austin did not protest, and the Tenth Circuit held that this was non-verbal consent.

Next, Plaintiff argued that Officers Hall and Bubla violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they sealed the premises without a warrant or probable cause. The Tenth Circuit held that there was probable cause and therefore Plaintiff’s rights were not violated. Probable cause existed because of what the officers found during their initial search with the Austins, Plaintiff’s suspected criminal conduct, and what Mr. Austin had told the officers about his conversations with Plaintiff. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the officers were justified in sealing the building.

Third, Plaintiff argued that Hall violated his Fourth Amendment rights by arresting him without a warrant. The Tenth Circuit held that the arrest was valid because Hall had probable cause to believe Plaintiff was fraudulently altering VIN Plates. The Tenth Circuit held that the factors justifying the warrantless seizure of the building also supported Plaintiff’s arrest.

Fourth, Plaintiff argues that the warrants to search his shop and for his arrest were defective because they were “procured with reckless insufficient information.” The Tenth Circuit stated that there only needs to be a “substantial probability” that the suspect committed the crime before making an arrest. The Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff’s evidence did not dispute that there was a substantial probability. Further because the prior search was lawful due to consent, the Tenth Circuit held that there was probable cause for a warrant to search the shop based on the initial findings.

Fifth, Plaintiff argued that the officers exceeded the scope of the search warrant. The Tenth Circuit held that the first two ways alleged by Plaintiff were not supported by evidence. The third allegation was that the officers exceeded the scope by seizing an envelope found on the ground of the shop. The Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff met his burden of showing that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity on that issue. The warrant clearly specified what items were to be seized, and by seizing additional items, the officers acted unreasonably for Fourth Amendment purposes.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed the district court’s decision to disregard the affidavit purportedly signed by Mr. Austin and its holding that the attorneys’ affidavits were inadmissible based on Wyoming’s professional conduct lawyer-as-witness rule. The Tenth Circuit held that is did not need to consider whether the district courts holding was accurate because even if the information from Mr. Austin’s purported affidavit was considered, it would not have created a material dispute of fact to defeat the Defendant’s assertion of qualified immunity. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that any error by the district court regarding Mr. Austin’s affidavit was harmless.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s state law claims with prejudice. Because the district court did not explain why the defendants were entitled to the state qualified immunity, the Tenth Circuit remanded the issue for further consideration by the district court.

In sum, the Tenth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment as to the seizure of the envelope, remanded for further proceedings on the state qualified immunity issue, and affirmed the district courts grant of summary judgment in favor of all Defendants on the remaining claims.

Tenth Circuit: Mens Rea Element of Child Sex-Trafficking Statute Satisfied Where Defendant Recklessly Disregarded Victim’s Underage Status

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Doung on Tuesday, February 14, 2017.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals had to determine whether a statutory amendment to 18 U.S.C. § 1591, relating to child sex-trafficking, altered the government’s burden in proving the requisite mens rea. The defendants, Tung Doung, William Baker, and Curtis Anthony were each charged with one count of child sex trafficking and one count of conspiracy to engage in child sex-trafficking in violation of 18 U.S.C §§ 1591 and 1594. The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment, on the basis that it did not allege the mens rea element of the child sex trafficking crime, and the district court granted the motion.

Under § 1591, the government can prove the mens rea element of child sex-trafficking pertaining to the age of a child in three ways: (1) by showing that the defendant knew the child was underage; (2) the defendant acted in reckless disregard of their age, or (3) the defendant had a reasonable opportunity to observe the victim prior to engaging in a commercial sex transaction. In the superseding indictment, the government charged the defendants only with having a reasonable opportunity to observe the victim to prove the requisite mens rea.

To interpret the statute, the court began by looking at the plain language of § 1591, stating, “the plainness or ambiguity of statutory language is determined by reference to the language itself, the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole. After looking at the plain language of the statute, the court determined that § 1591 (c) (pertaining to the language adding reasonable observation as a mens rea standard), was not ambiguous, and provides the government a third option for proving a defendant’s mens rea.

