December 22, 2014

Tenth Circuit: Constitutional Claims Impermissible in Sentence Reduction Hearing

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Gay on Wednesday, November 12, 2014.

In 1998, Alondo Gay was indicted on eight counts, including having distributed 245.3 grams of cocaine base. He pled guilty to that charge in exchange for dismissal of the remaining charges. The probation office prepared a presentence report using the 1998 sentencing guidelines, which held Mr. Gay accountable for 9,636.88 grams of cocaine base. He qualified for a base offense level of 38. The final PSR added four additional levels for a total offense level of 42. Initially, Mr. Gay objected to several factual findings in the PSR, but withdrew his factual objections at the sentencing hearing for a 3-level reduction. His guidelines sentencing range was 262 to 327 months’ imprisonment, and he was sentenced to 262 months.

In 2007, the Sentencing Commission adopted Amendment 706, which reduced the sentencing disparity between cocaine base and cocaine powder from a 100:1 ratio to a 33:1 ratio. In 2008, Amendment 706 was made retroactively applicable. Then, in August 2010, Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act, which further reduced the sentencing disparity ratio to 18:1. The Sentencing Commission adopted another retroactive amendment in response to the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the offense levels for offenses involving between 2.8 and 8.4 kg of cocaine base from 38 to 36.

In light of the sentencing changes, Mr. Gay filed a motion under § 3582(c)(2) to reduce his sentence. The district court denied his motion, finding him ineligible for relief because his sentence was based on a greater quantity of cocaine base than was affected by the amendments. Mr. Gay appealed, contending the application of his sentence under the 100:1 ratio violated his Fifth Amendment Due Process rights, and that the length of his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Tenth Circuit characterized his appeal as an impermissible attempt to collaterally attack his sentence. The only relief allowed in a § 3582(c)(2) proceeding is sentence modification, not argument of constitutional claims. Mr. Gay should have raised his constitutional arguments in direct appeal. The Tenth Circuit conducted a plain error review and found none. Mr. Gay’s sentence was affirmed.

Colorado Court of Appeals: SOLSA Encompasses Single Subject of Sex Offender Supervision and is Constitutional

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Montgomery on Thursday, December 4, 2014.

Colorado Sex Offender Lifetime Supervision Act of 1998—Colorado Constitution—Subject Matter—Clear Express Requirement.

Montgomery pleaded guilty in three related criminal cases involving the sexual assault of three children. He was convicted of one count of sexual assault on a child and two counts of sexual assault on a child in a position of trust–pattern of abuse. The trial court sentenced Montgomery under the Colorado Sex Offender Lifetime Supervision Act of 1998 (SOLSA) to two consecutive sixteen-years-to-life terms and one consecutive six-years-to-life term, denying Montgomery’s motion for post-conviction relief filed under Crim.P. 35(a).

On appeal, Montgomery argued that his sentence was illegal because SOLSA violates Article V, § 21 of the Colorado Constitution. SOLSA’s single-subject matter is the lifetime treatment and supervision of persons who commit sex offenses. Its goal is to rehabilitate sex offenders while mitigating the dangers they pose to the public when released from incarceration. The matters of sentencing, parole, and probation are properly connected because they are all means of accomplishing SOLSA’s single objective of lifetime supervision of convicted sex offenders. Therefore, SOLSA contains only one subject and, for that reason, does not violate the single-subject requirement. SOLSA is not unconstitutional merely because the terms “sentencing,” “parole,” and “probation” are not mentioned in its title. Accordingly, SOLSA does not violate the clear expression requirement of the Colorado Constitution, and the judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Election Assistance Commission Not Required to Approve State Requests to Amend Voter Registration Form

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Kobach v. United States Election Assistance Commission on Friday, November 7, 2014.

The secretaries of state from Arizona and Kansas, Ken Bennett and Kris Kobach, respectively, sought to have the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) add language requiring documentary proof of citizenship to each state’s instructions on the federal voter registration form. The EAC concluded the additional language was unnecessary and denied their requests. Kobach and Bennett filed suit in federal district court challenging the denial, and the district court held the EAC had a nondiscretionary duty to grant their requests.

