Federal Defenders of New York Second Circuit Blog


Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

Inadequate Voir Dire Requires a New Trial

Perhaps you’ve wondered whether the Second Circuit would ever throw out a conviction because of inadequate voir dire in selecting the jury. Wonder no more. It’s finally happened.

In United States v. Nieves, — F.4th —-, 2023 WL 405354 (2d Cir. Jan. 26, 2023), the defendant, a former gang member, challenged his conviction, following a jury trial, of one count of witness retaliation, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1513(b)(1). He argued that the district court’s (Hon. Jed S. Rakoff) abbreviated voir dire left him and the court unable to meaningfully screen prospective jurors for bias against gang members, rendering the trial fundamentally unfair. Simply put, the defendant argued that in a prosecution centered around gang membership and alleged gang-related violence, the district court abused its discretion by refusing to take any steps to effectively screen prospective jurors for bias against gangs or gang members.

The Circuit unanimously …

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Thursday, January 19th, 2023

Davis (2019), voiding the residual clause at § 924(c)(3)(B) for vagueness, is retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review

Benjamin Hall v. United States, 2d Cir. No. 17-1513 (Jan. 19, 2023), decides a question most of us thought had been answered already – that United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), striking the residual clause of § 924(c) as unconstitutionally vague, rendered a substantive rule retroactive to cases on collateral review. As Judge Carney’s opinion notes, the Supreme Court held in Welch v. United States, 578 U.S. 120 (2016), that Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015), striking the residual clause of the ACCA as unconstitutionally vague, is retroactively applicable as a substantive rule. Op. 9. Johnson “changed the substantive reach” of the ACCA by voiding its residual clause, thus “altering the range of conduct or the class of persons that the [Act] punishes.” 578 U.S. at 129.

Johnson qualifies easily as a substantive rule, defined as one that “narrow[s] the scope …

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Categories: 924(c), Davis, Hobbs Act, Johnson

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Tuesday, January 17th, 2023

After a Supreme Court remand, a Circuit Panel concludes that the defendants’ fraud and conversion convictions should be reversed because the confidential information misappropriated from a federal regulatory agency didn’t constitute “property” or a “thing of value” (to the agency) for purposes of wire fraud, Title 18 securities fraud, and conversion (in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343, 1348, and 641). United States v. Blaszczak, Nos. 18-2811, 18-2825, 18-2867, 18-2878, __F.4th__, 2022 WL 17926047 (2d Cir. Dec. 27, 2022) (C.J.J. Kearse and Walker; Judge Sullivan dissents).

After the Circuit’s original decision (in 2019) affirmed the fraud and conversion convictions of the four defendants (over a dissent by Judge Kearse), the Supreme Court granted cert., vacated the judgment, and “remanded for further consideration, in light of Kelly v. United States, ––– U.S. ––––, 140 S. Ct. 1565 (2020).”  See United States v. Blaszczak, 947 F.3d 19 (2d Cir. 2019), vacated and remanded, 141 S. Ct. 1040 (2021).

In light of Kelly, the Department of Justice “‘determined that the confidential information at issue in [Blaszczak] does not constitute ‘property’ or a ‘thing of value’ under the relevant statutes’” — 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343, 1348, and 641 — so, the convictions on the substantive counts of fraud and conversion should be dismissed. See Blaszczak, 2022 WL 17926047 at *4 (quoting the Government’s brief on remand). However, the government argued that two conspiracy …

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Categories: fraud, insider trading

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The government’s use of a former cellmate’s testimony to introduce a defendant’s statements about his planned trial strategy didn’t violate the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel where the witness wasn’t a government informant when the defendant confided in him. Also, a federal probation officer’s warrantless search of the home and car of a person “serving a term of supervised release” didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment because the probation officer needed only a “reasonable suspicion” to search, not a warrant or probable cause. United States v. Chandler, No. 18-1841, 56 F.4th 27 (2d Cir. [Dec. 27,] 2022) (C.J.J.’s Lynch, Carney, and Sullivan).