Because the section was enacted by congress as a part of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), the court next addressed the congressional intent behind the addition of § 1591. The court noted that Congress’ stated purpose behind the act was to, “combat trafficking in persons, especially into the sex trade, slavery, and involuntary servitude,” and that § 1591 was added to provide federal criminal penalties for engaging in such conduct. The court then stated that because Congress added subsection 1591(b) to lessen the government’s burden as to the mens rea required regarding a child’s age, the addition of a third subsection further lessening that burden is wholly consistent with the intent of the TVPA.

The defendants argued that if the court interprets § 1591(c) as giving the government a third avenue to prove mens rea, then the section would effectively relieve the government from having to prove actual knowledge or reckless disregard of a victim’s age. The court rejected the defendant’s argument, and stated that contrary to the defendant’s assertions, the government will still have to prove actual knowledge or reckless disregard in circumstances where the defendants did not have a reasonable opportunity to observe the child victim before engaging in the commercial sex transaction. Additionally, the court stated that the defendant’s preferred interpretation actually goes against the stated objective of the TVPA of lessening the government’s burden by restricting the government’s ability to show mens rea under the reckless disregard standard.

As to the conspiracy charge, the defendants argue that the courts interpretation of § 1591(c) does not resolve if the district court properly dismissed the conspiracy charge. Relying on the seventh circuit holding in United States v. Saldago, the defendants claim that they could not have conspired to commit the crime of child sex-trafficking without knowing that the child in question was actually a minor. The court rejected this claim as well, holding that because the government is alleging the defendants had reasonable opportunity to observe the victim, the indictment specifically charges that the defendants had knowledge of the victim’s age for the purpose of the conspiracy charge as well.

The court reversed the decision of the district court in dismissing both charges against the defendants, and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

Tenth Circuit: 18 U.S.C. § 3583 Allows Sentences Greater than One Year for Violations of Terms of Supervised Release

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Collins on Tuesday, February 14, 2017.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals had to determine if the maximum allowable term of incarceration following a second violation of the terms of supervised release under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e)(3) refers to the original crime or the violation of the terms of the supervised release. Howard Collins was originally convicted of a Class B felony for knowingly and intentionally distributing more than five grams of (in this case) crack cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(B)(ii). After his initial period of incarceration, he was granted supervised release. After violating his supervised release once before, upon his second violation of the terms of his release, the court sentenced him to one-year re-incarceration under the belief that § 3583(e)(3) permitted a one-year maximum term.

Section 3583(e)(3) stipulates the maximum allowable period of re-incarceration where supervised release has been revoked is the length of the supervised release authorized by statute for the offense that resulted in the supervised release. On appeal, the government asserted that the district court improperly read the statute to preclude a re-incarceration period over one year. The government argued that the language of the statute relating to the “offense that resulted in such term of supervised release” referred to the original offense for which Collins was convicted (which would allow for a three year maximum), not the violation of his supervised release. In interpreting the statute, the court noted that revocation of supervised release, while often leading to incarceration, is not in and of itself a crime and is only subject to a preponderance of the evidence standard. As incarceration for a criminal offense under a standard less than beyond a reasonable doubt would be a violation of the Due Process Clause, the court reasoned that the “offense” referenced in the statute was the original offense for which Collins was charged.

Looking to the holding in the Supreme Court case of Kellogg Brown & Root Servs. Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, the court stated that the interpretation of the term “offense” to be the original offense for which someone was convicted is applicable to the entirety of Title 18, (at issue here). At the outset, Collins argues that the court’s interpretation of the term original must, in his case, relate to his violation of the terms of supervised release because the phrase “resulted in” requires actual causation, and “but for” his first violation of supervised release he would no longer be on a term of supervised release to violate. The court rejects this contention, stating that Collins’ reading of the statute and the holding in Burrage v. United States to require actual and proximate cause, if adopted, would require the court to to over look the aforementioned due process issues. Furthermore, the court states that ‘but-for’ his original conviction, he could not have been sentenced to a term of supervised release upon either revocation.

