Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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At 1:20 a.m., Harden, an African-American, went to buy beer at a Thornton store, where a uniformed Heritage Creek police officer, Hillman, provided security. The clerk told Harden, “I think you’ve had too much to drink already.” Harden left but returned. Hillman allegedly slammed him down onto the floor. Harden requested medical attention and was transported to the hospital, where he was cited for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and public intoxication, then released. The charges were dismissed after Hillman failed to appear.Harden's claims against Thornton and Heritage Creek were dismissed. Harden’s excessive force claim against Hillman was rejected by a jury. Harden first unsuccessfully sought a new trial based on the court’s refusal to order the Marshals Service to serve his subpoenas and on Hillman’s counsel allegedly making improper arguments to the jury.Harden’s counsel obtained permission to contact a juror post-trial. That juror claimed that Harden did not get a fair trial because of his race and that another juror concealed from the judge that he was related to a police officer. The court denied Harden’s second motion for a new trial.The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment on Harden’s claim that he was arrested without probable cause and the order denying Harden’s first motion for a new trial but vacated the denial of the second motion. The juror’s affidavit showed that jurors made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict. View "Harden v. Hillman" on Justia Law

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In 2005, Pouncy opted to represent himself and was convicted of four counts of carjacking, four counts of armed robbery, and three firearm counts. He was sentenced to 586-824 months' imprisonment. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting Pouncy’s argument that he had not knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to counsel. In 2013, Pouncy filed a federal habeas corpus petition, arguing that the state courts erred in allowing him to represent himself. In 2016, the district court granted a conditional writ. While Michigan's appeal proceeded, the district court released Pouncy on bond. After his release, Pouncy tried to enter the chambers of the judge who presided over his trial; later Michigan charged him with possessing a firearm and ammunition as a felon. The court revoked bail.In 2017, the Sixth Circuit reversed the grant of habeas relief and remanded for consideration of Pouncy’s other claims. A cell phone was subsequently found in Pouncy’s cell, containing messages, suggesting that Pouncy had paid $10,000 to secure false testimony in his federal habeas proceeding. The district court declined to dismiss the petition in full. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Pouncy unsuccessfully sought release on bond pending review of his petition. When the pandemic worsened, Pouncy unsuccessfully asked for bail again. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The district court reasonably concluded that the “interests of justice” did not support Pouncy’s release, given the “looming reality” of his conduct, which included time-consuming collateral litigation. View "Pouncy v. Palmer" on Justia Law

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Michigan allows independent candidates for statewide office to be placed on the general election ballot if the candidate submits a “qualifying petition,” with at least 30,000 valid signatures, submitted no later than “the one hundred-tenth day before the general election,” signed by at least 100 registered voters in each of at least half of Michigan’s 14 congressional districts. Signatures must be obtained within 180 days of the filing deadline. The filing deadline for the November 2018 election was July 19, 2018. The official process for an independent candidate trying to run for attorney general in that election began in January 2018. Major political parties do not choose attorney general candidates by primary election, but at conventions, “not less than 60 days before" the general election. The Republican and Democratic Parties held their nominating conventions in August 2018. Graveline began his attempt to qualify for the ballot in June 2018. Graveline served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney; the Hatch Act required him to resign before formally filing as a candidate for an elected office. Graveline collected 14,157 signatures, using 1,000 hours of volunteer time and spending $38,000. The state rejected his petition.The district court enjoined the enforcement of the statute as violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments and implemented an interim requirement allowing independent candidates to qualify for statewide offices by submitting a qualifying petition with 12,000 signatures. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The challenged provisions, in combination, impose a severe burden on the constitutional rights of independent candidates and their potential voter-supporters. The provisions are not narrowly drawn to advance compelling state interests. The district court did not abuse its discretion in crafting its remedy. View "Graveline v. Benson" on Justia Law