The Tenth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s reasoning, holding that the district court’s decision is in direct conflict with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2247 (2013) (ITCA). Justice Thomas’ dissent in ITCA endorsed the theory brought to the Tenth Circuit by Arizona and Kansas in this appeal, thus clearly explaining what the law does not provide. The EAC had valid authority to subdelegate decision-making authority to its Executive Director relating to the contents of the federal form. Under the unique circumstances of this case, an appeal from the Executive Director’s decision denying the requests to modify the federal form was impracticable, and consequently the decision qualifies as a final agency action, which was procedurally valid. The National Voter Registration Act’s requirements do not impose a ministerial duty on the EAC to approve state requests to change the form.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling and remanded with instructions for the district court to vacate its order mandating EAC modifications to the federal form.

Colorado Supreme Court: No Injury Sufficient to Establish Taxpayer Standing for “Colorado Day of Prayer” Suit

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. on Monday, November 24, 2014.

Preference Clause of Colorado Constitution—Taxpayer Standing—Individual Standing.

In this case, the Supreme Court determined whether respondents, Freedom from Religion Foundation and four of its Colorado members, have standing to sue Governor John Hickenlooper for issuing annual honorary proclamations recognizing a “Colorado Day of Prayer.” The Court held that the use of public funds to cover the incidental overhead costs associated with issuing the honorary proclamations does not, by itself, constitute an injury sufficient to establish taxpayer standing. Furthermore, the psychic harm endured by respondents as a result of media coverage revealing the existence of the honorary proclamations does not, by itself, constitute an injury sufficient to establish individual standing. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case with instructions to return the case to the trial court for dismissal.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Inmate’s Challenge to DOC Policies Not Barred by 30-Day Claims Limit

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Garcia v. Harms on Thursday, November 6, 2014.

Timely Filing—Code of Penal Discipline Claim.

Garcia was charged with assault under the Code of Penal Discipline (COPD) after a corrections officer accidentally pricked herself on a sewing needle he kept in his cell. Garcia was not present at the time, but he was charged and found culpable and disciplined. He was also required to pay restitution.

Garcia challenged his conviction, claiming: (1) his disciplinary hearing did not comply with constitutional due process requirements; (2) the COPD definition of “assault” was unconstitutionally vague on its face as applied to him; (3) the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) exceeded its authority when it ordered him to pay restitution; (4) CRS §17-1-111, which exempts CDOC from certain provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, violates constitutional separation of powers principles; and (5) the collection of restitution unjustly enriched CDOC. The district court dismissed Garcia’s complaint—filed nearly two years after his COPD conviction became final—as time-barred under CRCP 106.5.

Garcia challenged the dismissal, except as to claims one and five. He arguedthat claims two through four challenged “CDOC’s establishment of policies and general application of those policies” and not his disciplinary conviction and therefore were not barred under CRCP 106.5. The Court of Appeals agreed as to Garcia’s fourth claim and portions of his second and third claims.

Portions of Garcia’s second and third claims challenged only quasi-judicial action. However, the part of claim two asserting that the COPD definition of assault under which Garcia was convicted was unconstitutionally vague on its face, as well as the portion of claim three asserting the CDOC has adopted a monetary restitution policy that violates the Separation of Powers Clause, are not related to quasi-judicial actions. Also, claim four asserted that CRS §17-1-111 facially violates separation of powers principles. The Court held that these claims were covered by CRS §13-80-102(1)(h) as “actions against any public or governmental entity . . . ” insofar as defendants Governor Hickenlooper and the State of Colorado are concerned, and were subject to the one-year statute of limitations under the exceptions listed in CRS §13-80-103 insofar as CDOC officials and employees were concerned.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the order dismissing Garcia’s as applied constitutional challenges in claims two and three and the remaining clams against the executive director of the CDOC, the warden of the Sterling Correctional Facility, the hearing officer who presided over his disciplinary hearing, and two unnamed correctional officers. It reversed the order dismissing Garcia’s fourth claim against Governor Hickenlooper and the State of Colorado. It also reversed the dismissal of Garcia’s facial constitutional challenge against those defendants in claim two and his facial constitutional challenge to CDOC policies in claim three. The case was remanded for further proceedings.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of  The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: No Constitutional Violation for Potentially Traceable Ballots in 2012 Election

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Citizen Center v. Gessler on Tuesday, October 21, 2014.

