Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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While burglarizing a garage, Pollini was confronted by Zeigler and fled. Zeigler alerted Pruitt that a burglar was in the area. Pollini had left his tools in Zeigler’s garage. Plank drove him back to the garage. Pruitt approached their car with a flashlight. Pollini fired a gun into the dark, killing Pruitt. Plank’s attorney prepared a transcript of Plank’s statement to the police. The court admitted an audiotape of the statement but denied admission of the transcript. The jury, with access to only the audiotape, had difficulty understanding some of Plank’s statement and asked the judge for a transcript, Without communicating with the parties, the judge responded: “There’s none available.” This ex parte jury communication violated Kentucky Rule of Criminal Procedure 9.74. The jury found Pollini guilty. During the sentencing phase, the jury responded in the affirmative to: Was Pollini in the process of committing burglary when he killed Pruitt?Pollini argued that there was insufficient evidence to justify his life sentence because he was not committing a burglary when he killed Pruitt. The Kentucky Supreme Court remanded for resentencing without the inclusion of the aggravating circumstance. Pollini did not raise Rule 9.74.On collateral review, Pollini asserted ineffective assistance of counsel, citing the Rule 9.74 violation. The Sixth Circuit remanded the denial of relief. While Pollini’s claim fails the prejudice prong of Strickland, he did not procedurally default the claim. By the time of his collateral attack, Rule 9.74 violations were reviewed under a fundamental fairness standard, more favorable to the Commonwealth. The Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision to apply that standard was not “contrary to clearly established Federal law.” The court’s Implicit finding that the jury had the correct tape and that the tape was working was not an unreasonable determination of the facts View "Pollini v. Robey" on Justia Law

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Thompson sold heroin to a confidential informant. After the second controlled buy, police obtained a warrant to search the apartment where the transactions occurred. On their way to execute the warrant, police encountered Thompson and a passenger driving away from the apartment, stopped the vehicle, and arrested Thompson. During their search of the vehicle, officers found multiple bags of heroin and cocaine. Officers later discovered a loaded handgun under the back seat’s folding mechanism. Thompson’s fingerprints were not found on the gun. A Michigan jury convicted him of three drug crimes and four gun crimes. The Michigan Court of Appeals concluded that a rational jury could infer Thompson constructively possessed the gun. Citing the “well-known relationship between drug dealing and the use of firearms as protection,” the court found that the gun’s proximity to both Thompson and the drugs sufficed to create a jury question.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of Thompson’s federal habeas petition, rejecting his insufficient-evidence claim and claims of ineffective assistance and the denial of an impartial jury. Thompson, as the SUV’s driver “is held to a higher level of accountability" for its contents. Considering Thompson’s proximity to the gun and the evidence of his drug dealing, the Michigan Court of Appeals provided more than enough support for a fair-minded jurist to conclude that a rational jury could convict him of constructively possessing the gun. View "Thompson v. Skipper" on Justia Law

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In 2019, Jones pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute and distribution of cocaine base and was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 10 years’ imprisonment. Jones filed a pro se emergency motion, seeking compassionate release because of the pandemic. Jones may have respiratory issues, is over 40 years old, and is obese. One out of every four prisoners has tested positive for COVID-19 in the prison where Jones is incarcerated.District courts may reduce the sentences of incarcerated persons in “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances, 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A). Previously, only the Bureau of Prisons could file motions for compassionate release. The Bureau rarely did so. The 2018 First Step Act allows incarcerated persons to file their own motions.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of Jones’s motion. In making sentence-modification decisions under section 3582(c)(1)(A), district courts must find both that “extraordinary and compelling reasons" warrant the reduction and that the "reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission” before considering relevant 18 U.S.C. 3553(a)sentencing factors. Sentencing Guideline 1B1.13, which has not been amended to reflect the First Step Act, is not an “applicable” policy statement in cases where prisoners file their own motions. District courts must supply specific factual reasons for their decisions. Here, the court found for the sake of argument that an extraordinary and compelling circumstance existed but that section 3553(a)'s factors counseled against granting release. View "United States v. Jones" on Justia Law