This appeal addresses a Fourth Amendment claim raised in the context of a Probation Officer’s search of the home and car of  “an individual serving a term of supervised release.” The Circuit concludes that the searches were valid because the Probation Officer had a “reasonable suspicion” that the defendant was committing crimes.

The case also addresses the scope of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel “when the government presents a witness to whom the defendant has volunteered his thoughts about defense strategy and who, after learning the defendant’s thoughts, agrees to testify for the government.” Here, the government witness was a person who shared a jail cell with the defendant, during a two-week period of pretrial detention, and later became a government informant. Because the witness “was not a government informant when Chandler spoke to him about Chandler’s expected trial strategy, the government did not …


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Thursday, December 15th, 2022

Supreme Court Alert

The Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in four criminal cases to resolve the following questions. Note that in two of the cases, Lora and Samia, the Court will review decisions issued by the Second Circuit.

Lora v. United States, 22-49

Whether 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(D)(ii), which provides that “no term of imprisonment imposed … under this subsection shall run concurrently with any other term of imprisonment,” is triggered when a defendant is convicted and sentenced under 18 U.S.C. § 924(j).

United States v. Hansen, 22-179

Whether the federal criminal prohibition against encouraging or inducing unlawful immigration for commercial advantage or private financial gain, in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) and (B)(i), is facially unconstitutional on First Amendment overbreadth grounds.

Samia v. United States, 22-196

Whether admitting a codefendant’s redacted out-of-court confession that immediately inculpates a defendant based on the surrounding context violates the defendant’s rights …

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Wednesday, December 14th, 2022

District Court Did Not Abuse Discretion in Declining to Resentence Defendant De Novo Following Vacatur of Firearms Convictions.

In United States v. Peña, No. 20-4192 (2d Cir. Dec. 13, 2022), the Circuit ruled that the District Court did not abuse its discretion when it declined to resentence the defendant de novo following the vacatur of two firearms convictions.

Peña was convicted in 2013 of three counts charging him with conspiring to commit, and committing, murder for hire, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1958. He was also convicted of two counts of using a firearm to commit murder, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(j). The District Court sentenced him to five concurrent terms of life imprisonment.

Peña later filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion alleging that his two § 924(j) convictions were invalid. The District Court agreed and vacated those convictions. But the court refused to resentence Peña de novo on the remaining murder-for-hire counts, concluding that resentencing would be pointless because he was …

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Under 18 U.S.C. § 1591, the term “commercial sex act” — defined as “any sex act, on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person,” id. § 1591(e)(3) — doesn’t require that the “[]thing of value” have a monetary value; it can be something “intangible” that has a subjective value to the person receiving it. United States v. Raniere, Nos. 20-3520-cr(L), 20-3789-cr(Con), __ F.4th ____, 2022 WL 17543156 (2d Cir. Dec. 9, 2022) (C.J.J.’s Calabresi, Cabranes, and Sullivan).

This case concerns the meaning of “commercial sex act,” in subdivision (e)(3) of 18 U.S.C. § 1591, titled “Sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud, or coercion.”  A “commercial sex act” is defined as “any sex act, on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.” 18 U.S.C. § 1591(e)(3).

The Appellant argued that the phrase “anything of value” must mean “‘economic benefit[ ].’” The Circuit holds, however, that the phrase isn’t restricted to monetary or financial benefits but can include “intangibles,” such as maintaining or improving a person’s position within the hierarchy of a group. Raniere, 2022 WL 17543156 at *4-*8. The focus is on the value that the recipient “subjectively attaches to what is sought to be received.” Id. at *5.

Background

Appellant Keith Raniere was the leader of an executive coaching and self-help organization called NXIVM that he started …


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Categories: jury instructions, sex trafficking, statutory interpretation, sufficiency

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Tuesday, December 13th, 2022

Third Circuit holds that “loss,” for Guidelines purposes, means actual loss, not intended loss.

The Sentencing Guidelines provide that the base offense level for certain crimes must be increased based on the amount of financial “loss.” E.g., U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1(b)(1). The commentary to the Guidelines says that “loss” means the actual or intended loss, whichever is greater. Id. cmt. n.3(A).