In further opposition to the court’s interpretation, Collins supports his own interpretation by asserting that the statutory history of § 3583(e)(3) and (h), including its cross-reference to § 3553(a)(1) leads to an interpretation that the term ‘offense’ means violation of his supervised release. The court, again citing Kellogg to reject Collins’ interpretation, said that because the term ‘offense’ under Title 18 has been interpreted to mean the original offense for which he was convicted, the cross-reference to § 3553 (a)(1) would also carry that interpretation. In Collins’ final challenge to the court’s interpretation, he asserted that because prior to a 1994 amendment the statute referred to “the offense for which the person was convicted” (emphasis added), as opposed to the current iteration that replaced ‘convicted’ with ‘offense’, Congress specifically intended to include violations of the terms of statutory release. The court also rejected these arguments under Kellogg, stating that because Title 18 refers to crimes as the original ‘offense’, the term must be given the same meaning throughout the statutory scheme. Furthermore, the court added, the amendment worked to actually expand the sentencing court’s authority, and an interpretation that limited the court’s ability to sentence a term of imprisonment for revocation of supervised release would be inconsistent with that intention.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the sentencing order of one-year, and remanded the case with the instruction that the court vacate its revocation judgment and resentence Collins.

Tenth Circuit: Commerce Clause Authorizes Regulation of Take of Utah Prairie Dog

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Wednesday, March 29, 2017.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (PETPO), representing over 200 property owners and entities, challenged a regulation promulgated by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The challenged regulation restricts, but does not prohibit, the take of Utah prairie dogs, a listed threatened species, on non-federal land. The U.S. District Court of Utah granted PETPO’s request for summary judgment on the basis that neither the Commerce Clause nor the Necessary and Proper Clauses authorizes Congress to regulate the take. The FWS and Friends of Animals (FoA), as intervenors, appealed. Together they argue, that PETPO lacks standing and the challenged regulation is Constitutional. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court on the issue of standing, but concluded that the district court erred in its conclusion that the regulation was not authorized by the Commerce Clause. The court did not address whether the regulation was not authorized by Necessary and Proper Clause.

The Tenth Circuit first considered the issue of standing de novo. The parties disagreed whether the PETPO had sufficient standing for the summary judgment stage. The parties agreed that PETPO suffered an injury in fact that was traceable to the actions of defendant, but disagreed about whether PETPO’s injury would be redressable. PETPO claimed that the regulation was unduly burdensome and requested declaratory and injunctive relief, which “pertain to any federal prohibition on the take of Utah prairie dogs on nonfederal land.” The Tenth Circuit found that PETPO had standing, since the Necessary and Proper and Commerce clauses allow Congress to regulate the take.

The Tenth Circuit found that the district court erred in holding that the challenged regulation was not permissible under the Commerce Clause. The court held that “[R]egulation on nonfederal land of take of a purely intrastate species, like the Utah prairie dog, under the ESA is a constitutional exercise of congressional authority under the Commerce Clause.” The court applied the framework established by the Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Raich and found (1) the ESA to be a comprehensive regulatory scheme substantially affecting commerce; and (2) Congress had a rational basis to believe that the regulation at issue is an essential part of that scheme.

Here, the “[R]egulation of take of endangered and threatened species is directly related to—indeed, arguably inversely correlated with—economic development and commercial activity.” This is because Congress intended the ESA to conserve species, restrict commerce, and thereby promote long-term commerce. Further, the Commerce Clause authorizes Congress to regulate commerce, which includes “the power to prohibit commerce.”