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Johnson’s Saginaw restaurant was rented out for a birthday party. A gang-related fight began inside Johnson’s building and became a gunfight in the street. City officials suspended Johnson's business license and water service to prevent her from hosting further events. The Michigan Building Code and local ordinance authorize disconnection in case of emergency, where necessary to eliminate an immediate hazard to life or property. Water has been disconnected from other businesses in response to shootings without pre-deprivation notice; “the notice of the suspension of the business license covers [water shutoffs] even though it doesn’t mention it.” Johnson sued. The police chief testified about a 2015 party at Johnson’s property that ended in a similar shooting. Johnson testified about damage attributable to the lack of water service and lost revenue and that she had called to request that her water service be restored but a representative told her no information regarding the shutoff could be provided.The district court denied qualified immunity to city officials. The Sixth Circuit affirmed in part. A license suspension hearing was held within three days of the shooting; it would not have been impractical to a hearing before suspending Johnson's license and water service. The deprivation was not random, unpredictable, or unauthorized. Given Johnson’s significant interest in continued water service, the high risk of erroneous deprivation, and the value and minimal burden of additional safeguards, the disconnection violated procedural due process rights that were clearly established. Once Johnson’s business license was suspended, the water shutoff served no rational purpose; Johnson made an adequate showing that the shutoff violated her substantive due process right but that right was not clearly established for purposes of qualified immunity. View "Johnson v. City of Saginaw" on Justia Law

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Ryan, a tenured professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky, was accused of misusing department resources to make a larger profit off a textbook he had authored. He was asked to resign but refused to do so. Ryan brought suit alleging that the defendants retaliated against him for asserting his due process and First Amendment rights after he refused to resign.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Ryan’s claim. Ryan’s due process rights were not violated; a faculty committee conducted an investigation into his conduct and made its recommendation not to terminate Ryan’s employment. A statement to the press by the University’s provost was not sufficiently chilling that it would deter a person of ordinary firmness from refusing to resign, and cannot be considered retaliation. Ryan failed to state a claim for First Amendment retaliation because the facts alleged do not implicate a matter of public concern. Furthermore, because Ryan failed to allege a violation of a clearly established constitutional right, he is not able to overcome qualified immunity. View "Ryan v. Blackwell" on Justia Law

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Williamson County District Attorney Helper told other officials that she distrusted Fairview Police officers Stockdale and Dunning and that she would not “take their cases.” Helper wrote to the city manager (Collins): “per our discussion, this Office has concerns about reports initiated/investigated solely by” Dunning or Stockdale and that defense counsel would be entitled to a copy of an earlier investigation report concerning the officers. Helper stated, “[w]ithout independent corroboration from another law enforcement officer and/or independent witness, the[ir] testimony . . . may be impeached.” Collins disputed Helper’s assessment but Helper refused to back down. Collins fired the officers, explaining the email provided the “sole reason.”Stockdale and Dunning sued. They settled their claims against the city, leaving a First Amendment claim and state law claims against Helper. The district court denied Helper’s claim of absolute immunity and her claim for qualified immunity from the federal First Amendment retaliation claim. It also denied her summary judgment with respect to state law claims for official oppression and tortious interference with a business relationship. The Sixth Circuit affirmed in part. Because Helper’s actions were not closely tied to the judicial process, absolute immunity does not apply; because her conduct did not violate any clearly established law, qualified immunity protects her. View "Stockdale v. Helper" on Justia Law

