Articles Posted in Appeals

Here we go again, another federal criminal case which on appeal goes to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit here in Atlanta, and that court rejects the Defendant because the specific argument was not brought up in the trial court. We have written about this issue many times, the need for lawyers to anticipate issues and, more importantly, the need to “object” or ” preserve” that issue.  An opinion issued yesterday in the Eleventh Circuit reminds me about this whole area,  in which the appellate court basically kicks the Defendant out of court because a good issue she raised on appeal was never mentioned during the trial itself.  The case is United States v. Leon, and can be accessed here.

Ms. Leon was charged with a series of crimes arising out of an “investment” offering. Apparently, she was was the assistant for the head of the investment company.  At his direction, she made a series of cash withdrawals from the company bank account, all in amounts below $10,000.  However, on several days she made multiple withdrawals, and the aggregate amount of cash removed from the bank on those days exceeded $10,000.

Many readers of our little blog know about the rule that requires financial institutions (as well as lawyers) to file a “CTR” if they engage in any financial transaction involving more than $10,000 in cash for a person or institution in a single day.  There are loads of different statutes in this area.  In Ms. Leon’s case, the prosecutors charged her with the specific sub-section of a statute that makes it a crime to cause (or attempt to cause) a financial institution to NOT file the CTR.  A separate sub-section of that same statute involves the crime of “structuring”, which is the very similar but slightly different crime of breaking up transactions into increments below $10,000 with the goal of avoiding the filing of the CTR.  I know, they sound incredibly similar, but they are in fact different.

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People who are trying to get their criminal conviction reversed or overturned often contact us at our criminal defense firm here in Atlanta.  Sometimes, they are trying to help a friend or loved one.  Often, the people who contact us are a little confused about the appellate process and how we prepare the written Brief for the appellate courts.  I am currently working on appeals in both the Georgia Court of Appeals and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  Working on these two matters made me realize that I often spend a lot of time explaining the process or procedures to the folks calling our firm, and this realization made me wish that their original lawyers took the time to explain it all to the family or friends of the person who got convicted of a crime.

To begin with, many people think that when they appeal their case they get to argue all over again as to whether they are guilty of a particular crime.  For the most part, this is not true.  An appellate court does not decide guilty/not guilty.  Instead, a court of appeals mostly decides whether the process that led up to the guilty verdict was fair.  There are some cases where we raise what is called the “sufficiency of the evidence.”  In these cases, we are NOT claiming that the jury was “wrong.” Instead, in this type of appeal we are claiming that the trial judge was wrong for even letting the jury make a decision, because the evidence was legally insufficient.  This might seem like the same thing, but it is significantly different.  The important thing to remember is that appeals for the most part focus on whether the trial judge (or prosecutor, or defense lawyer) did his or her job correctly.

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Yesterday the Court of Appeals here in Atlanta reversed a federal criminal conviction in a mortgage fraud case.  The Defendant was in the middle of testifying in his own defense.  During two overnight recesses, the trial judge told the Defendant he could not speak with “anyone” about his testimony, and could only talk with his lawyer about his “constitutional rights.”  The Court of Appeals, relying on a series of earlier decisions, decided that this prohibition against speaking with the Defendant’s own attorney amounted to a violation of the Sixth Amendment’s promise that a person may consult with counsel during a criminal case. The case is United States v. Cavallo, and can be found here.

A  man named Streinz was one of the Defendants in a large mortgage fraud prosecution in the Middle District of Florida.  Streinz and his lawyer informed the trial judge that Streinz would be testifying on his own behalf.  Just before he testified, the attorney turned over some late materials that Streinz said he had just found in his home office, materials that impacted his testimony.  The trial judge apparently smelled a bit of a rat, and directed that the prosecutor and federal agents go to the home office with Streinz and his attorney in order to sort out the documents.  Streinz became outraged during this process, claiming that the agents were seizing excessive materials.

The next day Streinz began his testimony.  As the trial recessed at the end of the day, the court instructed Streinz that he could not discuss his testimony with “anyone,” but that he could talk to his lawyer about his “constitutional rights.” The court did not, however, explain what that phrase might mean.

All lawyers must deal with rules, whether practicing mostly in Atlanta and Georgia like our firm, or in any other part of the country. Most rules are made by the legislature, but sometimes, judges themselves get to make rules. These judge-made rules control the procedure or process of how a particular case works through the court system. Today, the United States Supreme Court refused to take a case that shows that sometimes these judge-made rules can allow judges to avoid justice. The discussion of the case noting the refusal to hear the matter is found here.

The case involves a man named Patrick Henry Joseph (you’d think the courts would be reluctant to be unfair with someone with such a grand history behind his first two names). Mr. Joseph was convicted of several drug offenses. Using the well-known Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the trial judge imposed a lengthy sentence after deciding that Mr. Joseph was a “career offender.” Joseph’s very able Public Defender then appealed his case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. So far, so good.
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This past Wednesday some federal criminal defense attorneys won a case in the United States Supreme Court when they convinced the Justices that they had the better interpretation of the part of a law that increased their client’s sentence if “death results” from something he did. I previously posted about the case here. The case issued on Wednesday is Burrage v. United States, and can be read here.

