Author Archive | Edward S. Zas

Saturday, June 6th, 2020

Eligibility for First Step Act relief depends on the statutory offense for which a defendant was sentenced, not the “actual conduct.”

The First Step Act of 2018 authorizes district courts to make a discretionary decision about whether and how to reduce a defendant’s sentence, but only if the defendant was sentenced for a “covered offense.” The Act defines a “covered offense” as “a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 . . ., that was committed before August 3, 2010.”

The question in United States v. Davis, No. 19-874 (2d Cir. June 5, 2020) (Katzmann, Wesley, and Bianco), was whether Davis was originally sentenced for a “covered offense,” in which case he was eligible for a sentencing reduction. The defendant said he was sentenced for a “covered offense” because he had been convicted and sentenced for conspiring to distribute at least 50 grams of crack cocaine, in a violation of 21 U.S.C. …


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Categories: First Step Act of 2018

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Friday, June 5th, 2020

The “realistic probability” test has no role to play in the “categorical approach” when a state statute on its face is broader than the federal definition.

Here’s an important decision you may have missed because it arises in the context of an immigration proceeding rather than a criminal case. In Williams v. Barr, No. 18-2535 (2d Cir. May 27, 2020) (Jacobs, Carney, and Bianco), the Circuit clarified that, under the “categorical approach” for determining whether a state statute criminalizes more conduct than the relevant federal counterpart, the “realistic probability” test has limited application. Specifically, the test does not apply when the text of the statute itself gives it a broader reach than the generic federal definition. And, because the “categorical approach” applies in both immigration cases and criminal cases, this holding should be helpful to many criminal defendants.

Williams fought removal from the United States based on his Connecticut state conviction for unlawful carrying of a pistol or revolver. The Second Circuit agreed with him that, under the “categorical approach,” the state statute criminalized more …


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Categories: categorical approach, firearms

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Thursday, June 4th, 2020

Under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), district courts may not reduce a sentence below the bottom of the amended Guidelines range based on a § 5G1.3(b) adjustment at the original sentencing.

In United States v. Zapatero, No. 18-3829 (2d Cir. June 3, 2020) (Hall, Sullivan, and Bianco), the Circuit held that the plain language of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), and its incorporated Guidelines provisions, preclude a district court from reducing a sentence below the amended Guidelines range based on a § 5G1.3(b) adjustment at the original sentencing.

Zapatero was originally sentenced in the District of Vermont to 168 month of imprisonment, below the then-applicable Guidelines range of 210-262 months. The court directed that the sentence should run concurrently with an undischarged 51-month prison term previously imposed in the Southern District of New York. And the court also directed that Zapatero receive “credit” toward his Vermont sentence from the time his detention began in Vermont, even though the credit would also include time spent in custody on the New York case. Zapatero characterized this purported granting of “credit” as a sentence …

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Categories: 3582(c)(2)

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Categories: 3582(c)(2)

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Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020

Circuit affirms convictions arising from usurious and fraudulent lending scheme.

In United States v. Tucker, No. 18-181(L) (2d Cir. June 2, 2020) (Leval, Pooler, and Parker), the Second Circuit unanimously affirmed Muir’s and Tucker’s convictions arising from their operation of an illegal payday lending scheme.

The central issue on appeal concerned the jury instructions regarding “willfulness.” The trial judge instructed the jury with respect to several counts that the defendants acted willfully if they knew of the high interest rates being charged to borrowers, even if the defendants believed the lending was lawful. The defendants, however, failed to object to the jury instructions after they were given, as generally required by Fed. R. Crim. P. 30. Thus, the Circuit held, the defendants’ had to satisfy the demanding “plain error” standard to prevail on appeal.

The Circuit ruled that, even if the challenged “willfulness” instruction was erroneous—an issue it did not resolve—any error was not reversible plain error. The Court …


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Categories: jury instructions, plain error

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Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020

Supreme Court Holds that a Motion to Alter or Amend a Judgment Under Civil Rule 59(e) Is Not a Second or Successive Habeas Petition.

In Bannister v. Davis, No. 18-6943 (June 1, 2020), the Supreme Court today held that a motion to alter or amend a judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e) is not a “second or successive” petition for habeas corpus purposes. The vote was 7–2, with only Justices Alito and Thomas dissenting.

Justice Kagan’s opinion for the Court begins this way:

A state prisoner is entitled to one fair opportunity to seek federal habeas relief from his conviction. But he may not usually make a “second or successive habeas corpus application.” 28 U.S.C. §2244(b). The question here is whether a motion brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) to alter or amend a habeas court’s judgment qualifies as such a successive petition. We hold it does not. A Rule 59(e) motion is instead part and parcel of the first habeas proceeding.

And the Court’s opinion concludes as follows:

Our …

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Categories: habeas corpus

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Categories: habeas corpus

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Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

Circuit Affirms Conviction and Sentence for Felon in Possession of a Firearm

In United States v. Wiggins, No. 18-1337-cr, __ F. App’x __ (2d Cir. Sept. 30, 2019), the Court summarily affirmed the defendant’s conviction and 78-month prison sentence for possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. First, the Court rejected the defendant’s argument that suppression was required because the district court improperly authorized a second search warrant of his cellphone despite the absence of probable cause. Even if probable cause was lacking, the Court ruled, the police officers executed the warrant in good faith, such that suppression was not required.

