Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Tenth Circuit US v. Rutland 11-8049

Decision here.

   In this case, Rutland (a tweaker) robbed a meth dealer at his home.  During the robbery, the dealer sustained injuries which prevented him from working for two months.  Rutland was convicted in federal court under the Hobbs act, which makes it a crime to interfere with interstate commerce by threats or violence.  The idea is that even though selling meth is illegal, it's still commerce (and since the dealer's source was in another state, it's interstate commerce).

   I'm not sure what to say about that, but the Tenth circuit was good with it.  Rutland also argued that he was robbing the dealer in his individual capacity rather than in his capacity as a drug dealer (I'm not making this up!), but the Tenth observed that 1- the evidence showed the dealer was targeted in part because of his meth-dealer status, and 2- even if that weren't true, intestate commerce was affected because the dealer couldn't run his business for two months and his assets were therefore depleted.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Colorado Court of Appeals People v. Fuentes-Espinoza 08CA1231

Decision here.

   Most of this case has more to do with prosecution than law enforcement.  In the most police-relevant part of the case, Fuentes-Espinoza appealed his conviction for violating Colorado's human smuggling statute.  The statute says the following:

A person commits smuggling of humans if, for the purpose
of assisting another person to enter, remain in, or travel
through the United States or the state of Colorado in
violation of immigration laws, he or she provides or agrees   
to provide transportation to that person in exchange for
money or any other thing of value.

   Fuentes-Espinoza argued that the prosecution never proved that his passengers were in the country illegally.  The court of appeals held that the prosecution was not required to prove that the passengers were actually illegally present, only that Fuentes-Espinoza believed they were.  The court compared this to Vecellio, where another division of the court upheld conspiracy and child enticement charges in a case where the "child" was only a ruse by an undercover cop.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Colorado Supreme Court People v. LaRosa 11SC664

Decision here.

   Jason LaRosa, who was in Florida, called the police in Colorado to report that while in Colorado he had performed oral sex on his two year old daughter while masturbating in the shower of a public swimming pool.  He made this confession to a number of people including his wife, his mother, his pastor, the police dispatcher, and the police officer who called him back.  He agreed to return to Colorado to turn himself in.  He did so, and was arrested.  In court, he would claim that he was really tired at the time of his confession, and under a lot of stress because of marital and financial problems, and so he had confessed to fictitious events.

   The jury didn't buy that either, and LaRosa was convicted on all counts.  The trouble is that there wasn't much evidence against him, other than his confession.  There were some pictures of the rec center, and a log showing that he went swimming on a particular day, but all of that only shows that he had the opportunity to abuse his daughter.  None of it proves that the crime actually happened.

   He appealed his conviction, based on the corpus delicti rule.  This is a rule which has been recognized in Colorado for more than a century, which says that someone can't be convicted of a crime solely on the basis of a confession.  The prosecution has to prove the crime independently of the confession, and then just use the confession as additional evidence.  This decision spells out some of the criticisms which have been made against this rule, and the reasons that a lot of jurisdictions have abandoned it, but I won't go into all that here.

   What's important is that in this decision, the Colorado Supreme Court also abandons the corpus delicti rule.  They replaced it with a trustworthiness test: in order to convict someone of a crime based solely on a confession, the prosecution has to present evidence that the confession is trustworthy.  Specifically, they need one of three things: 1- Facts that corroborate information contained in the confession, 2- Facts that establish the crime (and corroborate information contained in the confession), or 3- Facts which show that the confession was made under circumstances which show that it is reliable.

   Unfortunately, the new standard couldn't be applied to LaRosa's case without violating his due process rights (because this case overturns a 100 year old precedent).  So although the court now recognizes a trustworthiness rule, his case was still judged against the corpus delicti rule and his conviction was reversed.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

US Supreme Court Smith v. United States 11-8976

Decision here.

   Calvin Smith was a member of an organization that sold drugs (specifically crack, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana) in Washington, D.C.  In furtherance of the drug trade, members of the organization committed at least 31 murders and other violent crimes.  Smith (and several others) were eventually charged with conspiracy to distribute, RICO conspiracy, and murder.  They were convicted.

   At the time, Smith had been in prison for 6 years for something else.  Conspiracy has a 5 year statute of limitations, so Smith had unsuccessfully moved to dismiss those charges.  He was convicted anyway, based on a finding that the conspiracy had continued without him, and based on insufficient evidence that he had actually abandoned that conspiracy.  Smith appealed.

   The Supreme Court explained that conspiracy is a continuing offense, meaning that once a conspiracy has begun the conspirators are continuously committing the crime until either the conspiracy ends or they abandon the conspiracy.  Abandoning the conspiracy is an affirmative defense.  To show abandonment, a defendant has to demonstrate that he took actions that were at odds with the continuation of the conspiracy, and that he communicated his abandonment to his fellow conspirators (or at least tried to).  Abandonment must be unequivocal, or it doesn't count.

   In this case, Smith showed no such thing.  On the other hand, the government never presented evidence to prove that he hadn't abandoned the conspiracy.  But they didn't have to; all the prosecution had to prove was the elements of the offense.  The burden of proving an affirmative defense is on the defendant.  Smith's conviction was affirmed.

