Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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The case involves Robert Paul Rundo and Robert Boman, who were charged with conspiracy to violate the Anti-Riot Act and with substantively violating the Act. The indictment alleges that Rundo is a founding member of the "Rise Above Movement" (RAM), a militant white supremacist group. Rundo and Boman, along with other RAM members, attended several political rallies where they violently attacked counter-protesters. The indictment details their involvement in rallies in Huntington Beach, Berkeley, San Bernardino, and Charlottesville, where they engaged in organized violence and later boasted about their actions online.The United States District Court for the Central District of California initially dismissed the indictment, finding the Anti-Riot Act unconstitutional due to facial overbreadth under the First Amendment. The Ninth Circuit reversed this decision, holding that the Act was not facially overbroad except for certain severable portions. On remand, the district court dismissed the indictment again, this time based on a claim of selective prosecution. The district court concluded that the government selectively prosecuted RAM members while ignoring the violence of Antifa and related far-left groups, suggesting that the prosecution was based on the offensive nature of RAM's speech.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reviewed the case and reversed the district court's judgment. The Ninth Circuit held that Rundo did not meet his burden to demonstrate that similarly situated individuals were not prosecuted and that his prosecution was based on an impermissible motive. The court found that the district court erred by comparing collective conduct to individual conduct and by holding that individual Antifa members were similarly situated to Rundo. The Ninth Circuit also held that Rundo failed to show that his prosecution was based on an impermissible motive, noting that timing and other factors cited by the district court were insufficient. The court reinstated the indictment and remanded the case for trial. View "USA V. RUNDO" on Justia Law

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The defendant was convicted by a jury in the Allegan Circuit Court of multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct. During the trial, the presiding judge exchanged emails with the county prosecutor, expressing concerns about the police investigation. The defendant later discovered these communications and moved for a new trial, alleging judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective assistance of counsel. The case was reassigned to a different judge, who granted the motion for a new trial due to the appearance of impropriety created by the emails. The prosecution appealed this decision.The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's decision, holding that the trial court had abused its discretion in granting a new trial. The appellate court concluded that the trial judge's ex parte communications were permissible for administrative purposes under the judicial conduct code and did not influence the jury's verdict. The defendant then sought leave to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.The Michigan Supreme Court reviewed the case and held that the trial judge's ex parte communications violated the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct. The court found that these communications were not for administrative purposes and created an appearance of impropriety. However, the court concluded that the communications did not show actual bias or a high probability of bias that would violate the defendant's constitutional rights. The court also determined that the trial judge's failure to recuse herself did not result in a miscarriage of justice, as the jury was unaware of the communications and the trial prosecutor did not alter her strategy in response to them. Therefore, the court affirmed the Court of Appeals' decision, holding that the trial court had no legal basis to grant a new trial. View "People of Michigan v. Loew" on Justia Law

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Joel Francois Jean was incarcerated in Texas since 2009 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense. At sentencing, he was classified as a career offender due to three prior Texas controlled-substance convictions, resulting in a Guidelines range of 352 to 425 months, but he received a 292-month sentence. Subsequent legal decisions (Mathis v. United States, United States v. Hinkle, and United States v. Tanksley) redefined what constitutes a controlled-substance offense, meaning Jean would not be classified as a career offender if sentenced today.Jean filed a motion for compassionate release in 2023, arguing that changes in the law, sentence disparities, and his rehabilitation warranted release. The district court found that the non-retroactive changes in the law, combined with Jean's extraordinary rehabilitation, constituted extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release. The court noted Jean's significant efforts towards self-improvement and the support he received from Bureau of Prisons officials. Consequently, Jean was resentenced to time served, followed by eight years of supervised release.The United States appealed the district court's decision. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reviewed the case and affirmed the district court's grant of compassionate release. The appellate court held that district courts have the discretion to consider non-retroactive changes in the law, along with other factors such as extraordinary rehabilitation, when determining whether extraordinary and compelling reasons exist for compassionate release. The court emphasized that this discretion is consistent with Supreme Court precedent and Congressional intent, and noted that the Sentencing Commission's November 1, 2023 Amendments support this interpretation. View "USA v. Jean" on Justia Law

