Thursday, August 29, 2019

No news on the magistrate interviews yet

I’m working on getting the list of 5 names being sent to the judges.  If you have a tip, please email me.

In the meantime, if you’d like some hurricane reading, check out these two opinions by Judge Newsom.  He is such a good writer that sometimes you forget that he is issuing some crushing opinions for criminal defendants.  The first is USA v. Baptiste, where even the prosecution couldn’t defend the trial court’s admission of hearsay with a straight face.  But the 11th won’t come out and say that it’s hearsay, instead holding that it doesn’t matter because ... you guessed it: harmless. After saying that, the court goes on to allow the hearsay at sentencing because it’s reliable hearsay.  Hmmmm:
Although Baptiste raises a number of issues on appeal, we focus primarily on two questions related to the hearsay testimony of a government witness. The abridged version of the story: Francesse Chery was one of Baptiste’s key witnesses. The government countered with her brother, Anael Chery, who testified (among other things) that Francesse had told him that, in exchange for her (false) testimony supporting Baptiste’s narrative, Baptiste would give her a Mercedes. Baptiste argues that Anael’s testimony was inadmissible hearsay and that the district court’s error in allowing the jury to hear it tainted both his conviction and his sentence.
Baptiste’s challenge presents two questions. First, was Anael’s testimony indeed inadmissible hearsay? The district court admitted the testimony pursuant to the statement-against-interest exception to the general prohibition on hearsay evidence, and on appeal the government has offered a smattering of additional theories of admissibility. We conclude that we needn’t decide whether Anael’s testimony was inadmissible hearsay because even if the district court did err in allowing it, the error was harmless. There was more than enough compelling—and undoubtedly admissible—evidence to support Baptiste’s conviction.
Second, and (sort of) relatedly, did the district court err in relying on Anael’s testimony when it imposed a sentencing enhancement for obstructing justice? If you’re saying, “Didn’t they just say they weren’t going to decide whether the testimony was admissible?”—we hear you. As it turns out, though, thanks to a doctrine called (somewhat oxymoronically) “reliable hearsay” we can answer the second question without deciding the first. Under the reliable-hearsay doctrine, so long as certain preconditions are met, a sentencing court can rely on evidence that would be off-limits in the guilt phase. For Baptiste, this means that even if Anael’s description of his sister’s supposed deal was inadmissible hearsay (and we aren’t saying either way) the district court might not have erred in relying on that testimony for the obstruction enhancement—again, so long as the preconditions are met.
So, what are they? Well, our case law has arguably sent mixed signals about that. There is, though, a synthesis. We hold (and clarify) today that the Sentencing Guidelines permit use of hearsay testimony so long as the overall record provides “sufficient indicia of reliability”—and we conclude that the indicia of reliability here are sufficient.
Next up is United States v. Taylor, which involves some really interesting 4th Amendment issues and NIT warrants. Judge Newsom finds that the warrants were illegal, but no suppression is warranted because... you guessed it: good faith. I’ll post more about this case later, but the takeaway from these two cases — the doctrines of harmless error and good faith are being used in extremely aggressive ways by the 11th Circuit to send a clear message to district judges: don’t worry, we have your back if you rule for the prosecution, even if you err.  Don’t worry about bad warrants in pretrial proceedings. Don’t sweat the hearsay at trial.  Appellate review weighs heavily in favor of affirming convictions even where there are big problems with the ways in which prosecutors and judges are obtaining these convictions.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

We're #5...

...on this ranking for best places to practice law.  Number 1 is Illinois:
Our top state for lawyers based on the six metrics we considered is Illinois. Lawyers in Illinois have had high earnings growth over the past five years resulting in high average incomes. Between 2014 and 2018, average annual earnings for lawyers rose 22.70%, bringing the 2018 mean income for a lawyer in Illinois to $152,980.
Re Florida:
Florida ranks third on two of our density measures, the number of lawyers per 1,000 employees and law offices as a percentage of total establishments. In 2018, there were 5.49 lawyers in Florida for every 1,000 workers, and in 2016, law offices made up 3.04% of total establishments in the state. In fact, Florida has the second-highest law office density of any state in our top 10, following only the District of Columbia.
Lawyers’ earnings growth in Florida lags behind eight of our other top-10 states. In 2014, the average annual income for lawyers was $122,020 and it grew to be $128,920 in 2018. While this is an increase of almost $7,000, in percentage terms it is only 5.65%, which falls below the average earnings growth across all states of 6.58%.
  Kim Kardashian won't be practicing here as she is studying for California.  And studying hard:
In her interview with West, she opened up about how difficult it has been to be taken seriously as a student of law due to her wealth and celebrity.