   Actually, the court gets pretty melodramatic about affirming his conviction:

"Having joined forces to achieve collectively more evil
than he could accomplish alone, Smith tied his fate to that
of the group. His individual change of heart (assuming it
occurred) could not put the conspiracy genie back in the
bottle. We punish him for the havoc wreaked by the unlawful 
scheme, whether or not he remained actively involved. It is his
 withdrawal that must be active, and it was his burden to show that."

Tenth Circuit US v. De La Cruz 11-5114

Decision here.

   De La Cruz was illegally present in the US, and was driving a friend (also illegally present) to work at a car wash.  ICE agents were waiting at the car was, because they were looking for someone else.  When De La Cruz got there, after a 1-2 second glimpse through the windshield the agents thought he might be the person they were looking for.  They moved their cars forward to block him in, and turned on their emergency lights.

   De La Cruz's passenger took off running, and one of the ICE agents chased him down.  De La Cruz stayed put.

   De La Cruz's passenger was caught, and later determined to be an illegal immigrant.  More importantly to this case, right after he was caught the agent who chased him came back and recognized that De La Cruz was not the person they had been looking for.

   The agents continued to detain De La Cruz, and requested his identification.  He gave them a fake ID, but using the info on the ID card they were able to figure out that he had previously been deported.  He admitted to that after being read Miranda warnings, and he was charged with unlawfully reentering the US.  He moved to suppress the evidence, the trial court denied, and he appealed.

   The trial court denied his motion on two grounds: 1- the agents had reasonable suspicion to detain him, and 2- even if they didn't, his identity can not be suppressed in court.

   The Tenth disagreed.  Regarding the second argument, the court held that even though an unlawful arrest does not void the court's jurisdiction over a defendant, evidence related to their identity can still be suppressed as fruits of the poisonous tree.  Regarding the first argument, the court held that the agents had reasonable suspicion when they thought that De La Cruz looked like the person they were looking for, but that dissipated as soon as they realized he was not the same person.  When someoen is detained, the entire detention must be justified by reasonable suspicion (even if the reasonable suspicion is based on different facts at different times during the detention), and even a brief detention once RS has dissipated violates the Fourth Amendment.  The court also held that even though De La Cruz's passenger fled, that fact by itself didn't justify further detaining De La Cruz.  Flight may create suspicion regarding the person who flees, but not regarding everyone who happened to be with him at the time.  Also, being in the company of someone illegally in the US might create reasonable suspicion if you're near the border, or if you're on a road frequently used for illegal entry, but not if you're just driving someone to work hundreds of miles from the border.

   Since reasonable suspicion had already dissipated when the agents required De La Cruz to identify himself, the stop was illegal and the evidence obtained as a result of the stop should have been suppressed.  The lower court's decision (and De La Cruz's conviction) were reversed.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Tenth Circuit Lynch v. Barrett 12-1222

Decision here.

   Lynch punched some guy at a downtown nightclub, and then ran away from the police.  Half a dozen officers chased him, and he was found hiding in a bush.  According to Lynch, he realized at this point that he was caught, so he stood up to surrender but found himself thrown on the ground and being struck in the back of his leg with a flashlight.  He couldn't see who was hitting him because he was face down on the ground.

   Lynch sued the officers for excessive force, but lost the lawsuit because he wasn't able to establish that the officers he sued were responsible for the use of force against him.

   Then Lynch sued Barrett et al, (there are four cops and the City & County of Denver named as defendants in this lawsuit).  Essentially, he sued them for denying him access to legal redress by refusing to name the officer(s) who struck him with a flashlight.  He alleges that the officers were in a position to see who arrested him and used for against him, but covered it up behind a code of silence.  In support of his claim, the officers did testify to seeing the defendant get taken down, or to running up to assist in the arrest, or to otherwise being in the area at the time.  The city was named in the lawsuit because Lynch claims that it adopted policies and practices which encourage officers to cover up for each other.

   The officers and the city filed for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.

   The Tenth Circuit held that if Lynch's version of these events is true then the officers did, in fact, violate his constitutional rights by covering for their fellow officers.  Specifically, the court identified Lynch's First Amendment right to petition the government (which is to say the court) for redress, and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.  Article 4 of the Constitution is also mentioned... but the officers are entitled to qualified immunity anyway.

   Here's why: in order to overcome qualified immunity, a plaintiff has to show evidence that an officer violated his Constitutional rights and also that the right was clearly established at the time.  "Clearly established" means that there is some on-point case law which outlines the contours of the right.  Simply saying "it's in the Constitution" isn't enough, there has to be some case law explaining how the Constitution applies to similar circumstances.

   In this case, the Court held that (assuming the plaintiff's version of the story is correct), then the officers did violate his rights.  However, as morally reprehensible as their actions may have been, until now there was no Tenth Circuit case law explaining that a code of silence violates a Constitutional right.  It's obviously wrong, and any officer should know that, but might not have known that it was also a violation of the Constitution.

   This case closes that loophole, though.  These officers are entitled to qualified immunity; the next ones to do the same thing won't be.  And Lynch's lawsuit against the city (as opposed to the officers) can still proceed.