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Troutman, a daily user of heroin and methamphetamine, committed suicide in pretrial detention after LMDC jail officials placed him in solitary confinement despite a recent suicide attempt while in LMDC custody. A medical screening had indicated signs of depression; he had attempted suicide three to four times in the past and was “currently thinking about suicide.” Troutman had experienced a traumatic brain injury the prior year which left him in a coma for nine days, He told medical staff “I’m not good at all, I’m dying!”In an action under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs, the Sixth Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of Cox, the LMDC classification officer, but affirmed summary judgment in favor of LMDC director Bolton and Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government.Troutman objectively “exhibited suicidal tendencies” and other risk factors. A reasonable jury could find that Cox was subjectively aware of the substantial risk if Troutman was placed in solitary confinement. Cox’s argument that he reasonably relied on the medical judgment that Charles no longer presented a suicide risk does not make summary judgment appropriate. Claims that Bolton inadequately performed his duties are insufficient for section 1983 supervisory liability. It is plausible that the municipality was negligent in enforcing its policies, but deliberate indifference remains distinct from mere negligence. View "Troutman v. Louisville Metropolitan Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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In 1997, Gatewood was convicted of two counts of kidnapping and one count of robbery affecting interstate commerce. The court determined that Gatewood’s four prior Arkansas robbery convictions qualified as serious violent felonies and imposed a life sentence under 18 U.S.C. 3559(c), the federal three-strikes statute.In 2016, Gatewood moved to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. 2255, arguing that his robbery convictions had been deemed serious violent felonies only under the residual clause. The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) residual clause had been found unconstitutionally vague in the Supreme Court’s 2015 “Johnson” decision. Gatewood filed his motion within a year of Johnson. The government argued that Johnson could not render the motion timely because it applied only to ACCA. The government also argued procedural default. The Supreme Court decided “Davis” in 2019, finding the 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(3)(B) residual clause, which is nearly identical to the three-strikes residual clause, unconstitutionally vague.The district court denied Gatewood’s motion. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. While the government concedes that Gatewood’s motion was timely in light of Davis, Gatewood procedurally defaulted the vagueness claim by failing to raise it on direct review. Gatewood cannot establish cause by showing that his claim cut against circuit precedent at the time of his appeal. From Gatewood’s sentencing to the 2002 conclusion of his appeal, the tools to construct his present vagueness claim existed; no Supreme Court precedent foreclosed it. View "Gatewood v. United States" on Justia Law

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On July 24, 2020, the district court denied Payton’s motion for compassionate release or a reduction of his sentence under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A). A notice of appeal, dated August 9, was filed in the district court on August 10. A defendant’s notice of appeal in a criminal case must be filed in the district court no later than 14 days after the challenged judgment or order is entered. Fed. R. App. P. 4(b)(1)(A). A section 3582(c) motion is a continuation of the criminal proceedings, so the 14-day deadline applies. Rule 4(b)(1)(A)'s deadline is not jurisdictional but is a claims-processing rule; the government can waive an objection to an untimely notice. If the government raises the issue of timeliness, the court must enforce the time limits.In response to the government’s motion to dismiss, Payton asserted that the prison has been “on an institution-wide lockdown and getting copies in this environment is problematic” and argued excusable neglect. Rule 4(b)(4) authorizes the district court to extend the time for filing an appeal for up to 30 days if the court finds “good cause” or “excusable neglect.” The Sixth Circuit remanded for the limited purpose of allowing the district court to determine whether Payton has shown excusable neglect or good cause. View "United States v. Payton" on Justia Law

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After Tennial’s mortgage company foreclosed on her home, she filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition. Her petition triggered an automatic stay of any further action against her home, allowing her to continue living there, 11 U.S.C. 362. The next year, REI bought Tennial’s home from the mortgage company and, on REI’s motion, the bankruptcy court terminated the stay on September 12, 2019. Tennial’s attorney received electronic notice of the order the same day, and the court mailed a copy to Tennial by first class mail on September 14.Under Rule 8002(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, Tennial had 14 days—through September 26—to appeal the order. Tennial filed her notice of appeal on October 9. At the bottom of her notice, she wrote, “I did not receive a copy of the order until September 26, 2019, via U.S. Postal Service.” The court dismissed, concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to review the order because Tennial waited too long to file the appeal and failed to move for an extension under Bankruptcy Rule 8002(d).The Sixth Circuit affirmed. While the deadline does not create a limitation on subject matter jurisdiction, Tennial missed the deadline and the deadline is mandatory. View "Tennial v. REI Nation, LLC" on Justia Law