The case revolves around a federal statute that requires a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for a person dealing drugs “if death results.” Mr. Burrage was charged with selling heroin to a man who died after a drug binge involving multiple illegal substances. The jury would have to decide if the heroin sold by the Defendant to the victim caused the man’s death. Mr. Burrage’s lawyers wanted the judge to tell the jury that they would need to find that selling heroin “played a substantial part” in bringing about the death, and that the death was a “direct result of or a reasonably probable consequence of” using the heroin. The trial judge and the court of appeals rejected the Defendant’s contentions, and said it was OK to tell the jury that it was enough if they decided that the heroin was a “contributing cause” of the victim’s death. The instruction told the jury that “a contributing cause is a factor that, although not the primary cause, played a part in the death[.]” The jury found Burrage guilty, and the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
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We do lots of criminal appeals, both in Federal Court and in the Georgia State Courts. On occasion, we ask the judge to allow our client to remain free on bail, or bond, while the case is appealed to a higher court. This is kind of tricky, in that the attorney must be well-versed in the intricacies of the Bail Reform Act, a 1984 law that kind of flipped the playing field when it comes to having a defendant released on bail. Perhaps even more tricky is the question of when the case usually calls for no bail, can the lawyer get around that by a part of the law that seems to permit release on bond if the case involves “exceptional reasons.” Beyond that is the question of who decides whether the Defendant’s case involves “exceptional reasons: the trial judge or the court of appeals itself? An opinion issued earlier today by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit answers that question once and for all in federal cases arising in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. In cases that fall into the category of no bail during the appeals process, it is the district judge gets to first decide whether the case involves “exceptional reasons”, and thus can still let the Defendant stay out on bail. the case is United States v.Meister, and can be found here.

Meister was sentenced for having child pornography. His lawyers asked that be be permitted to remain on bond during the appeals process. The Bail Reform Act denies release for Defendants who appeal certain serious crimes. Defendants who violate the child pornography laws are thus prohibited from remaining on bail during appeal.
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As any reader of this blog knows, I am a big fan of good, aggressive and persistent criminal defense lawyers. I have had the chance to practice and observe many great criminal defense lawyers, here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia, and in other parts of the country when my work takes me to places like Florida, Alabama, New York and California. I especially like it when criminal defense lawyers “stay the course”, and continue pressing the same argument over the years until they finally prevail. Precisely that situation took place this past Monday when the United States Supreme Court overruled Harris v. United States. What happened was that the Court finally changed its mind, and decided that mandatory minimum sentences are not excluded from the rule first announced in New Jersey v. Apprendi. The case from this Monday is Alleyne v. United States, and can be found here. I previously posted on this issue here.

Mr. Alleyne’s Public Defenders were just such persistent and aggressive criminal defense attorneys. They objected to the sentencing judge’s ruling, which was correct at the time it was made. They continued their objection all the way to the Supreme Court, which agreed with them Monday and changed that rule. Here’s how it happened.
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Sitting here in Atlanta, I really like when I find out about bright, energetic lawyers handling federal criminal cases all around the country. One such case is Burrage v. United States, where this past Tuesday the United States Supreme Court agreed to review important questions as to what it means when “death results” from drug dealing. To many lawyers and others in this field, it might seem that a case like this only really matters to folks defending drug cases. However, this is an important appeal on issues related to causation, the appropriateness of jury instructions, and construing federal statutes.

Mr. Burrage was like too many folks, caught up in the drug business, selling relatively small amounts of controlled substances. His life intersected with Joshua Banka, another lost soul who was a long-standing poly-substance abuser. Burrage sold some heroin to Banka, who died after using some of the drug. Banka had lots of other drugs in his system as well, and his girlfriend acknowledged he’d used some of these other drugs in the day before he died. The experts who testified at trial gave complex answers about the cause of Banka’s death, but they could not say that Banka would not have died if he had not used heroin (this method of saying the word “not” three times in the same sentence appears in the briefs for each side of the case).
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Like our federal cases here in Atlanta and throughout the country, it is important to keep in mind how a federal sentencing hearing takes place. The various phases of the federal sentencing process require the Defendant’s attorney to not only know the law, but also to know the procedure, so that “objections” are properly preserved. A decision issued today by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit makes this point. In that case, the attorney properly objected, thus preserving the issue for appeal. In the Court of Appeals, the Defendant raised the same argument, and the appellate tribunal agreed. The result is a lower sentence for the Defendant. The case is United States v. Washington.

Mr. Washington was charged in a large fraud scheme involving banks and credit card customers. He pled guilty. As a result, the United States Probation Officer prepared the very important document called the “Presentence Investigation Report”, which is often called the “PSR”. The PSR has two major parts, one of which is sort of a miniature biography of the Defendant. The second part of the PSR is where the probation officer makes some recommendations as to how the complex Federal Sentencing Guidelines should apply.
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Hallelujiah! The Supreme Court yesterday continued its recent string of protecting all of our rights by reinvigorating the reach of the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that police need a search warrant to get incriminating evidence from a suspect. Yesterday’s case involved the forcible removal of blood from a drunk driving suspect. By an 8-1 margin the Court held that getting the blood without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. The case is Missouri v. McNeely.

In the early-morning hours of Oct. 3, 2010, Missouri State Highway Patrol Cpl. Mark Winder pulled over Tyler G. McNeely. McNeely, whose speech was slurred and who had alcohol on his breath, failed a field sobriety test and twice refused to take a breath test.
Winder arrested McNeely. While en route to the jail, the officer stopped by a hospital. McNeely refused to submit to a blood test. Officer Winder then ordered a technician to draw blood anyway. The officer later said he did not try and get a warrant because he thought Missouri law did not require it.
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