After the 2012 election, election officials in six Colorado counties — Larimer, Jefferson, Boulder, Chaffee, Eagle, and Mesa — theoretically had the ability to trace votes to individual voters because each ballot had a unique barcode or number, some ballots may have been unique among ballots cast on an electronic voting machine, and some ballots may have been unique within a batch of ballots. Citizen Center, a Colorado nonprofit, sued the secretary of state and the county clerks for the six counties (collectively, “clerks”), asserting that the use of traceable ballots violated its members’ constitutional rights, including the rights to (1) vote, (2) free speech and association, (3) substantive due process, (4) equal protection, and (5) procedural due process. One of the clerks settled with Citizen Center. All clerks moved to dismiss for lack of standing, and the clerks included an alternative argument for dismissal under F.R.C.P. 12(b)(6). The district court dismissed the claims on standing without reaching the 12(b)(6) argument. Citizen Center appealed.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the clerks’ argument that Citizen Centers’ appeal was moot because the election had already passed, and also because the secretary of state had adopted new regulations banning the challenged practices. The Tenth Circuit found that although the 2012 election had passed, and although the secretary of state had promulgated rules to prevent future traceable ballots, not every harm had been redressed. Next, the Tenth Circuit found that Citizen Center had standing on the parts of the claim related to denial of equal protection and procedural due process, but its alleged injury was too speculative to provide standing. Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the first amendment complaint failed to state a valid claim against the clerks. These findings resulted in termination of all claims except those against the secretary of state for denial of equal protection and procedural due process.

Addressing the procedural due process claim first, the Tenth Circuit determined that Citizen Center’s claim was facially deficient. Citizen Center lacked a liberty interest in an untraceable ballot. Citizen Center claimed that the use of potentially unique ballots and the use of potentially unique ballots within a batch violated the Colorado Constitution. However, the Constitution only prohibits the use of unique numbers on ballots, and the use of batch numbers is not prohibited, so the secretary of state’s rules requiring numbers to be used on at least 10 ballots within a batch did not violate the Constitution. Because Citizen Center lacked a protected liberty interest, its claims for due process failed as a matter of law.

Next, the Tenth Circuit turned to the Equal Protection claims, which were based on different voting practices in different counties. The Tenth Circuit quickly disposed of this claim as well, finding that clerks within counties were allowed to develop different voting practices, and as long as there was no discrimination between voters in the same county, there was no Equal Protection violation.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claims involving denial of substantive due process, the right to vote, and the right to free speech. For the claims involving procedural due process and equal protection, the Tenth Circuit affirmed on the clerks’ alternate ground under F.R.C.P. 12(b)(6). However, the secretary of state did not move for dismissal under 12(b)(6), so for the claims against the secretary of state, the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Colorado Supreme Court: PERA Members Have No Continual Right to Cost of Living Adjustments

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Justus v. State of Colorado on Monday, October 20, 2014.

Colorado Public Employee’s Retirement Association Pension Plan (PERA)—Cost-of-Living Adjustment—Contracts Clauses of U.S. and Colorado Constitutions.

In this decision, the Colorado Supreme Court determined whether Colorado PERA members have contractual rights for life without change to the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) formulas in place at their respective retirements. On summary judgment, the district court ruled that PERA retirees had no such contract right to an unchangeable COLA formula.

The court of appeals disagreed. It determined that the retirees have a contract right, and remanded for further review to determine whether Senate Bill 10-001 violated the Contract Clauses of the U.S. and Colorado Constitutions.

The Court held that the 2010 PERA legislation did not establish any contract between PERA and its members entitling them to perpetual receipt of the specific COLA formula in place on the date each became eligible for retirement or on the date each actually retires. The judgment of the court of appeals was reversed and the trial court’s summary judgment order dismissing this case was upheld.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Sex Offender Registration Requirements are Necessary and Proper to Regulate Child Pornography

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Brune on Friday, September 19, 2014.

Gustave Wilhelm Brune pleaded guilty in 2001 to possession of child pornography. He served 27-months in federal prison, after which he was placed on supervised release. In 2004, he violated a condition of his release and was incarcerated for an additional 21 months. In 2006, he completed his sentence and was released without supervision but was required to register as a sex offender for life under the Kansas Offender Registration Act (KORA) and the national Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). He was required to keep his registration current under both Acts.

