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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Christopher Zoukis

Fourth Circuit Affirms District Court Ruling that Man Committed as ‘Sexually Dangerous’ Should be Released

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling that a man civilly committed under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (“Act”) was no longer a “sexually dangerous person.” As a result of the April 10, 2018, ruling, 62-year-old Walter Wooden was ordered immediately released.

Wooden, who was first arrested for a sex crime when he was 16, suffered from a limited intellectual capacity. He molested several young boys in his teens and 20s and was convicted of a multitude of sex crimes. His last conviction resulted in a 25-year sentence, from which he was paroled in 2002. After violating parole and serving another prison sentence, the Government moved to civilly commit Wooden.

In order to do so, the Government would have to prove that Wooden was “sexually dangerous,” which the Act defines as “suffer[ing] from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder as a result of which he would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.” The district court initially refused to order commitment, but after several appellate reversals, it certified Wooden as sexually dangerous ...

Tenth Circuit Grants Habeas Relief When ACCA Predicate Offense No Longer Qualifies as ‘Violent Felony’

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit granted a federal prisoner’s 28 U.S.C. § 2255 petition because one of the predicate offenses used to enhance his sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) could no longer qualify as a “violent felony” post-Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015). The June 14, 2018, ruling overturned a district court’s contrary finding and remanded for resentencing.

In 2004, Chance Wade Driscoll pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. Because his Presentence Investigation Report noted that he had one previous drug conviction and two previous burglary convictions, the sentencing court applied the ACCA and sentenced Driscoll to the 15-year mandatory minimum.

On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Johnson. In Johnson, the Supreme Court held that the “residual clause” of the ACCA is unconstitutionally vague. Driscoll filed his § 2255 motion within one year of the Johnson decision. He argued that Johnson rendered his ACCA sentence void.

The district court denied Driscoll relief. That court found that it was not clear that the sentencing court utilized the residual clause to enhance Driscoll’s sentence. As such, the ...

Pennsylvania State Senator Sends the Cops to Collect on Overdue Trash Bills Owed to His Company

by Christopher Zoukis

If you live in south-central Pennsylvania and your trash is picked up by Penn Waste, a company owned by Republican State Senator Scott Wagner, you might want to pay the bill on time. If you don’t, police officers may come to your home, inventory your possessions, and eventually sell them at auction to cover the bill.

That’s all completely legal. When a creditor sues a debtor and obtains a judgment, the creditor can use a “writ of execution” on personal property in order to collect. Penn Waste has obtained 263 such writs since the beginning of 2016. According to an analysis of court records by the York Daily Record/Sunday News, the amount due on most of the bills ranged from $150 to $250.

Joe and Christina Kirby learned about writs of execution the hard way. They fell behind on the bills because of Christina’s illness. One of the bills was for $160, owed to Penn Waste. When the company didn’t get paid, they went to court. Then they sent the police to the Kirby home to collect.

A member of the York County Sheriff’s Office inventoried the two cars in the driveway and made his way ...

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Reverses Conviction for Improper Lesser-Included-Offense Determination

by Christopher Zoukis

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas reversed an intermediate court of appeals because the lower court improperly determined that “deadly conduct” is not a lesser-included offense of aggravated assault by threat. The top Texas criminal court found that the elements of both offenses are functionally equivalent and sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether there was enough evidence for a jury to have found the defendant guilty only of the lesser-included offense of deadly conduct.

In September 2014, Anthony Robert Safian nearly ran over a police officer as he was being stopped for suspicion of drug activity. After nearly taking the door off of Officer Pearce’s patrol car, Safian sped off. A high-speed chase ensued in which Safian drove into oncoming traffic and collided with another vehicle, which ended the pursuit.

Safian was charged with aggravated assault on a public servant (by the use or exhibition of a deadly weapon), evading arrest or detention while using a vehicle, and possession of less than a gram of heroin. At the close of evidence, Safian requested an instruction on deadly conduct as a lesser-included offense to the charged offense of aggravated assault on a ...

Sixth Circuit Grants Habeas Relief When Juror Failed to Disclose History of Sexual Abuse in Sexual Assault Case

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that a defendant convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct did not receive a fair trial because a juror failed to disclose her own childhood sexual abuse. The August 21, 2018, ruling reversed a federal district court’s decision to the contrary and remanded the case with instructions that the Michigan state court undertake further proceedings.

Warren Edward English III was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct after he assaulted a 17-year-old acquaintance while she was asleep at his home during a party. After his trial, English learned that “Juror A” had been sexually abused by her father at age eight. Juror A did not disclose the abuse during voir dire.

Based on this new information, English moved for a new trial. He argued that he was denied his right to an impartial jury. The trial court granted the motion, but the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed. The Michigan Supreme Court denied review. English then filed a motion for postconviction relief in state court, which was denied. Both the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court affirmed the denial of relief.

English then filed the 28 ...

Three Reasons Why the Supreme Court Should Eliminate the Doctrine of Qualified Immunity

by Christopher Zoukis

It is a rare issue of Criminal Legal News that does not include an article relating in some way to the doctrine of qualified immunity. The doctrine, which grants police officers and other government officials immunity from civil liability in certain circumstances, rears its ugly head in virtually every case in which a citizen was beaten, tased, run over, shot, or otherwise brutalized by a cop.