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Meriwether, a Shawnee State University professor, is a devout Christian. In 2016, Shawnee told faculty to refer to students by their preferred pronouns. Meriwether’s department chair was dismissive of Meriwether’s concerns and religious beliefs. In 2018, Meriwether called on “Doe,” saying "Yes, sir." According to Meriwether, “no one . . . would have assumed that [Doe] was female.” Doe demanded that Meriwether “refer to [Doe] as a woman.” Meriwether believed that his sincerely-held religious beliefs prevented him from communicating messages about gender identity that he believes to be false. Doe became threatening. Meriwether reported the incident. Meriwether was advised to “eliminate all sex-based references.” Meriwether later accidentally referred to Doe as “Mr.” before immediately correcting himself. Doe again complained. Meriwether subsequently used only Doe’s last name, and awarded Doe a high grade. Meriwether continued to seek accommodation of his religious views; Shawnee would not compromise. The Title IX office concluded that Meriwether created a hostile environment without mentioning Meriwether’s religious beliefs. Shawnee placed a warning in Meriwether’s file. The faculty union filed an unsuccessful grievance.The Sixth Circuit reversed the dismissal of Meriwether’s suit. Meriwether has plausibly alleged that Shawnee violated his First Amendment rights by compelling his speech or silence and casting a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. Meriwether was speaking on a matter of public concern; Shawnee’s interest in punishing Meriwether’s speech is comparatively weak. Shawnee exhibited hostility to his religious beliefs and irregularities in its adjudication and investigation processes permit a plausible inference of non-neutrality. View "Meriwether v. Hartop" on Justia Law

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In 2018, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) promulgated a rule that classified bump stocks as machine guns, reversing its previous position. Bump stocks are devices designed to assist the shooter in “bump firing,” a technique that increases a semiautomatic firearm’s rate of fire. In a challenge to the rule, the district court held that the ATF’s interpretation was entitled to Chevron deference and that the classification of bump stocks as machine guns was “a permissible interpretation” of 26 U.S.C. 5845(b). The court denied a preliminary injunction.The Sixth Circuit reversed. Section 5845(b)'s definition of a machine gun applies to a machine-gun ban carrying criminal culpability and penalties; an agency’s interpretation of a criminal statute is not entitled to Chevron deference. Deference to an agency’s interpretation of a criminal statute directly conflicts with the rule of lenity, would violate the Constitution’s separation of powers, and would raise individual liberty and fair notice concerns. ATF’s rule is not the best interpretation of section 5845(b); “single function of the trigger” refers to the mechanical process of the trigger and a bump stock does not enable a semiautomatic firearm to fire more than one shot each time the trigger is pulled. View "Gun Owners of America, Inc. v. Garland" on Justia Law

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Wright, a member of a motorcycle gang, distributed cocaine. When Wright’s co-conspirator, Moore, fought with other members of the conspiracy, Wright agreed to kill him for $50,000, drove to Ohio, and shot Moore in the head while he slept. Wright and his co-conspirators used a welding torch to destroy evidence, which they dumped into Lake Huron. Wright later helped steal several airplanes because he and his co-conspirators had stolen drugs belonging to the Medellín Cartel and needed to repay them. One plane belonged to the U.S. Forestry Service. Federal agents eventually arrested Wright and his co-conspirators. The co-conspirators cooperated; Wright was convicted of murder for hire, interstate travel in aid of a violent crime, and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute cocaine and was sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment, plus five years.Nineteen years into his sentence, Wright sought compassionate release, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and health problems, including obesity, cataracts, diabetes, end-stage renal disease, and peripheral vascular disease, which has led to several amputations. Collectively, the illnesses are terminal. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. The 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) sentencing factors did not warrant relief. The district court acknowledged Wright’s recent remorse, health problems, and rehabilitative efforts, but found that other considerations— his criminal history and disciplinary violations—outweighed these factors. View "United States v. Wright" on Justia Law