Between 2006 and 2011, Brune repeatedly failed to comply with the registration requirements. After an investigation, federal officials charged Brune with failure to register as a sex offender and obtained an arrest warrant. A search of his home incident to the arrest revealed child pornography images on Brune’s computer and that he had accessed a webpage containing child pornography. He was indicted for failing to register under SORNA and accessing with intent to view child pornography under 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B). He lodged unsuccessful constitutional objections to the charges and eventually pleaded guilty, reserving the right to appeal. On appeal, he argued (1) the Necessary and Proper clause cannot sustain Congress’s decision to enact SORNA; and (2) the conduct prohibited under 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(A) is unconstitutionally overbroad.

Addressing the first argument, the Tenth Circuit analyzed the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Kebodeaux, 133 S. Ct. 2496 (2013). In Kebodeaux, the Supreme Court determined that sex offender registration requirements did not violate the Necessary and Proper clause because Congress has the authority to impose punishment for sex offenders and the sex offender registration is necessary and proper to carry out Congress’s power. Applying the Court’s rationale to Brune, the Tenth Circuit found that SORNA survives Brune’s challenge. Brune’s original statute of conviction “plainly withstands constitutional scrutiny as an exercise of congressional authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate the interstate trafficking of child pornography. . . . And because the constitutionality of the underlying statute cannot be reasonably questioned, SORNA’s registration requirements are a limited and rational extension of congressional power, as permitted by the Necessary and Proper Clause.”

As to the second argument, Brune asserted that 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(A) is overbroad because it contains the phrase “or any other material that contains an image of child pornography.” Brune argues that anyone who accesses the internet could be subject to prosecution under § 2252A(a)(5)(A) because there is child pornography on the internet. The Tenth Circuit rejected this argument. Read contextually, the meaning of the statute is easy to ascertain. And, even if there were some ambiguity in the meaning of the statute, the court’s preference is always to support the constitutionality of a statute.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denials of Brune’s motions to dismiss.

Tenth Circuit: Threatening Intent Required for Conviction Under Interstate Threat Statute

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Heineman on Monday, September 15, 2014.

Defendant Aaron Heineman, a white supremacist, sent three emails to a professor at the University of Utah in 2010 and 2011. The third email was a poem that made the professor fear for his safety and that of his family. The professor contacted law enforcement, who traced the email to Heineman. When officers contacted Heineman in writing, he immediately responded, “Is this about the email?” He was charged with one count of sending an interstate threat in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. Prior to trial, he requested an instruction that he must have intended his communication to be perceived as a threat in order to be convicted, but his request was denied. He then moved to dismiss the charge, arguing the statute was facially unconstitutional if it did not require proof that he intended the communication to place the hearer in fear of bodily harm or death. The court denied this motion. He reasserted his objections at trial, and the court again rejected them. The court concluded that Defendant had knowingly transmitted a communication that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily harm or death. Defendant appealed.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the conviction. After a careful analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003), the Tenth Circuit concluded as an issue of first impression that the defendant must intend the communication to be perceived as a threat, regardless of whether he actually carries out the threat. The Tenth Circuit reversed Defendant’s conviction and remanded for determination of intent.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Warrantless Search of Cell Phone Violated Fourth Amendment

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Omwanda on Thursday, September 25, 2014.

Evidence Suppression of Information on Cell Phone—Theory of Defense Instruction.

Before trial, defendant sought to suppress evidence that police had recovered from his cell phone. At the suppression hearing, an officer testified that he stopped a car carrying six people, including defendant. With the driver’s permission, the officer searched inside the car, where he found electronic scales and a pill bottle containing cocaine. Two passengers said the pill bottle belonged to defendant.

The officer arrested and searched defendant. The search revealed another pill bottle and a cell phone. The second pill bottle contained a white residue. Defendant asked the officer to give the cell phone to another passenger, but the officer told him he would keep it as evidence. The officer read three text messages on the phone. All three indicated cocaine use and purchase.