“There is a misconception that I don’t actually have to study and that I’ve bought my way into getting a law degree – that’s absolutely not true,” she explained in an excerpt from the interview. “Being underestimated and over-delivering is my vibe.”

Monday, August 26, 2019

Magistrate Judge Interviews this week

The Magistrate Judge Selection Committee, headed by Jon Sale, will be conducting interviews Thursday of 13 candidates (two have withdrawn their names).  They will recommend 5 to the District Judges, who will pick one.  The list of 13 interviewees is (in no particular order):

AFPD Sowmya Bharathi
AFPD Bernardo Lopez
AFPD Tim Day
Judge Lornette Reynolds
Barbara Junge
Shari Lefton
Rossana Arteaga-Gomez
Meredith Schultz 
AUSA Steve Petri
AUSA Joseph Huynh
AUSA Jared Strauss 
AUSA Bruce Brown
AUSA Julia Vaglienti

Thursday, August 22, 2019


That's a sentence from this introductory paragraph by Judge Newsom:
You can’t make this stuff up. We have hair-pulling, wrist-scratching, facepunching, and rock-throwing—all the makings of a good old-fashioned schoolyard scrap. But alas, the combatants in the fracas underlying this Fourth Amendment case were grown-ups—sisters, in fact. Sheesh. Sister No. 1, Lori Huebner, was arrested for simple battery following an altercation with Sister No. 2, Kathleen Dobin. Huebner later sued Deputy Peter McDonough, alleging that he violated her Fourth Amendment rights (1) by arresting her without probable cause—in particular, by relying on what she claims
was untrustworthy information and by failing to conduct an adequate investigation—and (2) by using excessive force in the course of effectuating the arrest. The district court granted summary judgment to McDonough, and Huebner now appeals. We hold that McDonough had ample probable cause to arrest Huebner—the underlying information indicating that she had battered her sister was credible and his investigation was  sufficient—and that McDonough didn’t use excessive force in making the arrest.
 Enjoy the rest of the opinion.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Prosecutor’s use of an agent as an expert witness is plain error

We’ve all been in trials where the government tries to use a case agent as an expert witness to testify as to why what the defendant was doing is criminal.  The 11th Circuit decided an important case (U.S. v. Hawkins) today putting an end to this practice.
That brings us to the matter of Agent Russell’s trial testimony. Hawkins and McCree argue that Agent Russell “went far beyond permissible testimony” when he repeatedly provided “speculative interpretive commentary” on the meanings of phone calls and text messages and gave his opinions about what was occurring during and in between those communications. We agree.
Agent Russell—a lieutenant with the Montgomery Police Department assigned to the DEA’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force from 2011 through 2015—was both the lead case agent in the investigation and the Government’s principal witness at trial. He provided extensive testimony about the drug trade, the investigation, and the intercepted phone calls, and—contrary to the Government’s puzzling contention otherwise—he was presented as an expert to the jury.
Hawkins and McCree acknowledge that experienced narcotics agents may testify as experts to help juries understand the drug business, codes, and jargon; indeed, this Court has repeatedly so held. See, e.g., Holt, 777 F.3d at 1265 (“‘The operations of narcotics dealers are a proper subject for expert testimony under [Federal Rule of Evidence] 702,’ and ‘an experienced narcotics agent may testify as an expert to help a jury understand the significance of certain conduct or methods of operation unique to the drug distribution business.’” (quoting United States v. Cesar Garcia,14 447 F.3d 1327, 1335 (11th Cir. 2006))). But that is not the problem here.
Much of Agent Russell’s trial testimony “was not specific to his interpretation of drug codes and jargon” and “went beyond interpreting code words to interpret conversations as a whole.” United States v. Emmanuel, 565 F.3d 1324, 1336 (11th Cir. 2009). During his extensive time on the witness stand, Agent Russell “interpreted” unambiguous language, mixed expert opinion with fact testimony, and synthesized the trial evidence for the jury. His testimony strayed into speculation and unfettered, wholesale interpretation of the evidence. Allowance of this testimony constituted plain error.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Judges hit "reply all" too

The DC district court had a bit of a dust-up this week when an email war between judges went public.  From the Washington Post:
A clash between judges on two federal courts in Washington has created an early, unusual test of new rules intended to make sure courthouses across the country are civil, harassment-free workplaces.

And it has exposed the perils of the reply-all email, even among judges for life.

