Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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In 1995, firefighters responded to a fire at a house where Brown, age 17, lived with family members. Three firefighters died when a staircase collapsed. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) opened an arson investigation and offered a $15,000 reward. Wright’s testimony undermined Brown’s alibi. Abdullah testified that Brown later confessed that he had started the fire. The prosecution’s witnesses denied receiving payment or having been promised payment in exchange for their testimony. The state court jury convicted Brown, who was sentenced to three consecutive terms of life imprisonment.Brown filed unsuccessful post-sentence motions concerning payment to witnesses. In 2001, Brown unsuccessfully sought federal habeas relief. Years later, Brown filed a petition under Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), alleging newly-discovered evidence based on an expert opinion about the cause of the fire. In response to an FOIA request, ATF provided canceled checks showing it had made payments of $5,000 and $10,000 in 1998 relating to the fire. Abdullah acknowledged receiving $5,000 from ATF after Brown’s trial; Wright acknowledged receiving $10,000. The PCRA court found that Brown’s claims about the prosecution’s nondisclosure of the witnesses’ rewards satisfied exceptions to the PCRA’s time-bar and granted Brown a new trial.Meanwhile, a federal grand jury indicted Brown for the destruction of property by fire resulting in death, 18 U.S.C. 844(i). The state court dismissed the state charges. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of a motion to dismiss the federal indictment. Retrying a defendant because the conviction was reversed for trial error is not second jeopardy. The court declined to consider an exception to the dual sovereignty doctrine, under which a state crime is not “the same offense” as a federal crime, even if for the same conduct. View "United States v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Peroza-Benitez awoke, hearing Reading Police Officers breaking down his apartment door. They were executing a search warrant related to suspected drug offenses. Peroza-Benitez climbed out of his window onto the roof wearing undergarments and flip flops and led officers on a rooftop chase. Officer Smith radioed that Peroza-Benitez had a firearm. Peroza-Benitez apparently dropped the firearm, which landed in an alley. Peroza-Benitez denies having a firearm. Peroza-Benitez entered an abandoned building and attempted to escape through a window. Smith and Haser grabbed Peroza-Benitez and attempted to hoist him back inside; he resisted. Haser punched Peroza-Benitez. The officers let go. Peroza-Benitez fell and landed in a below-ground, concrete stairwell. Officers’ testimony differs as to whether Peroza-Benitez voluntarily moved upon landing. Peroza-Benitez testified that he was knocked temporarily unconscious. Officer White tased Peroza-Benitez, without providing a verbal warning. Peroza-Benitez was taken to the hospital, where he underwent surgery for arm injuries and a fractured leg.The district court rejected his 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit on summary judgment, citing qualified immunity. The Third Circuit vacated. There was a “clearly established” right for an injured, visibly unarmed suspect to be free from temporarily paralyzing force while positioned as Peroza-Benitez was. A reasonable jury could conclude that Haser “repeatedly” punched Peroza-Benitez in the head and caused him to fall, in violation of that right. Tasing a visibly unconscious person, who just fell over 10 feet onto concrete, also violates that person’s Fourth Amendment rights. View "Peroza-Benitez v. Smith" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Department of General Services (DGS) solicited bids for a Shenango Township Youth Development Center, closed since 2013. HIRA, a consultant for Islamic educational groups, submitted the highest bid, $400,000, planning to establish a youth intervention center and Islamic boarding school. DGS and HIRA entered into a contract. Legislators sent a letter to Governor Wolf, claiming HIRA was not in a financial position to turn the property into an economic driver, that New Jersey had revoked HIRA’s corporate status, that HIRA reported low income, that HIRA had not returned their phone calls, and that contract paperwork remained incomplete. When Governor Wolf did not act, the Legislators spoke with the press and at a community meeting where some participants made comments about Muslims. Lawrence County opened a criminal investigation into the bidding process. The Legislators tried, unsuccessfully, to pass a law divesting DGS of authority to sell the property, then tried to persuade DGS to halt the sale. Shenango Township rezoned the property.The sale fell through. DGS solicited new bids. HIRA offered $500,000; another group offered $2,000,000. Legislators promised to ensure the new purchaser secured funding. HIRA sued the officials, including the Legislators in their individual capacities, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act, and 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court denied the Legislators’ motions to dismiss. The Third Circuit reversed in part. Whether HIRA alleged conduct outside the sphere of legitimate legislative activities or that violates clearly established law is a question of law over which it had jurisdiction. Some of the allegations concerned “quintessentially legislative activities” for purposes of absolute immunity. Other allegations fell “well short of showing that the rights [HIRA] seeks to vindicate here were clearly established” for purposes of qualified immunity. View "HIRA Educational Services North America v. Augustine" on Justia Law

