Florida Criminal Appeals Attorney Law

Appellate Law, Criminal Defense and Appeals and Post Conviction Relief in Florida Courts, Federal District Courts and the 11th Circuit

Tag: habeas corpus

United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit: Odulene Dormescar v. U.S. Attorney General, No. 10-15822, and Anthony John Ponticelli v. Sec’y, Florida Dept. of Corrections, No. 11-1966

The United States Court of Appeals has published a couple of interesting opinions in the last few days.  The first, Odulene Dormescar v. U.S. Attorney General, No. 10-15822, concerns the removal of a person convicted of an aggravated felony.  The opinion is a bit long (31 pages), but if you are a criminal defense lawyer who deals with immigration issues, it’s probably a good idea to take a few minutes and review the opinion.

The  second opinion is also long (over 70 pages), but still quite interesting in that the opinion contains a partial dissent, which is a rarity in the Eleventh Circuit.  In Anthony John Ponticelli v. Sec’y, Florida Dept. of Corrections, No. 11-11966, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the denial of a petition for writ of habeas corpus for death row inmate Ponticelli.  For those criminal defense and criminal appeals lawyers who handle habeas petitions in death cases, this might be a good opinion to review.  After all, it’s not everyday that you get to read an Eleventh Circuit opinion where at least one of the Judges finds that the Florida Supreme Court misapplied Strickland, and that habeas relief should have been granted.  Judge Martin’s partial dissent begins at page 72.

Finally, for those of you who are interested in following the criminal defense bar’s attempts to challenge S.B. 1960, I have heard that the docket for the case in Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal is 3D12-2034.  The style of the case is David S. Markus v. Hon. Joel H. Brown.

State v. Adkins, No. SC11-1878: Drug Possession Statute, Section 893.13 Constitutional

Well, I’ve finished reading the Florida Supreme Court opinion in State v. Adkins, No. Sc11-1878, and my initial opinion has not changed: disappointed, but not surprised.  I suspect that a lot of other criminal defense and appellate lawyers in South Florida are feeling the same way too.

The rationale for the majority’s holding is not exactly convincing.  In support of its holding that the Florida Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (“the Act”) is constitutional, the Court deferred to the Legislature’s broad authority the define the elements of a crime.  Slip op., pgs. 7-8.   Next, the Court cited several decisions from the United States Supreme Court, including United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250 (1922), Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600 (1994), and United States v. Freed, 401 U.S. 601 (1971) for the proposition that the legislature has the authority to define the elements of a crime for the public welfare.  Slip op., pgs. 8-16.  In support of its conclusion that the omission of a mens rea element did not violate due process, the Court reasoned that (1) the State is still required to prove that a defendant was engaged in the affirmative act of selling, manufacturing, possessing, or delivering a controlled substance; (2) an innocent person can rely on the affirmative defense as contained in the Act; (3) the Act and section 893.13 are rationally related to the Legislature’s goal of controlling drugs with a high potential for abuse; (4) prohibiting the sale, manufacture, delivery, or possession of controlled substances does not impinge on any constitutionally protected rights; (5) common sense and experience support a conclusion that possession without awareness of the illicit nature of the substance is highly unusual; and, (6) the Legislature’s decision to treat lack of knowledge of the illicit nature of the substance as an affirmative defense does not violate due process.  Slip op., pgs. 16-19.  The Court also analogized the affirmative defense to the New York case of People v. Patterson, 347 N.E.2d 898 (N.Y. 1976).  Slip. op., pgs. 19-22.

After reading the majority opinion, I wondered: why did the Court not cite more persuasive, or even more contemporary authority in support of its conclusion that the substitution of the affirmative defense for the mens rea element renders the Act constitutional?  Then, reading the first lines of Justice Pariente’s concurring opinion, I realized the answer: there is nothing more contemporary for the Court to cite!  As noted by Pariente, Although 48 other States have chosen to require the prosecution to prove mens rea as an element of a drug offense, the Florida Legislature opted to eliminate the mens rea element.  Slip op., pg. 23, (Pariente , J., concurring).  Pariente does an adequate job of pointing out some flaws in the majority opinion, and her concurring opinion reads more like a dissent than a concurrence.  But the fact that she concurs in the result is surprising, given number previous dissenting opinions she has authored in criminal cases.  The reasons for her concurrence is also surprising: (1) the Act still requires the State to prove that a defendant had knowledge of the presence of a controlled substance; and, (2) the Act allows a defendant to raise the affirmative defense of lack of knowledge.  Slip op., pg. 24 (Pariente, J., concurring).