A U.S. District Court judge forwarded an email to about 45 judges and their staffs to flag an upcoming climate-change seminar co-sponsored by the research and education agency of the judiciary branch. His note said, “just FYI.”

Within an hour a judicial colleague responded sharply to the group, questioning the first judge’s ethics and urging him to get “back into the business of judging, which are what you are being paid to do.” He also said, “The jurisdiction assigned to you does not include saving the planet.”

The correspondence, which sparked a lively exchange involving other judges, amounted to an unusual exposure of private conversations on the federal bench. It also poses the question of how the judiciary now will police itself in such instances.


The controversy began the evening of July 3, when Sullivan forwarded the invitation.

Soon after, Randolph, who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, replied all. He chided Sullivan for “subjecting our colleagues to this nonsense” and suggested he had crossed an ethical line. He asked: “Should I report you? I don’t know.”

“The jurisdiction assigned to you does not include saving the planet. A little hubris [sic] would be welcomed in many of your latest public displays,” Randolph wrote.

“The supposedly science and stuff you are now sponsoring is nothing of the sort,” his email continued. “Get out of this business and back into the business of judging, which are what you are being paid to do.”

Problem is that the seminar was approved by the Federal Judicial Center (where Chief Justice Roberts sits) forcing Randolph to back down.  He issued a half-apology:
More than two weeks after his initial note, Randolph again addressed the email list. After learning more about the Environmental Law Institute’s program and the judiciary’s co-sponsorship, he wrote: “While I continue to disagree with their conclusion about the propriety of the program, I think their position is fairly held.”

Given that, he wrote, “I do not believe that Judge Sullivan acted improperly in circulating the invitation to ELI’s program.”
Oh, how nice of you. I know the judges in our district would not give you acceptance points for that.

In addition to judges behaving badly, the executive branch is under more fire. This time in Kansas City. This is pretty remarkable:
A federal judge in a scathing order this week held the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas in contempt of court for its pattern of misrepresentations, obfuscation and lack of cooperation during an investigation into a growing scandal.

A ruling by U.S. District Court of Kansas Judge Julie Robinson late Tuesday capped a three-year probe that examined the extent to which federal prosecutors in Kansas had accessed recordings of confidential phone calls and meetings between defense attorneys and their clients at a private prison in Leavenworth.

Conversations between clients and their attorneys are confidential in nearly all aspects. Robinson found that federal prosecutors in Kansas determined on their own that they could access recordings of these discussions, tainting several criminal cases along the way.

At least three criminal defendants in Kansas have had their sentences vacated or their indictments dismissed as a result of the scandal. More than a hundred others have filed petitions for similar relief.

“The Government’s wholesale strategy to delay, diffuse, and deflect succeeded in denying the individual litigants their day in court for almost three years,” Robinson wrote as part of a 188-page ruling.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Judge Rudy Ruiz investiture

It was a really nice event to a packed house (including two overflow rooms) with heartfelt speeches from Justice Robert Luck, Judge Federico Moreno, and from Judge Ruiz himself.

Meantime, in the 11th Circuit, Judge Newsom wrote an opinion with a shoutout to teenage readers:
The puffery “doctrine” presumes a relatively (but realistically) savvy consumer—the general idea being that some statements are just too boosterish to justify reasonable reliance. In general parlance, “puffing” is “seller’s or dealer’s talk in praise of the virtues of something offered for sale.” Webster’s Third New International 1838 (2002). Perhaps closer to home for our purposes, it refers to an “expression of an exaggerated opinion—as opposed to a factual misrepresentation—with the intent to sell a good or service.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1428 (10th ed. 2014). As Judge Learned Hand once put it, “[t]here are some kinds of talk which no sensible man takes seriously, and if he does he suffers from his credulity.” Vulcan Metals Co. v. Simmons Mfg. Co., 248 F. 853, 856 (2d Cir. 1918). Think, for example, Disneyland’s claim to be “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Or Avis’s boast, “We Just Try Harder.” Or Dunkin Donuts’s assertion that “America runs on Dunkin.” Or (for our teenage readers) Sony’s statement that its PlayStation 3 “Only Does Everything.” These boasts and others like them are widely regarded as “puff”— big claims with little substance.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Raag Singhal officially nominated to the District Court

Back in May, the blog reported that state court judge Raag Singhal was being vetted for an open district court seat in the Southern District of Florida.  Today, President Trump made his nomination official.  Congrats to Judge Singhal.  He's going to be great.  From the press release:

