Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

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In 2011, a Cincinnati officer ran the license plate number of an SUV and found that it had been reported stolen. The SUV stopped after the officer activated his emergency lights. When the officer stepped out of his cruiser, the SUV sped away. At over 75 miles-per-hour, the SUV raced through a downtown red light, swiping a vehicle, then slamming into a taxicab. The SUV hit a parking meter and caught fire; its driver ran, leaving his passenger, with leg fractures, inside the burning vehicle. Rescue workers freed the SUV passenger; he survived. The cab’s driver and passenger died immediately. Officers quickly apprehended the SUV’s driver, later identified as Gerth. Although Gerth suffered only minor injuries, police took him to a hospital, where a toxicology test revealed that he had alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine in his system. Gerth was charged with felony murder, aggravated vehicular homicide, aggravated vehicular assault, vehicular assault, leaving the scene of the accident, failure to comply with the order or signal of a police officer, and receiving stolen property. A half-dozen attorneys have represented Gerth throughout his trial, appeals, and collateral attacks. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the rejection of his federal habeas petition. Gerth procedurally defaulted a claim that his second appellate counsel failed to argue that the trial court improperly denied his request to proceed pro se. Gerth had no constitutional right to counsel in his reopened appeal and cannot excuse his procedural default. View "Gerth v. Warden, Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution" on Justia Law

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The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) imposes a mandatory 15-year minimum sentence for a conviction under 18 U.S.C. 922(g) if the defendant has three or more previous convictions for “violent felon[ies]” or “serious drug offense[s],” 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(1). Greer pleaded guilty as a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), plus 13 counts of armed bank robbery, section 2113, and using a firearm during a crime of violence, section 924(c)). The parties agreed that Greer was punishable under ACCA, given his five prior Ohio convictions for aggravated burglary. The court imposed a 272-month sentence. After the Supreme Court invalidated ACCA’s “residual clause,” and made that decision retroactive to cases on collateral review, Greer moved to vacate his sentence, 28 U.S.C. 2255. The district court denied Greer’s motion holding that his aggravated burglary convictions qualified under ACCA’s enumerated-offense clause. While Greer’s appeal was pending, the Sixth Circuit held that Tennessee’s aggravated burglary statute was not an ACCA “violent felony” because its definition of “habitation” was broader than the enumerated offense of generic burglary under 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(2)(B)(ii). The government conceded that Greer was not properly classified, given the similarity in language between the Tennessee statute and the Ohio statute, reserving the right to withdraw its concession after the Supreme Court decided the issue. The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision concerning the Tennessee statute. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of Greer’s petition for relief. View "Greer v. United States" on Justia Law

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Henness was convicted of offenses including aggravated murder from conduct occurring in 1992 and was sentenced to death. Henness challenged Ohio’s method of execution under 42 U.S.C. 1983. As his execution date approached, Henness moved to stay his execution, arguing that Ohio's drug protocol (500 milligrams of midazolam, a paralytic agent, and potassium chloride) was likely to cause him to suffer a painful death, and that, given the availability of significantly less painful alternative methods of execution, the use of that protocol would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Though Henness presented expert testimony, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. Neither pulmonary edema nor associated symptoms qualify as serious pain prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Midazolam may cause suffocation but the Eighth Amendment only prohibits forms of punishment that seek to intensify an inmate’s death by “superadd[ing]” feelings of “terror, pain, or disgrace.” Henness did not establish that midazolam is incapable of suppressing his consciousness enough to prevent him from experiencing constitutionally problematic pain. Even if Ohio’s protocol were very likely to cause severe pain, Henness’s proposed alternative method, secobarbital, is not a viable alternative. Secobarbital can, in some instances, take days to cause death. A state may decline to use even a feasible alternative if it has a legitimate reason for doing so. Choosing not to be the first state to experiment with a new method of execution is a legitimate reason. View "In re: Ohio Execution Protocol Litigation" on Justia Law

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The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of petitioner's 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. The court held that petitioner could not prevail on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim because, even assuming that counsel provided deficient advice, petitioner failed to establish a reasonable probability that he would have appealed had he received competent advice from counsel. In this case, not only was petitioner's likelihood of success on appeal quite low, but even if he were to succeed on appeal, he also would have likely faced a harsher sentence than he originally received. Therefore, these were strong indicators that petitioner would not have appealed had his counsel given him accurate information. View "Neill v. United States" on Justia Law

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Bullard was charged with trafficking heroin and as a felon in possession of a firearm. He unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence, then entered a plea agreement that recognized that Bullard could face 10 years to life in prison and that Bullard “may be classified as a career offender.” Bullard had a 2003 Arizona conviction for attempting to sell cocaine and a 2013 Ohio conviction for selling drugs. The court determined that Bullard qualified as a career offender, putting his Guidelines range at 292-365 months. Without the enhancement, Bullard’s range would have been 92-115 months. The court varied downward, sentencing Bullard to 140 months. Bullard had agreed that the convictions made him a career offender. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of his motion to suppress. Bullard then sought habeas relief, arguing that the court misclassified him as a career offender and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when his attorneys failed to challenge this designation. Bullard argued that the Arizona statute criminalized drugs that are not federally controlled and conduct that falls outside the Guidelines’ definition. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. If Bullard were sentenced today, he would not be a career offender but he is not on direct review. Bullard’s claim that the court misclassified him, resulting in a higher recommended sentence is not cognizable on section 2255 collateral review. While his ineffective assistance claim is cognizable, Bullard cannot satisfy the Strickland standard. View "Bullard v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Detroit Police Department executed a search warrant on McGrew's home. She heard a bang at the door. When she investigated, Detroit Police Officers were standing in her living room, wearing all black. Masks concealed their faces. She could see only their eyes. One officer threw her to the ground, put his knee in her back and handcuffed her. McGrew stated the handcuffs were tight. The officer responded: “[S]hut up, b----, you shouldn’t be so fat.” When she complained again, he responded: “[I]f you don’t shut your f---ing mouth I can blow your head off and nothing can be done.” Officers seized a bag of marijuana and a pistol, which they documented on the search warrant return. They also allegedly seized but did not mention, another gun, diamond earrings, a tablet computer, and a new-in-the-box phone. Days later, McGrew went to the hospital and was diagnosed with musculoskeletal strain in her chest and bruising on her wrist. McGrew sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, asserting excessive force and deliberate indifference. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of motions based on qualified immunity and governmental immunity and summary judgment in favor of the Department and the officers on an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. McGrew has created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the officers violated her right to be free from excessively tight handcuffing that causes physical injury. McGrew’s right was clearly established at the time. View "McGrew v. Sergeant Duncan" on Justia Law