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Marcellus Williams was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death following a jury trial. His conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Supreme Court of Missouri, and his postconviction relief was denied. Williams sought additional DNA testing through a habeas corpus petition, which led to a temporary stay of execution and the appointment of a special master to oversee the testing. The results did not demonstrate his innocence, and his habeas petition was denied. Subsequent petitions for writs of habeas corpus and declaratory judgment were also denied.The St. Louis County prosecutor filed a motion to vacate Williams' conviction and death sentence, citing potential actual innocence based on DNA evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel, and racial discrimination in jury selection. This motion remains pending in the circuit court. Despite this, the Supreme Court of Missouri issued a warrant of execution for Williams, setting a new execution date.The Supreme Court of Missouri reviewed Williams' motion to withdraw the warrant of execution, arguing that the prosecutor's motion constituted a state postconviction motion, which should bar setting an execution date. The court found that Rule 30.30(c) only refers to postconviction motions filed by the defendant, not the prosecutor. Since Williams had already exhausted his state postconviction remedies, the court held that the execution date was properly set. The court also noted that the pending prosecutor's motion did not automatically warrant a stay of execution and that Williams had not demonstrated the necessary factors for equitable relief. Consequently, the court overruled Williams' motion to withdraw the warrant of execution. View "State v. Williams" on Justia Law

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Charles Johnson, Jr. was arrested by Officer Garrett Rolfe for driving while intoxicated. Johnson alleged that Rolfe used excessive force during the arrest, resulting in a broken collarbone. Johnson sued Rolfe and the City of Atlanta under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Georgia state law, claiming excessive force and battery. Johnson's complaint stated that he was respectful and did not resist arrest, but Rolfe threw him to the ground, causing his injury.The United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia reviewed the case. The City moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing it failed to state a claim for Monell liability. Rolfe moved for judgment on the pleadings, submitting body camera and dashcam footage showing Johnson resisting arrest. The district court considered the video evidence, determining it was central to Johnson's claims and its authenticity was not disputed. The court found that Rolfe did not use excessive force and was entitled to qualified immunity on the federal claims and official immunity on the state law claims. Consequently, the court dismissed the Monell claim against the City, as there was no underlying constitutional violation.The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reviewed the case. The court affirmed the district court's decision, holding that the video evidence was properly considered under the incorporation-by-reference doctrine. The court found that Rolfe's use of force was objectively reasonable given the circumstances, including Johnson's resistance and the dangerous location of the arrest. Therefore, Rolfe was entitled to qualified immunity on the federal claims and official immunity on the state law claims. The court also affirmed the dismissal of the Monell claim against the City, as no constitutional violation occurred. View "Johnson v. City of Atlanta" on Justia Law

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An elderly couple in Greenville, North Carolina, reported a breaking-and-entering at their residence around 4:00 a.m., hearing glass break and a male voice yelling. Officer David Johnson, who was nearby, responded to the call. Upon arrival, Johnson heard loud yelling and saw Sean Rambert running towards him while yelling. Johnson commanded Rambert to get on the ground eight times, but Rambert did not comply and continued to charge at Johnson. Johnson fired multiple shots at Rambert, who continued to advance even after being shot. Rambert eventually fell and later died from his injuries.The United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina denied Johnson’s motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The court found genuine disputes of material fact regarding the reasonableness of Johnson’s conduct and concluded that a jury could determine that Johnson violated Rambert’s Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force. The court also denied summary judgment on the remaining federal and state law claims against Johnson and the City of Greenville.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reviewed the case. The court held that Johnson was entitled to qualified immunity on the Fourth Amendment claim. The court found that Johnson’s use of deadly force was not objectively unreasonable given the circumstances, including Rambert’s aggressive behavior and failure to comply with commands. The court also determined that the law did not clearly establish that Johnson’s conduct was unconstitutional at the time of the incident. Consequently, the court reversed the district court’s denial of summary judgment on the § 1983 claim against Johnson. However, the court dismissed the appeal regarding the related state and federal claims and claims against the City of Greenville, remanding those issues for further proceedings. View "Rambert v. City of Greenville" on Justia Law