In an important new ruling, the Third Circuit held in United States v. Banks, — F.4th —-, 2022 WL 17333797 (3d Cir. Nov. 30, 2022), that this commentary is invalid because, under Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S. Ct. 2400 (2019), it improperly expands the plain meaning of “loss,” which refers to the actual loss only. In the court’s words:

Our review of common dictionary definitions of “loss” point to an ordinary meaning of “actual loss.” None of these definitions suggest an ordinary understanding that “loss” means “intended loss.” […]

Because the commentary expands the definition of “loss” by explaining that generally …

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Friday, December 9th, 2022

In this summary order, the Circuit vacates a district court judgment that summarily denied a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion, alleging that ineffective assistance counsel caused the petitioner to forego a direct appeal. Kenya Brown v. United States, No. 20-3404-pr (2d Cir. Dec. 6, 2022) (C.J.J.’s Livingston, Nardini, and Menashi) (“Summary Order”).

Petitioner-Appellant Kenya Brown was sentenced on December 28, 2016. But no notice of appeal was filed.

Brown had pleaded guilty, under a plea agreement, to conspiring to distribute cocaine and cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846; and possessing a firearm in furtherance of that conspiracy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). At the December 2016 sentencing, he received a sentence of 248 months’ imprisonment and five years’ supervised release — “a sentence on the low-end of the  Guidelines range.” See Summary Order at 2.

But about a year after the sentencing — on January 8, 2018 — Brown filed a pro se petition, under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, alleging that he was “denied effective assistance of counsel with regard to post-sentencing proceedings due to his counsel’s failure to ‘consult with Mr. Brown on the consequences of not filing a direct appeal.’” See Summary Order 2-3. Brown …


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Thursday, December 8th, 2022

The Second Circuit holds that N.Y. Attempted Third-Degree Sale of a Controlled Substance, N.Y.P.L. 220.39(1) is NOT a Guidelines Controlled Substance Offense

Earlier this week, on December 6, 2022, the Second Circuit held in United States v. Gibson, No. 20-3049 (2d Cir. Dec. 6, 2022), that a 2002 New York state conviction for attempted third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance, NYPL 220.39(1) and 110.00, is not a  “controlled substance offense” under the Guidelines.

Gibson was convicted in the WDNY of bank robbery and other offenses. The PSR classified him as a career offender, based in relevant part on a 2002 New York state conviction for attempted third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance. Gibson objected, arguing that the New York offense did not categorically involve a federally controlled substance, as required under United States v. Townsend, 897 F.3d 66 (2d Cir. 2018). Specifically, Gibson argued, New York’s 2002 drug schedules included the opium derivative naloxegol, but in 2015, the federal government had removed that substance from the federal schedules. …

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In an appeal from a district court’s decision declining to “reopen [a] detention hearing under 18 U.S.C. § 3142(f),” the Second Circuit concludes that the district court declining to reopen the detention hearing wasn’t an abuse of discretion. And the district court’s consideration of the strength of the evidence against the defendant, in weighing the bail factors listed in § 3142(g), didn’t impinge on the presumption of innocence because that’s a trial right that “has no application to a determination of the rights of a pretrial detainee.” United States v. Zhang, No. 22-1761-cr, __ F.4th ____, 2022 WL 17419594 (2d Cir. Dec. 6, 2022) (C.J.J.’s Raggi, Wesley, and Nardini).

Defendant-Appellant Zhe Zhang was indicted for participating in a successful murder-for-hire scheme. And the district court ordered him detained pending trial noting, among other things. “[t]hat the charged crime was ‘extremely serious’ and the evidence against Zhang was strong.” 2022 WL 17419594 at *2.

The defendant didn’t, however, appeal the district court’s original decision denying pretrial release. He instead appealed the court’s subsequent decision denying his motion to “reopen” the detention hearing. Id. *3.

At the original detention hearing in the district court (on May 19, 2022), there was “a brief discussion of the possibility of capital punishment,” and the government couldn’t confirm whether it would seek the death penalty “because the matter was still pending with U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C..” Id. at *2. “But the court noted its understanding that, as matter of policy, ‘this Justice Department was not pursuing the death penalty” in this case. …

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