Sneed: Eleventh Circuit Holds Sentencing Courts May Not Rely on Police Reports to Determine whether Prior Crimes Were Committed on Different Occasions for ACCA Purposes

March 29, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit federal appeals court decided U.S. v. Sneed. In this Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) case, the Court decided that U.S. v. Shepard, decided by the Supreme Court in 2005, abrogated the Eleventh Circuit’s 2000 decision in U.S. v. Richardson. The Court held that sentencing courts may look only to Shepard-approved material and facts to which the defendant has assented (such as undisputed facts in the PSI) in determining whether ACCA prior offenses were committed on different occasions.

As we explained in this post, the ACCA provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for federal criminal defendants who have three previous convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses. Those offenses must have been committed on temporally distinct occasions. In Sneed, the defendant had three previous drug convictions that were charged in a single indictment in Alabama. The state indictment did not provide dates or times for the offenses, so the district court looked to police reports attached to the government’s sentencing memorandum to determine that the offenses were committed on different occasions.

In 2000, the Eleventh Circuit held in Richardson that “determining whether crimes were committed on occasions different from one another requires looking at the facts underlying the prior convictions.” In that case, police reports showed that the prior crimes had been temporally distinct and their accuracy was not contested. The Eleventh Circuit relied on the police reports and concluded that the crimes were distinct.

The Supreme Court decided Shepard in 2005, holding that sentencing courts may only consult certain materials in determining the nature of a defendant’s prior convictions for purposes of ACCA. The Court expressly rejected police reports and stressed developments in the law, Jones and Apprendi in particular, addressing the constitutional concerns requiring a jury’s finding of a disputed fact about prior convictions where that fact is essential to increase a potential sentence. Shepard-approved materials include charging documents, plea agreements, transcripts of plea colloquies, findings of fact and conclusions of law from bench trials, and jury instructions and verdict forms.

The Eleventh Circuit stated that Richardson’s conclusion that courts may look to certain facts underlying prior convictions for the different occasions inquiry is still correct, but held that Shepard abrogated its approval of the use of police reports. Although Shepard addressed a different ACCA determination, the two statutory predicates (type of offense and different occasions) are contained in the same sentence. The Eleventh Circuit held that “there is simply no distinction left” between type of offense and different occasions inquiries for the scope of permissible evidence to be different in determining each statutory predicate.

The bottom line is that the defendant’s mandatory minimum 15-year sentence is tossed, although he still faces a potential max of 10 years for being a felon in possession.

The opinion in this case is available here.

Long-Term Difficulties Faced By Innocent Federal Criminal Defendants, Even After Acquittal

March 24, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Often in our business, being innocent and acquitted of a crime is not enough to remedy the harms caused by a criminal prosecution. These harms are often emotional, professional, and financial. The federal government has taken inadequate steps to alleviate the burdens that these innocent people must bear.

In 1997 Congress passed the Hyde Amendment.* This law says that when an innocent person wins against criminal charges in federal court, the defendant can sometimes get his legal bills reimbursed by the government. This is important because defending against a federal criminal case is very expensive. Lawyers who do this kind of work are often the finest in their field, and they charge fees that recognize their superior skills. The Hyde Amendment provides for the innocent person to be reimbursed only if the prosecution’s position was “frivolous” or the prosecutors acted in “bad faith.”

The recent case of J. Mark Shelnutt is a perfect example of how even the innocent must pay massive legal bills. Mr. Shelnutt is a criminal defense lawyer. Federal prosecutors love going after lawyers who do such work, and they tried to make a massive federal criminal case against Mr. Shelnutt based on the word of some drug-dealing folks whom Shelnutt had represented in the past. The federal judge threw out some of the charges and the jury acquitted Mr. Shelnutt on the remaining counts against him.

After trial, Mr. Shelnutt wanted the government to pay him back for the legal fees he had to pay to defend his case. While the judge was sympathetic, he would not order the government to do so. A Daily Report article about the judge’s ruling is here.

Mr. Shelnutt’s situation shows how dangerous it is when federal prosecutors decide to focus on someone and bring criminal charges. The truly innocent defendant suffers the toll of years of stress, heartache and damage to their professional reputation. Such an innocent man or woman also is saddled with huge legal bills, and the innocent defendant rarely gets this money back, even under the Hyde Amendment.

Our previous post on Mr. Shelnutt's money laundering case is here.

*The 1997 Hyde Amendment is unrelated to the 1976 Hyde Amendment that has recently been in the news regarding the health care debate.

Health Care Fraud Provisions in Federal Bill Passed Last Night

March 22, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

The Health Care bill that passed last night provides for additional funding to the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program (HCFAC). This program was established as a part of the Heath Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in 1996 “to combat fraud committed against all health plans, both public and private.” The HCFAC program coordinates federal, state, and local law enforcement actions with respect to health care fraud and abuse.

Section 1304 of the bill passed last night provides additional funding to the tune of $250 million between 2011 and 2016 to the HCFAC program. The HCFAC Account is funded by the Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1395i(k). It covers the costs of:
(i) prosecuting health care matters (through criminal, civil, and administrative proceedings);
(ii) investigations;
(iii) financial and performance audits of health care programs and operations;
(iv) inspections and other evaluations; and
(v) provider and consumer education regarding compliance.

Now is the time to reevaluate compliance programs and prepare for an increase in health care fraud investigations and prosecutions.

A copy of the bill is available here.
A section-by-section analysis of the bill is available here.