After reading Justice Perry’s dissent, I am convinced that Justice Pariente and the majority both failed to adequately recognize two key concepts.  First, the existence of the mens rea element is the cornerstone of American criminal jurisprudence.  Slip  op., pgs. 25, 32-34.  (Perry, J., dissenting).  Second, the elimination of the mens rea element, the substitution of the affirmative defense, and the Florida jury instructions which permit the jury to presume that a defendant had knowledge of the illicit nature of the substance based on mere possession, all combine together to strip people charged with drug offenses of their constitutional presumption of innocence.

What comes next?  Well, for Adkins and the other co-defendants, they go back to square one and get back on the trial docket.  But other people who already stand convicted of drug offenses might wish to consider filing petitions for writ of habeas corpus in state, then federal courts.  Case in point: Shelton v. Sec’y, Dept. of Corr., 803 F. Supp. 2d 1289 (M.D. Fla. 2011). 

A Kinder, Gentler Court for Federal Habeas Petitioners? Holland v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2549 (2010)

Since my previous post on the United States Supreme Court case of Maples v. Thomas, No. 10-63, I’ve been wondering if we are seeing a kinder, gentler Court, at least in the area of federal petitions for writ of habeas corpus.  I think the answer is yes.

If you took a few moments to read Maples, you’re familiar with the Court’s exercise of leniency toward Maples, which is somewhat rare in habeas cases.  (As I mentioned in my previous post, habeas petitioners are often penalized for mistakes made by their postconviction attorney).  You’d also recall that in Maples, the Court relied heavily on Holland v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2549 (2010).

Holland is another case where the Supreme Court also showed leniency toward a federal habeas petitioner.  In Holland, the Court held, for the first time, that (1) the one year statute of limitations contained in section 2244(d) (governing the filing of section 2254 federal habeas petitions challenging state court convictions) can be tolled for equitable reasons; and, (2) an attorney’s professional misconduct may, at times, constitute “extraordinary circumstances” to warrant equitable tolling.  See Maples, No. 10-63, slip op. at *13 (recalling holding of Holland).  Significantly, in Holland, the Court explicitly stated that the analysis employed by the Eleventh Circuit to determine whether an attorney’s misconduct might warrant equitable tolling was “too rigid.”  See Holland, 130 S.Ct. at 2549.  While the Court didn’t reach the conclusion that the professional misconduct of Holland’s attorney rose to the level of “extraordinary circumstances” sufficient to warrant equitable tolling, the Court did remand the case back to the Eleventh Circuit for such a determination.  See Holland, 130 S.Ct. at 2565.  The Eleventh Circuit, in turn, remanded the matter back to the District Court for a possible evidentiary hearing on the issue.  See Holland v. Florida, 613 F.3d 1053 (11th Cir. 2010).  As of the date of this post, the status and disposition of Holland’s case in the District Court is unclear.  Westlaw does not show any further published opinions subsequent to the Eleventh Circuit remand at 613 F.3d 1053.  However, I suppose if you have time to kill, you could always check PACER for the status of Holland’s case.  His case originated locally, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, and appears to be assigned case number No. 06-20182-CV-PAS (Judge Seitz).

While I have not yet had the time to review the 2,358 opinions which cite to Holland, I think it’s fair to say that Holland may have begun a new era in postconviction litigation.  While it’s true that habeas petitioners have long argued that they should not be held accountable for the mistakes of their lawyers, habeas petitioners now have a strong case to point to in support of such argument.

