Monday, January 31, 2011


Washington State Supreme Court:

State v. Irby: The Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision to reverse Mr. Irby’s convictions for first degree murder with aggravating circumstances, first degree felony murder, and first degree burglary. The Court concluded that the trial court violated Mr. Irby’s rights under both the federal and state constitutions to be present at trial by conducting a portion of the jury selection process by e-mail in Mr. Irby’s absence. The Court further found that this error was not harmless.

In her dissent, Chief Justice Madsen, joined by Justices Charles Johnson, James Johnson, and Fairhurst, argued that the majority treats the “routine process” used for excusing several potential jurors as a critical stage of the trial. Instead, the dissent argued, the majority should have recognized that the trial court has broad discretion to excuse jurors for a range of reasons not pertaining to Mr. Irby’s case, and the distinction should have been made between excusing jurors for reasons not pertaining to Mr. Irby’s case and those relevant to his case. Further, the dissent argued that the fact Mr. Irby was not present for discussions between the court and counsel regarding whether to excuse jurors for reasons related to Mr. Irby’s case did not affect his ability to prepare for his defense, as a defendant’s right to be present at jury selection exists only if his presence would substantially relate to his ability to defend himself. Finally, the dissent argued that to the extent any juror was released for reasons related to the circumstances of Mr. Irby's trial, none of these potential jurors sat on Irby's jury. Therefore, if any error occurred in releasing these jurors, it was harmless error.

Division One Court of Appeals:

Personal Restraint of Heidari: The Court granted Mr. Heidari’s PRP, accepting the State’s concession that there was insufficient evidence as a matter of law to support his conviction for child molestation in the second degree and that there was a sentencing error on the conviction for rape of a child in the first degree. The Court declined, however, to grant the State’s request to remand for entry of judgment on the lesser included offense of attempted child molestation, holding that a remand for resentencing on the lesser included crime of attempt is precluded where the jury is not instructed on that crime.

Division Three Court of Appeals:

State v. Acevedo: The court affirmed the trial court’s refusal to overturn Mr. Acevedo’s conviction for possession of a stolen motor vehicle, holding that a vehicle does not have to be operable or, indeed complete – this “vehicle” was purchased without a motor or transmission – to satisfy the elements of this crime. However, the Court found that the trial court improperly ordered restitution for the full value of the vehicle in its undamaged condition because that level of restitution appears unrelated to the crime for which Mr. Acevedo was convicted. The Court further held that the prohibition in Mr. Acevedo’s sentence against possession of deadly weapons was not crime related or authorized by statute, and remanded for resentencing and the setting of a modified restitution amount.

Personal Restraint of Benavidez: The Court dismissed Mr. Benavidez’ PRP, finding meritless his contention that the amended information failed to notify him that he faced a firearm enhancement. The Court noted that the information advised Mr. Benavidez that he was charged with a crime and armed with a firearm while committing the crime, and that the information further cited the deadly weapon special verdict statute, all of which placed Mr. Benavidez on notice that he was charged with a deadly weapon enhancement. The court ruled that the judgment and sentence were facially valid, and the petition untimely and frivolous.

State v. Smith: The Court affirmed the trial court’s modification of Mr. Smith’s sentence, finding such modification was appropriate when the sentence had originally included partial confinement, which option had been eliminated due to budget reductions. The Court found that this constituted an extraordinary circumstance that could not have been anticipated at the time of sentencing. The Court reasoned that the sentencing judge made clear that the partial confinement aspect was an important part of the sentence he had imposed, and a fundamental underpinning of the judge’s sentencing decision was changed and his sentencing objective thereby undermined.

Federal Law

United States Supreme Court:

Swarthout v. Cooke: Mr. Cooke was sentenced by a California court to an indeterminate term of seven years to life after he was convicted of attempted first degree murder in 1991. He filed the instant writ of habeas corpus after the parole board determined in November 2002 that he was ineligible for parole based on the “especially cruel and callous manner” of his commitment offense his failure to participate fully in rehabilitative programs; his failure to develop marketable skills; and three incidents of misconduct while in prison. The board further dismissed Mr. Cooke’s favorable psychological report as not credible because it included several inconsistent and erroneous statements. His co-respondent in this petition, Mr. Clay, who had been convicted of first-degree murder in 1978, was in fact approved for parole in 2003, but that decision by the parole board was reversed by the governor. The governor cited the gravity of Mr. Clay’s crime, his extensive criminal history, his failure to participate fully in self-help programs, and his unrealistic plans for employment and housing after being paroled, which increased his chances of recidivism. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed both decisions, finding that there was insufficient evidence to support the denial in both cases. In a Per Curiam opinion, the Supreme Court denied certiorari, but reversed the Ninth Circuit, finding that the Court misapplied the law in its holding. The court observed that a federal court may issue a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner “only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States,” which was not the case here. The Court further observed that, though Mr. Cook and Mr. Clay were deprived of a liberty interest, the procedures followed by the State were constitutionally sufficient. However, rather than stopping its inquiry at that point, the Ninth Circuit, the Court reasoned, had reviewed the state courts’ decisions on the merits. “The short of the matter,” the Court concluded, “is that the responsibility for assuring that the constitutionally adequate procedures governing California’s parole system are properly applied rests with California courts, and is no part of the Ninth Circuit’s business.