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In 1995, a Memphis restaurant manager was murdered during a closing-time robbery. Saulsberry worked at the restaurant and helped plan the robbery but was not there during the robbery. In his state trial, the judge forbade the jury from considering the murder counts together. Only if the jury found Saulsberry not guilty of premeditated murder could it “proceed to inquire whether [he is] guilty of [either count of felony murder].” The jury convicted Saulsberry of premeditated murder, robbery, and conspiracy. He received a life sentence. The jury did not return a verdict on the two felony murder counts. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Saulsberry’s robbery and conspiracy convictions but reversed the murder conviction. On remand, Saulsberry moved to dismiss the new prosecution on double jeopardy grounds, but the state courts rejected the argument. In 2010, a new jury convicted him of both counts of felony murder. Saulsberry’s direct appeal and applications for state post-conviction relief failed. In 2007, Saulsberry filed an uncounseled habeas petition while awaiting retrial in Tennessee, arguing double jeopardy. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of his petition. Saulsberry’s jury had no chance to render a verdict on the felony murder counts. There was no mistrial here. That jeopardy can end by another means in another setting does not show an implied acquittal here. View "Saulsberry v. Lee" on Justia Law

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Clayton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for sexually exploiting minors. One minor, J.P. texted her father from Clayton’s house, saying she was being held against her will. Her father called Battle Creek Police. Police and J.P.’s father raced to Clayton’s house. Clayton’s roommate stated J.P. had left. J.P.’s father immediately received another text, alerting him that J.P. was in the house. Officers stormed inside. They found Clayton, loaded guns, brass knuckles, cocaine powder, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia. J.P. was traumatized and hysterical. Clayton was arrested. Before questioning him, Detective Sutherland read Clayton his Miranda rights from the Department’s standard form: Before we ask you any questions, you must understand your rights. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in court. You have the right to talk to a lawyer before we ask you any questions. If you cannot afford to have a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish. Do you understand your rights? Clayton: Yes. Sutherland failed to follow “[y]ou have the right to talk to a lawyer” with “and to have him/her with you during questioning.” At his third interview, Clayton stated: “Hell yeah I want to f[***]ing talk,” then made a statement and provided the password to unlock his cellphone. Clayton’s DNA was found on J.P.’s body; officers found 37 videos of Clayton engaging in sex acts with minors; videos of him weighing cocaine and holding a firearm; and text messages discussing sex trafficking. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the conviction and sentence. The critical features of Miranda were conveyed to Clayton. Nothing in the words used indicated that counsel’s presence would be restricted during questioning. View "United States v. Clayton" on Justia Law

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Endres has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; since age six, Endres has taken medication to treat that condition, beginning with Ritalin. Endres began medical school at Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED). Endres passed 14 required classes during his first year at NEOMED, but having stopped taking Ritalin because of side effects, Endres failed one class. NEOMED made Endres repeat the entire first-year curriculum including the classes he had passed. During a test in a class he had already passed, Endres appeared to shift his eyes repeatedly toward another student’s laptop. NEOMED dismissed Endres for cheating. Endres sued, citing procedural due process violations, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The district court dismissed Endres’s complaint as untimely, stating that even if Endres’s due process claim were timely, the NEOMED official is entitled to qualified immunity. The Sixth Circuit reversed, finding the case timely. The statute of limitations did not start until Endres learned that a second panel issued a final, non-appealable decision recommending his dismissal. Endres alleged facts which, taken as true, establish several violations of his procedural due process rights. Because the contours of those rights were not clearly established, the court affirmed the grant of qualified immunity to the official, which immunizes her from damages though not from injunctive relief. View "Endres v. Northeast Ohio Medical University" on Justia Law

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Shortly before his high school graduation, 18-year-old Kyle apparently experimented with LSD. The after-effects afflicted him for several days, resulting in his having to be removed from class because of behavioral issues. Kyle’s friend, Collin, checked in on him after school, then went to the police and told them that Kyle needed help and that Kyle was armed and upset with his mother. Four officers went to the house, not knowing that the mother was not actually home with Kyle. Without waiting for a warrant, the officers entered Kyle’s home. He appeared at the foot of the basement stairs, wielding a lawnmower blade. When the officers attempted to subdue Kyle with a taser, he came up the basement stairs swinging. The lawnmower blade struck an officer, who fell back, then shot and killed Kyle. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants in a suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Calling the case “heart-rending, the court stated that given the circumstances and governing case law, the officers’ entry into Kyle’s home was justified under the exigent-circumstances exception and the use of force did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The officer had probable cause to believe that Kyle posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury. View "Baker v. City of Trenton" on Justia Law