11th Circuit Rules That Fraud Victims Cannot Climb To The Top Of The Pile And Get More Back Than Other Victims

March 22, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has issued a ruling that deals with whether one victim of an economic crime gets to climb to the top of the heap and get more recovery out of the fraudster than the remaining victims. The Court ruled that even when such a victim can trace his money directly into a bank account used by the criminal, such a victim cannot get the money back. Instead, the money goes into the pot, so to speak, and is divided among all victims pro rata.

The case involves two common themes nowadays: Ponzi schemes and forfeiture proceedings that are part of federal criminal prosecutions. As is well known, in a Ponzi scheme, the fraudster takes money from recent investors to pay off those who invested earlier, until the whole thing collapses. Forfeiture is the process by which the government takes from a criminal defendant any money that comes from, is traceable to, or is a substitute for property that is part of the crime itself.

Altogether the defendant had defrauded about $20 million from over 90 people. Just before the defendant’s scheme was discovered, he got one final investor to put in about $2 million. Almost immediately thereafter, the authorities arrested the defendant and seized his bank accounts. The final investor’s $2 million was sitting in the defendant’s bank account. The federal authorities wanted to forfeit the $2 million in the bank account, along with other assets, in order to give the proceeds back to all 90 victims.

The final investor claimed he had a "constructive trust". In this argument, the last investor said that at the very moment the defendant accepted the final $2 million, it was owed to that last investor, and such a debt is a “superior” and “qualifying” interest under the forfeiture laws. Under such an argument, this means he would get his $2 million off the top from all property seized from the defendant.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected the equitable constructive trust argument from the final investor. The Court said that this issue is controlled by state law, and that Georgia did not recognize such a constructive trust on behalf of the final investor prior to the defendant’s arrest. Instead, the principles of equity require fairness. The Court of Appeals noted that the main idea in forfeiture proceedings is to try to get as much as possible and to treat all victims of fraud equally, so that they each get a pro rata share.

The opinion is available here.

Eleventh Circuit Holds No Expectation of Privacy in Delivered Email Messages

March 17, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Last week in Rehberg v. Paulk, the Eleventh Circuit held that sending “emails to third parties constitute[s] a voluntary relinquishment of the right to privacy in that information.” In this case, the investigators subpoenaed the emails directly from the Internet Service Provider (ISP) through which Rehberg transmitted his messages. The Court held that he did not have a valid expectation of privacy in the email information, so he failed to state a Fourth Amendment violation.

This ruling might be a dangerous precedent, for several reasons. First, the Court of Appeals says that none of us has any privacy in our emails the moment we hit the ‘send’ button. Second, this means that the government can get our otherwise private messages from every ISP we use to connect us with the outside world. This ruling represents one more step towards a lack of privacy, and in favor of the government’s ability to intrude into our lives.

The opinion in Rehberg v. Paulk is here.
A lengthy analysis by Orin Kerr on why the Eleventh Circuit got this wrong is here at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Harrington v. Richter: Cert Granted in AEDPA Ineffective Counsel Case

March 9, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Harrington v. Richter, a federal habeas corpus case out of the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit held that Richter was prejudiced by his defense lawyer’s unreasonable failure to investigate and present expert testimony on blood evidence and that the state court’s determination that he was not denied effective assistance of counsel was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

The question presented is whether the Ninth Circuit denied the state court the deference mandated by AEDPA and impermissibly enlarged the Sixth Amendment right to counsel by elevating the value of expert opinion testimony to virtually always require criminal defense attorneys to produce such testimony. In addition, the Court asked the parties to brief whether AEDPA deference applies to a state court’s summary disposition of a claim, including under the Strickland test for ineffective assistance of counsel.

The facts of this case would make for an interesting episode of CSI. Both parties agreed that two defendants, Richter and Branscombe, socialized for several hours in Johnson’s house with Johnson and Klein until 2:30 a.m., when they left but Klein decided to spend the night. The prosecution and defense presented divergent theories at trial of the events occurring later that morning, when Klein was killed and Johnson received gunshot wounds.

The central dispute between the prosecution and the defense was Klein's location at the time he was shot. Blood-spatter evidence could have confirmed either the defense’s or the prosecution’s theory of the case, but the state conducted an inadequate forensic investigation. Had Richter’s lawyer chosen to consult a forensic expert for the defense, that expert could have assisted him in evaluating the testimony of the prosecution’s experts or guided him in developing effective cross-examination of those witnesses.

The Ninth Circuit’s lengthy opinion is available here.
The briefs are available at the following links:
Petition for Writ of Certiorari
Brief in Opposition
Reply to Opposition

Bloate: Supreme Court Holds Time Granted to Criminal Defendants to Prepare Pretrial Motions is Not Automatically Excludable under Speedy Trial Act

March 8, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

This morning the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Bloate v. U.S. The Court resolved a circuit court split, holding that additional time granted to criminal defendants to prepare pretrial motions is not automatically excludable from the federal Speedy Trial Act’s 70-day limit under subsection (h)(1). The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits here in Atlanta, previously held the opposite, so this decision marks a change in the law of this circuit. We explained the issues in this case and the Eleventh Circuit case in this post last year.

The government argued that defendants could “lay a trap” for judges by requesting time to prepare motions. The Court noted that a district court judge may still exclude such time from the Speedy Trial Act under subsection (h)(7) if it finds “that the ends of justice served by [a continuance for time to prepare pretrial motions] outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial.” The judge need only place these reasons on the record.

The Speedy Trial Act is available here.
The Court’s opinion is available here. The majority was written by Justice Thomas. Justice Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion and Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Breyer joined.