In her concurrence, Justice Ginsberg pointed out that California only requires “some evidence,” to support a parole denial, unlike other states, which require prisoners to meet specified criteria. The concurrence therefore agreed with the majority decision.

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals:

United States v Munoz-Camarena: The court withdrew its September 3, 2010 opinion in this case and granted Mr. Munoz-Camarena’s petition for re-hearing in part. Specifically, the Court ordered the district court to re-calculate Mr. Munoz-Camarena’s sentence in light of the intervening United States Supreme Court holding in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, which casts doubt on the district court’s calculation of the recommended Guidelines sentence in this case. The court found that the district court should have applied a four-level enhancement rather than an eight-level enhancement that was applied for an aggravated felony, as the prior convictions do not constitute aggravated felonies.

United States v. Lichtenberg: The court affirmed Mr. Lichtenberg’s 112-month sentence for wire fraud, money laundering, and making a false statement in connection with a passport application. The Court found that the above-Guidelines sentence properly took into account facts of a different nature than those required for an enhancement under the Guidelines. The court also found that the district court identified a need for a lengthy sentence to prevent Mr. Lichtenberg from profiting from the crime by moving outside the United States to live comfortably off the money he had stolen, much of which had not been recovered. The Court finally found meritless Mr. Lichtenberg’s argument that the sentence was above and beyond that normally imposed for similar crimes.

United States v. Leyva-Martinez: The Court affirmed Mr. Leyva-Martinez’ 70-month sentence for illegal re-entry after deportation. The Court deemed proper the 16-level sentencing enhancement, finding that his prior conviction for inflicting corporal injury on a spouse or co-habitant is plainly a crime of violence. The Court further ruled that Almendarez-Torres v. United States, which permits enhancement based on the existence of a prior felony, has never been overruled by the Supreme Court, and Mr. Leyva-Martinez’ prior convictions need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

United States v. Jenkins: The Court upheld Mr. Jenkins’ and co-defendant Mr. Gentry’s convictions on multiple counts of securities fraud, wire fraud, international concealment money laundering, concealment money laundering, transactional money laundering, as well as one count of tax evasion and conspiracy to defraud the United States and commit wire fraud, securities fraud, and mail fraud. The Court found that the statute of limitations had not expired before the indictment was filed, that there was sufficient evidence to support the convictions on all counts, that the jury’s instructions on money laundering were proper, and that the district court did not err at sentencing in calculating the amount of loss and number of victims. The Court further found that Mr. Jenkins’s sentence was reasonable, and that the district court properly denied Mr. Gentry’s motion to sever his trial from Mr. Jenkins’, and that the district court properly denied Mr. Gentry’s motion for additional cross-examination of a government witness.

United States v. Carothers: The Court found that neither the Double Jeopardy Clause nor Mr. Carothers’ decision to elect a Jackson instruction on the lesser included offense of simple possession posed a barrier to a retrial of Mr. Carothers for possession with intent to distribute. The district court’s error in the verdict form that did not allow the jury to report its unanimous verdict on simple possession along with its deadlock on intent to distribute in this case was compounded when the court ordered a mistrial on both the greater offense and the lesser included and, when it realized the error, dismissed the indictment concluding that Jackson and Double Jeopardy barred re-trial. The court reversed on the government’s motion and remanded for a new trial.

United States v. Gonzalez-Diaz: The Court affirmed Mr. Gonzalez-Diaz’ conviction for being found in the United States, ruling that the fact that Mr. Gonzalez-Diaz entered Canada a day before he was “found” in this country, and was in the company of the authorities upon re-entry did not bar his prosecution for this offense. The Court reasoned that Mr. Gonzalez-Diaz never legally entered Canada, and was in custody the entire time he was on Canadian soil. Therefore, the Court concluded, he remained in the United States until found there on the date of his arrest. Because Mr. Gonzalez-Diaz was not entering the United States from a foreign country, the Court held, the official restraint doctrine does not apply.

United States v. Burgum: The Court vacated Mr. Burgum’s 180-month sentence following his guilty plea to two counts of armed bank robbery. The Court found that the district court’s sentence was not improperly based on the statutory maximum and was not substantively unreasonable. However, the Court found that the district court relied on Mr. Burgum’s inability to pay restitution as an aggravating factor in imposing the sentence, an action that constituted plain error affecting substantial rights that compromised the fairness and integrity of the sentencing hearing.

Judge O’Scannlain dissented, arguing that when viewed in the context of the sentencing as a whole, it was clear that the district court judge upwardly departed from the sentencing guidelines because of the violent nature of the robberies of which Mr. Burgum was convicted, and that the judge’s reference to unlikely restitution “was an incidental observation that did not affect the sentence.”
United States v. Potter: The Court affirmed Mr. Potter’s conviction for possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking. The Court found that the statute was not unconstitutional on its face or as applied, and does not violate the Second Amendment. In so holding, the Court reasoned that the personal right to bear arms in one’s home extends only to the lawful possession and use of a firearm, not the unlawful use of such a weapon in furtherance of drug trafficking.