Anuraag “Raag” Singhal of Florida, to serve as Judge on the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
Raag Singhal serves as a Circuit Court Judge for the 17th Judicial Circuit in Broward County, Florida, having been appointed to the bench by then-Governor Rick Scott in 2011. Before his appointment, Judge Singhal was in private practice in Fort Lauderdale where his practice focused on criminal defense in both the trial courts and courts of appeals. Early in his career, Judge Singhal served as a prosecutor in the Office of the State Attorney. Judge Singhal earned his B.A. from Rice University and his J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Gerald Tjoflat to take senior status

Big news out of the 11th Circuit today, as Judge Tjoflat is taking senior status upon the confirmation of his successor.  Tjoflat turns 90 in December and was a member of the 5th Circuit before the court split.  He is the longest serving judge in active service.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Was this cross examination “scandalous”? (TWO UPDATES)


There was a little dust-up on the FACDL Listserv this weekend over a cross examination conducted by an assistant public defender named Carl Vizzi back in the mid-80s.  I had never heard of Vizzi or this cross, but the AP covered it back in the day.  The cross won Vizzi’s client an acquittal and also landed him in jail.
During cross-examination of the alleged victim on Wednesday, Vizzi called her an exhibitionist and her husband a voyeur, adding, ″You turn tricks, don’t you?″

At one point, Vizzi slammed two quarters on the witness stand and said, ″You’ll dance nude for 50 cents. What would you do for a dollar?″

The woman charged that the defendant kidnapped and raped her, but the man claimed he had paid the woman for sex.

Holding Vizzi in contempt, Donner said, ″Any rape victim who had the misfortune to observe your conduct would have never continued with a rape prosecution.

″The cross-examination was scandalous, to say the least.″

Vizzi told Donner that he did not mean to violate her orders.

″I defended this man vigorously because I honestly believed he was falsely accused,″ he said.
How would this cross have gone over in today’s climate where the ABA in considering a resolution that would shift the burden to defendants to show affirmative consent. After numerous organizations opposed the resolution, it appears to be dead.

UPDATE — A helpful commenter points out the 3rd DCA case on the contempt order, which was upheld. Some additional cross, which formed the basis of the contempt order:
"Q. Isn't this place a front for prostitution?
MR. BAGLEY: Objection; this is irrelevant, Judge.
THE COURT: Sustained.
. . . .
Q. Isn't it true that girls that work at Live Peeps will often take coffee breaks to do things with the customers who liked how they danced and liked their body —
MR. BAGLEY: Objection.
Q. — and wanted to do a little bit more with them that could be done in those rooms where you work?
Isn't it true that that happens all the time?
MR. BAGLEY: Objection; improper question. It's a compound question and furthermore its irrelevant.
THE COURT: Sustained."
Later, he engaged in the following cross examination of the complainant which led to his contempt conviction:

"Q. Isn't it true that your 19-year-old now-husband doesn't like you to work after hours doing extra things other than work at Live Peeps?
MR. BAGLEY: Objection, your Honor; that's irrelevant.
THE COURT: Sustained. Move on, Mr. Vizzi.
Q. Isn't it true that your husband is a voyeur and you're an exhibitionist and he doesn't like it to get any further than that. He gets sexual gratification when you take your clothes off, but he gets very angry when you perform tricks with customers?
MR. BAGLEY: Objection.
THE COURT: Come to side-bar, Mr. Vizzi.
SECOND UPDATE -- in the comment section, Judge Amy Steele Donner makes the following comments.  Thank you for commenting for the blog Judge Donner:

He actually was a pretty bad lawyer and that was the only case he won in front of me. He also came to my house with his baby begging not to be put in jail. Coming to my house uninvited was also a violation of his oath and the order he violated was the rape-shield law, not that I personally enacted it. The prosecutor was the esteemed former circuit judge, Gerald Bagley who would definitely agree with my analysis of his trial behavior. Amy Steele Donner

Thursday, August 08, 2019

One *billion* dollars in fraud

Pleading to a billion dollar fraud case is tough because the guidelines are so high. So sometimes it may be better to take your chances at trial (unless the defendant is permitted to plead to a 371 conspiracy with a 5-year cap). Here’s a Miami Herald article about a plea in the Woodbridge case for Robert Shapiro:

The founder of a South Florida real estate company pleaded guilty Wednesday to orchestrating a $1.3 billion Ponzi scheme that bilked thousands of mostly elderly investors.