Second, the Court upheld evidentiary rulings: (1) admitting certain text messages; and (2) excluding sweatpants that the defendant allegedly wore at the time of his arrest, police recordings of his arrest, and a summary of those recordings.

The text messages tended to show that the defendant had access to a firearm as recently as a “few weeks” before his arrest …


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Categories: crime of violence, evidence, good faith, search warrant

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Friday, August 2nd, 2019

Wealthy Defendants Cannot Buy Their Way Out of Jail by Hiring Private Security Guards

In United States v. Boustani, No. 19-1018-cr (2d Cir. Aug. 1, 2019), the Second Circuit held that “the Bail Reform Act does not permit a two-tiered bail system in which defendants of lesser means are detained pending trial while wealthy defendants are released to self-funded private jails.”

Boustani was charged with conspiring to commit wire fraud, securities fraud, and money laundering. He sought bail, proposing conditions that included home confinement under the supervision of private armed security guards, to be paid for by him. The district court denied bail, finding Boustani to pose a risk of flight based on the seriousness of the charges, the lengthy potential sentence, the strength of the evidence, and the defendant’s personal characteristics, which included his “substantial financial resources.” The court also found that no set of conditions would reasonably assure the defendant’s appearances in court. Judge Kuntz specifically noted that releasing Boustani to …

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Categories: bail

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Categories: bail

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Thursday, August 1st, 2019

Mandatory Life Sentences for Murders Committed by 18-Year-Olds and Over Do Not Violate the Eighth Amendment

In Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 465 (2012), the Supreme Court held “that mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.” Today, the Second Circuit declined to extend Miller to cover three defendants who were between 18 and 22 when they committed murders and conspiracy-to-murder in aid of racketeering. The Court noted that “the Supreme Court has repeatedly chosen in the Eighth Amendment context to draw th[e] line at the age of 18,” which “is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood.”

The Circuit also rejected a separate argument raised by one of the defendants: that his mandatory life sentence was cruel and unusual punishment because his murder convictions were premised on Pinkerton liability, rather than personal commission of the murders.…

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Categories: Eighth Amendment, life

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Categories: Eighth Amendment, life

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Wednesday, July 31st, 2019

Circuit Affirms Convictions for Producing and Distributing Child Pornography

United States v. DiTomasso, No. 17-1699 (2d Cir. July 30, 2019), involves a defendant who was convicted after a jury trial of producing and distributing child pornography. On appeal, he argued that the district court should have granted his motion to suppress certain electronic communications found through searches conducted by two Internet service providers (AOL and Omegle), and reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He also argued that he should have been granted a hearing on whether his trial attorney was ineffective for not calling a witness (the defendant’s uncle) who supposedly would have confessed that he, not the defendant, was guilty of the charged crimes. The Circuit rejected all the defendant’s contentions and affirmed his convictions.

First, the Court held, the AOL searches did not afford a basis for relief. The district court found that the AOL searches constituted government searches for Fourth Amendment …


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Categories: Fourth Amendment, ineffective assistance of counsel

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Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

Acquit First, Sentence Later?

The Second Circuit, like other federal circuits, has long held that the Due Process Clause permits a sentencing court to take into account conduct for which the defendant was acquitted (so-called “acquitted conduct”). See, e.g., United States v. Vaughn, 430 F.3d 518, 521 (2d Cir. 2005). But the Michigan Supreme Court just held otherwise: “Once acquitted of a given crime, it violates due process to sentence the defendant as if he committed that very same crime.” People v. Beck, No. 152934 (Mich. July 29, 2019).

The Court’s holding was based on the United States Constitution (rather than the Michigan Constitution). Thus, the state of Michigan could reasonably decide to petition for certiorari in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Given this possibility, and the chance that the Supreme Court of the United States will grant review and ultimately agree with Beck, you may wish to …

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Categories: due process

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Categories: due process

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Monday, July 29th, 2019

Circuit Affirms Convictions and Sentences for Bitcoin-Related Fraud

In United States v. Lebedev, No. 17-3691(L) (2d Cir. July 26, 2019), defendants Lebedev and Gross challenged their convictions, after a jury trial, of multiple counts arising from their roles in the operation of a Bitcoin exchange and a scheme to use a federal credit union for illegal purposes. Gross also challenged the application of several Sentence Guidelines provisions in imposing his sentence and his order of restitution. The Circuit affirmed.

First, the Court rejected Lebedev’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. The evidence was sufficient to establish wire fraud, the Court held, because a reasonable jury could conclude, inter alia, that Lebedev deprived the victims (certain financial institutions) of “the right to control their assets by mispresenting potentially valuable economic information.” Similarly, the evidence was sufficient to establish bank fraud because a reasonable jury could conclude that Lebedev (1) caused false information to be sent to …

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