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Damon E. Warner was charged with first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly assaulting his minor stepdaughter. During the investigation, Warner underwent three police interrogations, during which he initially denied the accusations but eventually signed a confession written by the police. A jury found him guilty of second-degree criminal sexual conduct but could not reach a verdict on the first-degree charge. Warner was sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison. The first-degree charge was later dismissed without prejudice. Warner successfully appealed his conviction, and the Court of Appeals granted him a new trial.The Eaton Circuit Court allowed the prosecutor to reinstate the first-degree charge. Warner requested funds to hire an expert on false confessions and access to the victim’s medical and psychological records, but the trial court denied both motions. At the second trial, Warner was found guilty of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison. The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's decision, stating that although the trial court misinterpreted the precedent set by People v Kowalski, it did not abuse its discretion in denying Warner's request for an expert witness.The Michigan Supreme Court reviewed the case and held that it was fundamentally unfair to deny an indigent defendant funding for an expert on false confessions when the veracity of the confession was central to the trial. The Court found that Warner had demonstrated a reasonable probability that the expert would aid his defense and that the absence of such an expert resulted in a fundamentally unfair trial. The Court of Appeals judgment was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings. View "People v. Warner" on Justia Law

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Nancy Wood, an indigent homeless woman, was residing in Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley, near the hospital where she received treatment for cancer and heart disease. The City of Fountain Valley, which had no homeless shelter at the time, sought to prohibit her from living in the park, citing violations of city ordinances. Wood argued necessity as a defense, claiming her health conditions required her to stay near the hospital.The City initially filed a criminal complaint against Wood, where she was represented by appointed counsel. While the criminal case was pending, the City also filed a civil lawsuit for nuisance against her. In the civil case, Wood, representing herself, again argued necessity. The trial court conducted the proceedings remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions. Despite Wood's claims that she had not received the City's trial exhibits, the court proceeded, ultimately finding her culpable for public nuisance and issuing an injunction prohibiting her from residing in the park. Shortly after the civil judgment, Wood was acquitted in the criminal case.The California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, reviewed the case. The court held that the trial court abused its discretion by not staying the civil case pending the outcome of the criminal case. The appellate court noted that the simultaneous civil and criminal proceedings placed an unfair burden on Wood, especially given her indigent status and lack of legal representation in the civil case. The court also found that the trial court failed to consider all relevant evidence, including Wood's necessity defense, in issuing the injunction. The judgment was reversed, and the case was remanded with instructions for the trial court to reconsider the propriety of the injunction, taking into account Wood's acquittal in the criminal case and all relevant equitable factors. View "People v. Wood" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around Terrell Esco, who alleged that he was unlawfully detained and maliciously prosecuted by the City of Chicago police officers. The officers arrested him for weapons and drug violations, but Esco claimed that the officers knew he was not the person they saw in possession of a gun. He further alleged that the officers' body-worn camera video evidence would support his claim. However, the district court judge viewed the video and held that the officers had probable cause to detain Esco, thereby dismissing his claims.The case was then brought to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The court agreed with the district court's assessment that Esco failed to allege any plausible claims. The court noted that the determination of probable cause is based on an objective assessment of what a reasonable officer could conclude based on information known to officers at the scene. The court found that the video provided definitive evidence that the officers had probable cause to believe that Esco was the person who possessed and then discarded the weapon.Furthermore, the court found that Esco failed to prove that the proceeding terminated in his favor, a necessary element for a malicious prosecution claim under Illinois law. The court noted that the mere fact that the state court entered a nolle prosequi order, without explanation of why the court entered the order, was insufficient evidence of a favorable termination of criminal proceedings. As a result, the court affirmed the judgment of the district court, dismissing Esco's claims. View "Esco v. City of Chicago" on Justia Law

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The case involves Delaney Marks, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in California in 1994. Marks appealed his conviction, arguing that he was incompetent to stand trial and that he is intellectually disabled, making him ineligible for the death penalty. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part the district court’s judgment denying Marks's federal habeas petition.Marks's claim that he was incompetent to stand trial was denied. The court found that although Marks presented substantial evidence of incompetence, there was a reasonable basis in the record for the California Supreme Court to deny this claim.However, the court held that the district court erred by denying relief on Marks's claim that he is intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for the death penalty. Marks had shown that the California Supreme Court’s rejection of this claim was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.The court also held that the district court properly denied relief on Marks's claim that the judge adjudicating his Atkins claim was biased against him. The California Supreme Court reasonably could have concluded that the judge did not display a deep-seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible.The court affirmed the district court's denial of relief on Marks's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. The California Supreme Court reasonably could have concluded that a second competency hearing would have reached the same conclusion as a jury which had already found Marks competent.In sum, the court vacated the district court’s denial of Marks’s Atkins claim and remanded for de novo review of that claim. The court otherwise affirmed the district court's decision. View "Marks v. Davis" on Justia Law