Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Case Summaries

June 30, 2006 Slip Opinions. Three criminal cases.

U.S. v. Louis Black Lance, No. 05-3117 (D. S.D.). Before Chief Judge Loken, and Circuit Judges Lay and Smith. Opinion by Judge Loken.

Black Lance was indicted for assault with a dangerous weapon (shod feet) and for assault resulting in serious bodily injury to his girlfriend. At trial, Little Elk testified that Black Lance kicked her in the stomach causing her injuries. On cross examination, defense counsel brought out inconsistencies in Little Elk’s previous descriptions of the incident and the fact that she and Black Lance were fighting each other. In the midst of cross examination, Little Elk began crying and stated "I can’t do this anymore." Based on the victim’s testimony, the district court granted a motion for acquittal stating that "no reasonable jury would ever convict this defendant based on her testimony." The court terminated the trial. The court dismissed the government’s case with prejudice on the ground that the victim’s inability to continue her testimony infringed on the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right of confrontation, and retrial was not a satisfactory remedy because "the alleged victim’s testimony is totally lacking in consistency and reliability."
The government appeals, arguing that the mid-trial dismissal must be treated as a mistrial because Fed. R. Crim. P. Rule 29 authorizes an acquittal only after the close of the government’s case. The Eighth Circuit responds that the Supreme Court decision in Fong Foo v. U.S., 369 U.S. 141 (1962) is controlling. Fong Foo established that the protection of the Double Jeopardy Clause turns on whether the judge or jury has resolved one or more factual elements of the government’s case, not on when that resolution occurs. The Eighth Circuit held the district court’s mid-trial order dismissing the case with prejudice was in effect an acquittal and 18 U.S.C. § 3731 precludes an appeal by the government. Government's appeal is dismissed.

U.S. v. Manuel Villareal-Amarillas, Nos. 05-3312, 05-3536, 05-3539 (W.D. Missouri). Before Circuit Judges Wollman, Bowman, and Riley. Opinion by Judge Riley.

Villareal-Amarillas and Juan Gonzalez each pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute in excess of 500 grams of meth. Villareal-Amarillas was sentenced to 328 months; Gonzalez to 151 months. The government appeals the sentences, arguing the district court erred in its drug quantity findings and its failure to rule on the credibility of the government’s witnesses.

The government contends the district court erred in setting the base offense levels at 32 because the court did not make specific factual findings supporting its relevant drug quantity determination. The Eighth Circuit held that the relevant drug quantity was a disputed issue, and the district court had an obligation under Rule 32(i)(3)(B) to make specific factual findings supporting its ruling on the disputed matter, unless the matter would not affect sentencing or would not be considered in sentencing. The court held that the disputed matter absolutely would affect sentencing because the relevant drug quantity determines the Guidelines base offense level. The government’s four witnesses gave substantial testimony regarding drug quantities, but the district court neither indicated which portions of the testimonies it found credible, nor specified the basis for its drug quantity findings. The court held this omission was plain error, resulting in potentially unreasonable sentences which required reversal.

Villareal-Amarillas also cross-appeals his sentence enhancements for leadership role in the offense and for possession of a firearm in connection with the underlying drug offense. He argues the district court violated Booker by enhancing his sentence based on a preponderance of the evidence standard, rather than presenting the case to the jury for a determination based on a reasonable doubt. The Eighth Circuit finds this argument is unavailing. The court has consistently held that judicial factfinding using a preponderance standard does not violate Booker or the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. The court found that based on corroborated testimony, the district court correctly imposed the leadership enhancement. The court also found that testimony that Villareal-Amarillas possessed semiautomatic pistols and assault rifles supported the district court’s two-level enhancement for possession of a firearm.

The Eighth Circuit vacates Villareal-Amarillas’s and Gonzalez’s sentences, reverses the district court drug quantity findings and base level offense calculations, and remands for resentencing. The court affirms the district court’s imposition of the four-level enhancements for Villareal-Amarillas’s leadership role in the offense, and the two-level enhancement for Villareal-Amarillas’s possession of a firearm in connection with the offense. Because the court remands for resentencing, it did not address Villareal-Amarillas’s contentions the district court clearly erred in its factual findings and imposed an unreasonable sentence , and denies Villareal-Amarillas’s counsel’s motion to withdraw.

U.S. v. Brandon L. Walton, No. 05-4173 (W.D. Missouri). Before Circuit Judges Wollman, Bowman, and Riley. Per Curiam. Unpublished.

Walton appeals from his guilty plea to being a felon in possession of firearms, contending that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress the firearms found in a motel room in which he was hiding. The Eighth Circuit held that Walton did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the motion room because the room was rented by another person. A mere visitor, a person who is not an overnight guest, usually lacks a rightful expectation of privacy when present in the motel room of another. U.S. v. Sturgis, 238 F.3d 956, 958 (8th Cir. 2001). The record showed that Walton was no more than a visitor to the room; he neither checked into nor paid for the room. Therefore, the warrantless search did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights. Affirmed

Betty J. Farr, Paralegal
Office of the Federal Public Defender
Eastern & Western Districts of Arkansas

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