Remaining was the question of whether regulation of a purely intrastate species, such as the Utah prairie dog, is authorized within the Raich framework. Here, the court reasoned that the majority of species protected by the ESA are intrastate. If this particular regulation is viewed in isolation as PETPO proposed, the “[p]iecemeal excision of purely intrastate species would severely undercut the ESA’s conservation purposes.” Further, this approach was foreclosed by Raich because it “[w]ould lead to just such a lingering death for the ESA—and likely for other regulatory schemes—insofar as every individual regulation passed within a larger regulatory scheme would be subject to a narrowly applied substantial effects test.” Therefore, “[C]ongress had a rational basis to conclude that providing for the protection of purely intrastate species is essential to the ESA’s comprehensive regulatory scheme.”

The court REVERSED and REMANDED with instructions to enter judgment in favor FWS and FoA.

Tenth Circuit: Summary Judgment Not Appropriate when Questions of Fact Remain over Contract Dispute

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Obermeyer Hydro Accessories, Inc. v. CSI Calendaring, Inc. on Thursday, March 30, 2017.

Obermeyer Hydro Accessories, Inc. purchased fabric sheets used for water control structures from CSI Calendering, Inc. beginning in 2010. The parties’ dispute arose from a January 2013 quote for the product. The quote was a 50% increase from the parties’ earlier transactions. The parties agree that they had a contract, but they disagree on when it was formed. The district court granted summary judgment to CSI and Obermeyer appealed.

Obermeyer contends that the contract was formed before the January quote. “CSI contends that the contract was not formed until the January quote and that even if the parties had a prior contract, the contract was modified (1) by the quote or (2) by Obermeyer” making numerous payments invoiced at the price from the January quote. The Tenth Circuit held that a jury could find that a contract was formed before the January quote, and questions of fact remain as to the whether the contract was modified by the January quote or Obermeyer’s subsequent payments. Therefore, summary judgment was not appropriate.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed the grant of summary judgment de novo. The court applied Texas law as the governing law of the agreement, as agreed to by the parties. The Tenth Circuit applied the six elements under Texas law “needed to form a valid and binding contract.” The court reviewed the circumstances of what the parties said and did objectively to determine whether there was a meeting of the minds. Because “there was no evidence that CSI had ever suggested before January 11 that timing of invoices would affect the price,” a jury could reasonably find that the price was offered and accepted before the January quote.

The court then addressed CSI’s arguments that even if the contract was formed before the January quote that it was modified, and therefore CSI is entitled to summary judgment. “Modification requires mutual consent, which is ordinarily a question of fact for the jury.” The party asserting modification has the burden to prove modification by establishing notice of the change and acceptance. The other party must have knowledge of the nature of the change. Further, “Texas law requires that modification of a contract for the sale of goods must be made in objective and subjective good faith.”

CSI did not meet its burden. CSI did not explicitly state that it was changing the price, nor did it explain to Obermeyer its reason for the modification as required to establish objective good faith. CSI asserted that the change in price was made clear in the January quote by the use of the term turnkey. However, “CSI never explained to Obermeyer how it was using the term turnkey and the term had never before been used in their dealings.” Additionally, Obermeyer could have made natural assumptions not indicative of a massive change in pricing. Here, the court stated that “the specifics of the purported change smack of fast dealing.” And that, “on this record a jury could reasonably reject CSI’s explanation.”

The court determined that the question of modification by performance was also a question for the jury. Under the UCC performance requires that the other party have “knowledge of the nature of the performance.” CSI argued both that Obermeyer should-have-known, and the doctrine of negligent assent to support modification. Here, questions remain as to whether Obermeyer’s payments reflected its understanding of the change in price, which is a question for the jury.

Finally, CSI contended that commercial transactions would suffer from uncertainty in a decision against it. The court responded, “commerce is not enhanced if buyers and sellers must always treat each other as adversaries, auditing every transaction as it occurs to be sure the other party is not cheating. If the jury finds that Obermeyer had been misled by an unscrupulous supplier on which it had relied in good fact, we do not think that the world of commerce will suffer.”

The court REVERSED the summary judgment and REMANDED for further proceedings.