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In 2012, Manso-Zamora was convicted of conspiring to commit Hobbs Act robbery, three Hobbs Act robberies, and three counts of possessing and brandishing or discharging a firearm in furtherance of those robberies, and was sentenced to 776 months' imprisonment. In 2020, Manso-Zamora sought release under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1), asserting that he was at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. He was hospitalized for several weeks in 2019 for bone marrow aplastic anemia, inflammatory bowel disease, and low white blood cells and platelets. He noted his rehabilitation efforts and that, had he been sentenced under the 2018 First Step Act, he would not have been subject to mandatory consecutive 300-month sentences for his firearm convictions. The district court denied the motion. The Sixth Circuit allowed appointed counsel to withdraw and directed the clerk to appoint new counsel, then declined to consider Manso-Zamora’s pro se motions to voluntarily dismiss his appeal and to appoint a medical expert. Prisoners have no constitutional right to counsel in collateral post-conviction proceedings or in section 3582(c) proceedings. The "Anders" procedures are not required in section 3582(c) proceedings. Counsel is entitled to withdraw to honor his ethical obligation not to pursue a claim that he honestly believes to be frivolous. Given that Manso-Zamora and his attorney “disagree” about his medical conditions, it would be “unreasonable” to compel that attorney to continue providing services. View "United States v. Manso-Zamora" on Justia Law

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Maxwell was convicted of conspiring to distribute crack cocaine and heroin. The crack-cocaine offense then generated a sentencing range of 20 years to life and the heroin offense generated a range of 10 years to life, 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(A)–(B). Applying the 2009 Guidelines, the court treated Maxwell as a career offender and sentenced Maxwell to 30 years. While Maxwell’s appeal was pending, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 increased the quantity of crack cocaine needed to trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence but did not apply retroactively. Maxwell sought collateral relief. The Sixth Circuit ruled that his trial attorney violated Maxwell’s rights when he failed to argue that the two conspiracy counts were multiplicitous.On remand, the district court vacated Maxwell’s heroin conviction and imposed a 30-year sentence on the cocaine conviction alone. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. In 2018, the First Step Act authorized courts to lower sentences imposed for crack-cocaine offenses “as if” the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act had been the law during the original sentencing. Maxwell unsuccessfully moved for a sentence reduction. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Fair Sentencing Act does not require plenary resentencing hearings and does not expressly permit a court to reduce a sentence based on other intervening changes in the law, such as those concerning career offender status. Operating within its broad discretion, the court considered and rejected each of Maxwell’s arguments. View "United States v. Maxwell" on Justia Law

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Wills was indicted for various methamphetamine-trafficking offenses. The government gave notice under 21 U.S.C. 851(a)(1) of its intent to seek an enhanced sentence based on Wills’s prior felony drug conviction. Wills pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A) and 846. The district court imposed the mandatory minimum sentence, 240 months’ imprisonment.After exhausting his administrative remedies, Wills sought compassionate release or a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A) on the basis of “extraordinary or compelling circumstances.” Wills asserted that, if sentenced today, he would not be subject to the 20-year mandatory minimum sentence because his prior felony drug conviction would not qualify as a “serious drug felony” under section 401 of the First Step Act of 2018, 132 Stat. 5194. Denying Wills’s motion, the district court pointed out that section 401 does not apply retroactively. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting an argument that other courts have found that the First Step Act’s amendment of the sentence enhancement provisions constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason to warrant a sentence reduction. View "United States v. Wills" on Justia Law

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In 2018, Tomes pleaded guilty to drug, firearm, and money laundering charges and was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. In 2020, Tomes sought compassionate release, 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A), arguing that COVID-19, coupled with his increased susceptibility to serious illness because of chronic asthma, constituted an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for release and that the law has changed since his sentencing, so he would receive a shorter sentence today. The district court denied the motion, reasoning that U.S.S.G. 1B1.13 “limits the ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons’ for compassionate release” and Tomes had not “identified any medical ailments that are so severe they would justify release.” The Bureau of Prisons was taking precautionary measures to prevent an outbreak and Tomes did not show that the Bureau could not treat him if he got sick. The court also rejected his contention that his rehabilitation, strong family support, and apparently inequitable sentence were extraordinary and compelling reasons for release. The court “considered each of the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors” and found that they did not favor release.The Sixth Circuit affirmed. even if a district court wrongly constrains itself to section 1B1.13 to define extraordinary and compelling reasons for release, its decision may be upheld if the court uses section 3553(a) as an independent reason to deny relief. The First Step Act provision cited by Tomes did not apply to his sentence. View "United States v. Tomes" on Justia Law