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Gibbs applied to be a Pittsburgh policeman, passed the written test, and got a conditional job offer. He had to “[b]e personally examined by a Pennsylvania licensed psychologist and found to be psychologically capable [of] exercis[ing] appropriate judgment or restraint in performing the duties of a police officer.” Three psychologists interviewed him; two said he was unfit to serve. Gibbs claims that once they learned of his ADHD diagnosis, they reflexively rejected him without exploring whether his ADHD would interfere with the job. He alleges that his ADHD was under control: Five other police departments have found him mentally fit. He has never misbehaved as a police officer or as a Marine. Gibbs misbehaved as a child before he was treated for ADHD. Gibbs claims that Pittsburgh hired other applicants with similar childhood issues not caused by ADHD. Gibbs sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.The Third Circuit reversed the dismissal of his claims. Governments have a right to ensure that their policemen are mentally fit but they may not use psychological testing as a cover to discriminate. Gibbs has plausibly alleged that the psychologists discriminated against him; the city cannot avoid liability by labeling the psychologists’ approval as a job qualification. View "Gibbs v. City of Pittsburgh" on Justia Law

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Bracey was convicted of murder in 1995. The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Plummer, an alleged eyewitness, and Bell, who claimed Bracey had confessed to him. At trial, both acknowledged that they had received favorable plea agreements in exchange for their testimony. Bracey's appeal and state habeas petitions were unsuccessful. In 2010, Bracey learned the Commonwealth had disclosed only some of the cases that were pending against Plummer and Bell. State courts rejected Bracey's petition under Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act as time-barred; the factual basis of the claim could have “been ascertained [earlier] by the exercise of due diligence.” The district court dismissed Bracey's 2011 federal habeas petition as untimely under 28 U.S.C. 2244(d)(1)(D), reasoning that the plea agreements were public records; Brace filed his petition more than one year after the “factual predicate” for his Brady claim “could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.” The Third Circuit denied review.Three years later, the circuit held (Dennis) that a defendant has no burden to “scavenge for hints of undisclosed Brady material” even if the material part could be found in public records. The prosecution’s “duty to disclose under Brady is absolute.” Bracey moved for reconsideration under Rule 60(b). The Third Circuit vacated a summary denial. Dennis effected a material change in Circuit law. A defendant can reasonably expect—and is entitled to presume—that the government fulfilled its Brady obligations because the prosecution’s duty to disclose in no way hinges on defense efforts. View "Bracey v. Superintendent Rockview SCI" on Justia Law

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When LaSpina began working for the Scranton Public Library, all Library employees were exclusively represented in collective bargaining by Local 668. No employee had to join the Union; an employee could join and pay full membership dues or decline to join and pay a lesser nonmember “fair-share fee.” LaSpina joined the Union. In 2018, the Supreme Court held, in "Janus," that compelling nonmembers to pay fair-share fees violates their First Amendment associational rights. LaSpina resigned from the Union and sued, seeking monetary, injunctive, and declaratory relief, including a refund of the portion of the dues she paid the Union equal to the nonmembers’ fair-share fees, and a refund of membership dues deducted from her paycheck after she resigned.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the claims. LaSpina had no standing to seek a refund of any portion of the dues she made prior to Janus because she cannot tie the payment of those dues to the Union’s unconstitutional deduction of fair-share fees from nonmembers. If LaSpina is due a refund of monies that were deducted from her wages after she resigned, the claim is not a federal one. LaSpina’s claim that the Union may not collect any dues from an employee until that employee knowingly and freely waives their constitutional right to resign from membership and withhold payments is moot as LaSpina no longer is a Union member. View "LaSpina v. SEIU Pennsylvania State Council" on Justia Law