United States Supreme Court Issues Habeas Opinions in Maples v. Thomas, No. 10-63, and Gonzalez v. Thaler, No. 10-895

You may recall that in a previous post dated October 4, 2011, I listed a few federal criminal and habeas cases that I thought South Florida criminal defense and criminal appeals lawyers might want to monitor this Term.  Well, so far, the Court has issued opinions in two of the cases.  They are:

MAPLES V. THOMAS, No. 10-63, (slip opinion dated January 18, 2012):   A win for the habeas petitioner!  Maples had been sentenced to death in Alabama and filed postconviction motions alleging ineffective assistance of counsel.  While the postconviction motion was pending, the attorneys who had been handling Maples’ case left their firm (Sullivan & Cromwell of New York) for new employment, but never notified Maples of their departure, never moved to withdraw, and never moved to substitute counsel.  Maples lost his postconviction motion.  A copy of the court order was sent to Maples’ attorneys at their former firm, but the firm returned the mailings, unopened, to the Clerk of Court.  The Clerk attempted no further mailing, and Maples’ time for filing further appeals expired.  Maples’ subsequent federal habeas petition was denied by the United States District Court on procedural default grounds, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.  However, the United States Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit, finding that Maples had shown the requisite “cause” to excuse the procedural default.  In the opinion, the Court described Maples being “blameless,” and, stated, to my amazement:

The sole question this Court has taken up for review is whether, on the extraordinary facts of Maples’ case,  there is “cause” to excuse the default.  Maples maintains that there is, for the lawyers he believed to be vigilantly representing him had abandoned the case without leave of court, without informing Maples they could no longer represent him, and without securing any recorded substitution of counsel.  We agree.  Abandoned by counsel, Maples was left unrepresented at a critical time for his state postconviction petition, and he lacked a clue of any need to protect himself pro se.  In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default at Maples’ death-cell door.  Satisfied that the requisite cause has been shown, we reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment.

Why was I amazed at that language?  Well, if you’re a criminal defense or criminal appeals lawyer who is familiar with habeas jurisprudence, you know that many times, the individual petitioners are penalized for their counsel’s procedural errors, notwithstanding the fact that the individual petitioners have little to no control over the acts of their attorney.  However, here, the Court recognized the practical reality of Maples’ situation, and showed him some leniency by allowing him the chance to litigate another postconviction motion.

GONZALEZ V. THALER, No. 10-895 (slip opinion dated January 10, 2012):  This is a very technical, and somewhat dry, opinion.  Although the issues specifically framed by the Court were “(1) whether the Court of Appeals had jurisdiction to adjudicate Gonzalez’s appeal, notwithstanding the §2253(c)(3) defect; and, (2) whether Gonzalez’s habeas petition was time barred under §2244(d)(1) due to the date on which his judgment became final,” the Court addressed several sub-issues, including (a) the effect of defects in certificates of appealability on the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court; (b) the meaning of the term “jurisdictional;” (c)  when a State court conviction becomes final for purposes of habeas review; and, (d) timeliness of habeas petitions.  The most lively portion of the opinion, as you could have guessed, is Justice Scalia’s dissent.  I may not agree with a lot of what Scalia writes, but I have to admit that it takes some truly special talent to make dry jurisdictional arguments worth reading!

Sirhan Sirhan files Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in Federal Court in Connection with Conviction for 1968 Murder of Robert F. Kennedy

For those South Florida criminal defense attorneys who follow Kennedy conspiracy theories, I came across an article you might want to check out.  Sirhan Sirhan was convicted of murdering then-Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, just after he won the California primary.   The article reports that in a habeas corpus petition filed in federal court in Los Angeles, attorneys for Sirhan Sirhan allege that he was convicted based on prosecutorial misconduct: namely, that someone switched a bullet in evidence at trial to win the conviction.  Forensic evidence allegedly supports the switched bullet theory.  While the report notes that in the habeas petition, attorneys for Sirhan Sirhan acknowledge that habeas petitions are difficult to win, the attorneys also request, in the alternative, that the court conduct an evidentiary hearing to reexamine the case.

It will be interesting to see what the Court will do, particularly with the request for evidentiary hearing.  Timeliness issues aside, while evidentiary hearing are rarely held in habeas cases, they are sometimes conducted where claims of prosecutorial misconduct are raised.  We’ll have to keep our eyes on this one.


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