The officer later applied for, and received, a warrant to search the phone. The warrant application quoted the text messages. The search of the phone pursuant to the warrant revealed additional communications and information indicative of drug dealing.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress because the search was incident to the arrest. The jury acquitted defendant of possession with intent to distribute but convicted him of possession of a controlled substance.

The Court of Appeals agreed with defendant that the initial search of the phone violated the Fourth Amendment as enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Riley v. CaliforniaRiley v. California, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 2473 (2014). In Riley, the Court held “that a warrant is generally required before . . . a search [of information on a cell phone], even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest.”

The People argued that even if the initial search was unlawful, the police independently discovered the information on the phone pursuant to the search warrant. A court may admit unconstitutionally obtained evidence “if the prosecution can establish that it was also discovered by means independent of the illegality.” The Court reviewed the officer’s warrant application and found probable cause to support the issuance of the warrant. The issue turns on whether the initial search of the three text messages affected the officer’s decision to seek the warrant. This required further factual findings. Accordingly, the case was remanded for further proceedings on this issue.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Defense Counsel Waived Confrontation Clause Claim by Eliciting Testimonial Statements

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Merritt on Thursday, September 25, 2014.

Confrontation Clause—Autopsy Report—Testimonial.

A hotel desk clerk found Welch’s body in the room where she had lived for about five years. Her throat had been cut and a large amount of blood was visible on her body and on the bed beneath her. Defendant, a security guard at the hotel, was charged with her death. He was found guilty of second-degree murder and was sentenced to thirty-six years in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

On appeal, defendant alleged that the court violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause by admitting an autopsy report prepared by a doctor who was not present at trial. Dr. Lear-Kaul performed an autopsy and authored a report detailing her findings and conclusions regarding the cause and manner of Welch’s death. Because Dr. Lear-Kaul was on maternity leave during the trial, her supervisor, Dr. Dobersen, testified regarding the autopsy report and the cause of death.

Given the state of the body, the nature of the crime scene, and the statutorily mandated cooperation between the coroner’s office and the district attorney’s office, it was reasonable for Dr. Lear-Kaul to assume that the report containing her findings and conclusions would be used in the eventual prosecution of a murder suspect. Therefore, the statements were testimonial. However, by asking Dr. Dobersen questions about alternative causes of death, which relied on facts contained in the autopsy report, defendant’s counsel intentionally opened the door on a particular line of questioning and effectively waived the right to confrontation. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: No Fourth Amendment Violation in Search of Abandoned Bag

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Tubens on Tuesday, September 2, 2014.

Peter Tubens was on a Greyhound bus in Utah en route to Philadelphia when Utah Highway Patrol officers and their drug-sniffing dogs stopped the bus during a routine drug interdiction activity. Both dogs alerted to one bag in the luggage compartment marked as Tubens’. One officer entered the bus and asked for Mr. Tubens in a loud, clear voice, but Tubens did not respond. After checking all the passengers’ tickets, the police located Tubens and questioned him. Because of his suspicious behavior and knowledge that drug traffickers tend to move drugs between their checked bags and carry-ons, the officers asked to search Tubens’ carry-ons. Tubens said he did not have any, but another passenger said Tubens had been putting a bag in the carry-on area. Officers found a paper bag and CD case on Tubens’ seat, neither of which contained drugs. The officers, by this time quite suspicious of Tubens, asked everyone on the bus to claim their carry-ons, after which there was one bag remaining. The officer asked in a loud, clear voice if the bag belonged to anyone, but no one claimed it. They asked Tubens if the bag was his and he denied ownership. They proceeded to search the bag and found two cylinders containing meth as well as two prescriptions belonging to Tubens. He was charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and sentenced to 240 months’ imprisonment. Tubens appealed, arguing that the evidence obtained by searching the bag should be suppressed because it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Tenth Circuit disagreed. The officers’ initial stop and dog sniff was a lawful investigation, and no justification was needed. Even assuming the officers’ search required reasonable suspicion, they had ample reason to be suspicious of Tubens, given the dogs’ positive reactions to the bag and Tubens’ evasive behavior. No Fourth Amendment violation precipitated Tubens’ abandonment of his bag. And, because Tubens unequivocally proclaimed the abandoned bag was not his, he lacked standing to challenge its search. The district court’s judgment was affirmed.