Some legal commentators say it’s time to do away with this powerful protection, which allows law enforcement officers to hurt people and get away with it. In a Reason.com article, Joanna Schwartz made a three-prong argument as to why it is time to cancel qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity shields government officials from civil liability for their actions unless they violate a federal statutory or constitutional right and the unlawfulness of their conduct was clearly established at the time. District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577, 589 (2018).

The doctrine was first announced by the Supreme Court in Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967). There, the Court said the common law “defense of good faith and probable cause” is available to officers in an action brought under ...

Seventh Circuit: Habeas Petition Challenging § 841 Recidivism Sentence Enhanced with Vacated State Convictions is Not Time-Barred by § 851(e) Statute of Limitations

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that a federal prisoner convicted of violating 21 U.S.C. § 841, whose sentence was enhanced under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) due to prior state felony drug convictions, may bring a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 habeas petition alleging that the prior convictions were vacated in state court, regardless of the five-year statute of limitations found in § 851(e) because he isn’t challenging the validity of the prior convictions, but rather their very existence. The May 3, 2018, opinion reversed the district court’s finding otherwise.

In 2006, Jesus Arreola-Castillo was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana in violation of §§ 841(a)(1) and 846. The government filed an information alleging that he had two prior state convictions for drug felonies, and the trial court sentenced him to a mandatory term of life in prison pursuant to the recidivism provisions of 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A).

After his conviction in federal court, Arreola-Castillo challenged his prior convictions in state court. Because he received ineffective assistance of counsel ...

Arkansas Supreme Court Reverses Negligent Homicide Conviction Where Evidence Obtained Via Warrantless Blood Draw Used

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Court of Arkansas ruled that an Arkansas statute that allows warrantless blood draws based on implied consent violated the Fourth Amendment when applied to a defendant in a negligent homicide case. The April 26, 2018, opinion reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded for a new trial, without the improperly obtained blood evidence.

On September 15, 2015, Sammy W. Dortch, Jr. crashed the vehicle in which he and friend Matthew Anderson were riding. Anderson died at the scene. During the crash investigation, Independence County Sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Moody detected signs of intoxication in Dortch, who admitted that he had been drinking. Moody transported Dortch to the emergency room, where he presented him with the Arkansas “implied consent” form pursuant to A.C.A. § 5-65-202.

Dortch signed the form, and a blood draw was performed. Tests revealed that Dortch had a blood alcohol level of .139. He was arrested and charged with negligent homicide, driving while intoxicated, and reckless driving. Prior to trial, Dortch moved to suppress the blood evidence and to declare the implied consent statute unconstitutional. The trial judge denied both motions, and Dortch was convicted. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison ...

Eyewitness (Mis)Identification in the Criminal Justice System: Powerful, Persuasive, and Problematic

by Christopher Zoukis

“Our procedure has always been haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted.”

—Judge Learned Hand (1923)

“Truth isn’t truth.”

—Rudy Giuliani (2018) 

In 1984, Ronald Cotton was arrested and charged with the knifepoint rape of Burlington, North Carolina, college student Jennifer Thompson. Cotton became a suspect in the crime after Thompson picked him out of a photo array, telling detectives, “I think this is the guy.” When Thompson asked the investigators if she did okay, they responded, “You did great.”

Following Cotton’s arrest, detectives showed Thompson a live lineup. Cotton was the only person in the lineup who also appeared in the photo array. Thompson was hesitant but ultimately told detectives that Cotton “looks the most like him.” When Thompson was told that Cotton was the same person she had identified in the photo array, she described feeling a “huge amount of relief.”

At trial, Thompson told the jury that she was “absolutely sure” that Cotton was the assailant. Cotton denied any involvement in the crime.

On the sole basis of Thompson’s identification, Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, plus 54 years. Nearly 11 years ...

Ninth Circuit Reverses Conviction for Conspiracy to Smuggle Drugs Based Solely on ‘Drug Courier Profile’

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a defendant’s conviction for conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana because the government provided no evidence of drugs or a conspiracy. The May 7, 2018, opinion also emphasized that expert witness testimony of “drug courier profiles” alone is insufficient to establish guilt.

Pragedio Espinoza-Valdez was captured by U.S. Border Patrol agents as he sat on a mountaintop in the Vaiva Hills area of Arizona. The area is a known drug trafficking corridor, and when agents apprehended Espinoza-Valdez, they found a Motorola radio, batteries, toilet paper, wet wipes, food, and carpet shoes. The agents believed that Espinoza-Valdez was working as a spotter for a drug trafficking operation. The agents were unable to find any illegal drugs, nor did they know who Espinoza-Valdez was working with.

Despite a near-total lack of evidence, the government charged Espinoza-Valdez with conspiracy to import and conspiracy to distribute marijuana. At trial, Border Patrol Commander Bobby Garcia testified as an expert on trafficking organizations. He stated smuggling groups are watched over by spotters, who often carry encrypted Motorola radios and carpet shoes (to disguise their footprints). Garcia said in his opinion, Espinoza-Valdez ...




 

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