Robert H. Shapiro, the former CEO of the Woodbridge Group of Companies, admitted in Miami federal court that he “misappropriated” between $25 million and $95 million of the investors’ money to himself and his family to pay for an estate in the Los Angeles area, chartered planes, global travel, jewelry, diamonds and vintage wines. Shapiro also collected artworks by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Pierre-August Renoir and Alberto Giacometti. He also owned a Mercury convertible.

Now, all those luxury items belong to the feds.

Shapiro, 61, who was arrested in April, faces up to 20 years for wire and mail fraud conspiracy and an additional 5 years for tax evasion at his sentencing on Oct. 15 before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. In pleading guilty, Shapiro avoids going to trial but still is looking at a total of 25 years in prison.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Should we give this op-ed to all jurors?

It’s a very powerful piece about how important jury service is.

Plus, it will combat the idea that jury service is to rubber stamp prosecutors.  There are so many signals around courthouses about law enforcement (the posters in jury rooms saying that if you see something, you should say something; the “law-enforcement cafe;” and so on), that this op-ed might be a good way to temper it.

The conclusion:
We are told that there is a great divide in our country, and at the voting booth that is apparent. But in the jury room, we were just 12 random people pulled out of our daily lives and asked to administer the final decision in a case. It felt like our justice system at work.

I’ll vote in November, and it will be important. But I don’t think I’ll ever feel as significant as a citizen as I did in that jury room.
Meantime, let me be a proud dad for a moment and post the op-ed of my daughter in today’s Miami Herald:
And though I identify as an activist, I wish I did not have to. There is a large part of me that resents the fact that fellow teens and I have to wake up and focus on whether the government will pass the simplest background checks bill, or if there will be a shooting near me that kills someone I know.

I resent it because it should be adults and elected government officials focusing on these issues.

I would much rather spend my time dancing around the house, modeling clothes and makeup for my friends, and going to the beach. You know, typical things that those in government think teenagers do when they call us incompetent and assert that we do not know anything about politics, all the while allowing the gun violence epidemic to continue in an endless cycle. But I can’t.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Cool story about a jailhouse lawyer

Check out this NY Times story about Calvin Duncan, a jailhouse lawyer, who convinced the Supreme Court to hear a case about whether juries could convict without a unanimous verdict:
“For 23 years, I was a jailhouse lawyer,” said Calvin Duncan, a former inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. “That was my assigned job.”
He had a 10th-grade education, and he was serving a life sentence for murder. The prison paid him 20 cents an hour to help his fellow prisoners with their cases.
He got good at it, and he used his increasingly formidable legal skills to help free several inmates. He knew how to spot a promising legal issue, and he was relentless. Seasoned lawyers sought his advice.
One issue in particular consumed Mr. Duncan. He could not understand how a Louisiana law that allowed non-unanimous juries in criminal cases could be constitutional. He would not let it go, working on about two dozen failed attempts to persuade the Supreme Court to address the issue.
The justices finally agreed in March to decide the question. They will hear arguments in the case, Ramos v. Louisiana, No. 18-5924, on the first day of their new term, on Oct. 7.
 This is so true:
Mr. Duncan visited Professor Mattes’s law school clinic not long after he was released. The students were in their third year, tired of studying and perhaps a little jaded.
Mr. Duncan asked to see the law library, and he marveled at the vast and pristine collections of cases, codes and treatises.
“All of a sudden, he stops and he turns to the students,” Professor Mattes said. “He gets very serious and he says: ‘You guys need to know how incredibly lucky you are. Because what you have here is power.’”

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Defending Dersh

Here’s my latest piece, this time in Newsmax, about Alan Dershowitz. Here’s the intro:

Our criminal justice system is built on the notion that the burden is on the prosecution to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt before one’s liberty, our most valuable asset, can be taken away. And for good reason. We don’t want innocent people in jail.
We are willing to live with some guilty folks going free so that we don’t have the horror of an innocent person behind bars. Our system, with all of its flaws (including the concept that prosecutors who charge people with baseless claims cannot be charged), has clung to this bedrock principle of presumed innocence.
The system still affords defendants due process of law.
But what about a private individual falsely accusing someone of a heinous crime?
Today it seems that anyone can accuse another without any real fear of repercussions.
Such allegations are protected by the “litigation privilege” and are not subject to defamation suits.
When someone says something accusatory in public, he can be sued. But a person who makes up an allegation in a court document can’t be. And if such an accuser is found to have lied, they likely will never be prosecuted.
This is where famed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz finds himself: accused of a heinous crime without any real recourse or due process protection. As the accusations pop up on screens across the globe, they are assumed to be true even though Dershowitz has not been charged or convicted.