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On February 24, 2003, Diodati arrived at work, unlocked the store, and entered. Someone behind her “pushed his way inside," and told her to turn off the alarm. Diodati did so. The masked intruder demanded money from the safe. Diodati handed him envelopes containing money; he set down a folder that he had been carrying and a gun. When the robber stood up, he picked up the gun but left the folder, and told her to go to the second safe, which was in her office. Taking about $7,000, the intruder went out the back and into to a running automobile. Detective Godlewski processed for fingerprints on the counter, the door that the robber tore partially off its hinges, and the Manila left by the intruder. Some prints belonged to Travillion, who was found guilty of the robbery and sentenced to a mandatory 10-20 years' imprisonment, consecutive to the separate sentence of life without the possibility of parole that he was serving as a result of a separate 2006 second-degree murder conviction.The Third Circuit granted Travillion habeas relief, finding that the Pennsylvania court’s adjudication of his insufficient evidence claim involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. Evidence that Travillion’s fingerprints were found on the easily movable folder and paper inside the folder and Diodati's description of the robber, which did not match Travillion but did not exclude him is not sufficient evidence for a rational trier of fact to place Travillion at the scene of the crime when the crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt. View "Travillion v. Superintendent Rockview SCI" on Justia Law

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In 2001, Penn State’s former president, Spanier, and others decided not to report to state authorities suspected sexual abuse of children involving the school’s football program and Jerry Sandusky, the well-known defensive coordinator for Penn State’s football team. In 2007, Pennsylvania amended the statutory definition of child endangerment and its statute of limitations. In 2012, Spanier was charged. The jury was instructed in language that tracked the post-amendment statute. The Commonwealth argued that Spanier engaged in a course of conduct endangering child welfare until 2012, and therefore he “was charged well within the applicable statute of limitation.” In affirming Spanier’s 2017 conviction, the state court concluded that Spanier's conduct violated the 1995 statute as interpreted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2015. The federal district court granted Spanier’s federal habeas corpus petition and vacated his conviction.The Third Circuit reversed. The Pennsylvania court’s affirmance of Spanier’s conviction, based on its conclusion that his conduct was covered by the 1995 statute was not “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” While that court applied state supreme court precedent post-dating the conduct in question, the supreme court’s interpretation of the statute was not unforeseeable nor indefensible. View "Spanier v. Director Dauphin County Probation Services" on Justia Law

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In 2011, Folajtar pled guilty to a federal felony: willfully making a materially false statement on her tax returns, which is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $100,000, 26 U.S.C. 7206(1). She was sentenced to three years’ probation, including three months of home confinement, a $10,000 fine, and a $100 assessment. She also paid the IRS over $250,000 in back taxes, penalties, and interest. Folajtar was then subject to 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), which prohibits those convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison from possessing firearms.Folajtar sued, asserting that applying section 922(g)(1) to her violated her Second Amendment right to possess firearms. The district court dismissed, finding that Folajtar did not state a plausible Second Amendment claim because she was convicted of a serious crime. The Third Circuit affirmed, noting the general rule that laws restricting firearm possession by convicted felons are valid. There is no reason to deviate from this long-standing prohibition in the context of tax fraud. View "Folajtar v. Attorney General of the United States" on Justia Law

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On December 24, 1982, Philadelphia police officers found Allen lying in his blood between cars. The police found no other physical evidence relating to Allen's death. Howell was arrested. At the preliminary hearing, Parnell testified that on the night of the murder, he saw Howell pull out a gun, shoot Allen, and take his watch and wallet. Parnell did not testify at trial. Hearst and Jones testified to hearing the shot, running to the scene, and seeing a man with a gun running away. Hearst identified Howell; Jones described his clothing. Workman testified that he had been smoking marijuana with Parnell and Howell when Howell spotted Allen, said “I’m going to get him,” confronted Allen, and shot him. On cross-examination, Workman admitted he had lied in his original statement. Williams testified that the next morning, Howell visited her, told her that he had shot someone, and he showed her the gun and Allen's ring.Williams, Hearst, and Jones later recanted; Parnell confessed to Allen’s murder. Howell claimed actual innocence. The district court ruled that the recantations were categorically unreliable and not an appropriate basis for habeas relief. The Third Circuit vacated the dismissal of Howell’s petition. Although recantations are generally looked upon with suspicion, they are not subject to a categorical rejection; these recantations cast significant doubt on Howell’s conviction, particularly when considered together with Parnell’s confession. Although the hurdle for actual-innocence relief on an otherwise time-barred habeas claim is high, it is possible that Howell can clear it. View "Howell v. Superintendent Albion SCI" on Justia Law