Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
by
This case revolves around the question of whether a search for internet-related evidence that extended to a previously unknown basement apartment was reasonable, even though the apartment was not specified in the warrant. The police had obtained a warrant to search a property after receiving information that child pornography had been downloaded to a particular IP address associated with that address. The property appeared to be a single-family home. However, during the execution of the warrant, the police encountered Kevin Matthew Dhyne, who lived in a basement apartment on the property and used the same internet access as the rest of the house. The police searched Dhyne’s apartment and found sexually explicit material involving children on his laptop.The trial court agreed with Dhyne's argument that the search violated the U.S. and Colorado constitutions because the warrant was not specific to his basement apartment. However, the court denied Dhyne’s motion to suppress the evidence, reasoning that even if the officers had not searched his apartment in conjunction with the original warrant, they would have executed the same search later that day under a warrant specific to the basement apartment, and the evidence would therefore have inevitably been discovered. Dhyne was convicted of two counts of sexual exploitation of a child.The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the suppression motion, though it did so by upholding the search rather than by applying the inevitable discovery exception. The court of appeals agreed that for a multi-dwelling unit, separate dwellings normally require separate, specific warrants. However, the court justified the search of Dhyne’s apartment based on the shared use of the IP address.The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado affirmed the outcome, holding that the warrant's reference to the property's "[h]ouse, garage, and any outbuildings" was sufficiently specific because there were no outward indicators that the basement apartment existed. The court also held that the execution of the warrant was reasonable in this specific scenario, where the warrant was for all buildings on the property and the defendant told the police that he lived in the basement and used the IP address that provided grounds for the search. View "Dhyne v. People" on Justia Law

by
John M. Burkman and Jacob A. Wohl were charged with bribing or intimidating voters, conspiracy to bribe or intimidate voters, and two counts of using a computer to commit a crime. The charges stemmed from a robocall they designed and financed in 2020, which targeted voters in Michigan areas with significant Black populations. The robocall claimed that voting by mail would result in the voter’s personal information becoming part of a public database used by the police to track down old warrants, by credit card companies to collect debt, and potentially by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track people for mandatory vaccines. The district court found probable cause to believe that the defendants had committed the charged offenses and bound them over for trial. The defendants moved to quash the bindovers, arguing that the robocall was not a “menace” or “other corrupt means or device” under the relevant statute and that the statute was unconstitutional. The circuit court denied the motions.The Michigan Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals erred in determining that the defendants’ conduct fell within the term “menace” as used in the relevant statute. However, the Court of Appeals correctly concluded that the defendants’ conduct fell within the statutory catchall term “other corrupt means or device.” The Supreme Court also held that the defendants’ conduct was not excluded from constitutional free-speech protections under the true-threat exception, but erred by holding that the defendants’ conduct was excluded from constitutional free-speech protections under the speech-integral-to-criminal-conduct exception. The Supreme Court adopted a limiting construction of the statute’s catchall provision and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings. View "People v. Burkman" on Justia Law

by
In 2021, Hugo Escudero was investigated as a suspected wholesale cocaine dealer based on information provided by a confidential informant. The informant claimed that Escudero and his brother were selling large amounts of cocaine and used a runner, M.G., to deliver the drugs. Law enforcement officers corroborated this information through surveillance and obtained a GPS tracking warrant for Escudero's vehicle. This led to additional search warrants for Escudero's apartment and music studio. In September 2021, officers arrested Escudero and M.G. when they arrived with a kilogram of cocaine for a controlled buy.Escudero was indicted and filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the tracking and search warrants. A federal magistrate judge recommended denying Escudero's motions to suppress, and the district court adopted this recommendation. During the trial, Escudero posted a message on M.G.'s Facebook page, which the court admitted into evidence as it was "probative of the consciousness of guilt" and not unfairly prejudicial. The jury found Escudero guilty of possessing five or more kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute, and he was sentenced to 216 months of imprisonment.On appeal, Escudero challenged the legitimacy of the tracking warrant, the admission of his Facebook message, and the sufficiency of evidence for his guilty verdict. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that the Leon good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied to the tracking warrant, the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting Escudero's Facebook message and witness list comment, and the evidence was sufficient to convict Escudero of possession. View "United States v. Escudero" on Justia Law

by
The case involves a professional photographer who sexually exploited a minor. The defendant initially contacted the victim through a social networking site and began communicating with her through various means, eventually soliciting and receiving explicit images of the victim. The defendant also met the victim in person and sexually abused her. After the victim's parents reported the exploitation to the police, an investigation was launched. The police seized a computer tower, an external hard drive, and other items from the defendant's former residence. A forensic examination of the hard drives revealed explicit images of the victim, communications between the defendant and the victim, and hundreds of images of unidentified females in various stages of undress.The defendant was indicted on multiple counts, including aggravated rape of a child and enticement of a minor. He pleaded guilty to all charges, except for the eight counts of aggravated rape of a child, where he pleaded guilty to the lesser included offense of statutory rape. After being sentenced, the defendant filed a motion for the return of the seized property. The Commonwealth opposed the return of the property, arguing that it was in the "public interest" to destroy the devices. The Superior Court denied the defendant's request for the return of certain property.The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts granted an application for direct appellate review. The court concluded that the procedural requirements set forth in G. L. c. 276, §§ 4 to 8, must be followed before a forfeiture decree may be issued under G. L. c. 276, § 3. The court vacated the Superior Court orders denying the return of certain property to the defendant and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. View "Commonwealth v. James" on Justia Law

by
In January 2021, John William Thomas Flechs, using the pseudonym “John Breezy,” began conversations on the Kik online messaging platform with someone he believed to be a 14-year-old boy. In fact, Flechs was messaging Sergeant John Haning, a member of the Rogers County, Oklahoma Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Over the next four days, Flechs and the minor discussed sexual topics in graphic detail. After they discussed meeting in person, Flechs asked the minor if he would be going to the skatepark. When Flechs arrived at the skatepark, he handed two Dr. Pepper sodas to an officer posing as the minor. Officers then arrested him.A grand jury indicted Flechs for attempted enticement of a minor in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b). A petit jury returned a guilty verdict. The district court sentenced Flechs to 120 months in prison and five years of supervised release. Flechs timely appealed.On appeal, Flechs argued that the trial evidence was insufficient to prove that he intended to entice the minor or took a substantial step toward enticement. He also argued that the jury instruction on the term “grooming” violated Federal Rule of Evidence 605, contained an unconstitutional presumption on the element of intent, and misstated the law. The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit rejected these arguments and affirmed the conviction. The court held that the evidence was sufficient to convict Flechs of attempted enticement of a minor under 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b). The court also held that the jury instruction on the term “grooming” did not violate Federal Rule of Evidence 605, did not contain an unconstitutional presumption on the element of intent, and did not misstate the law. View "United States v. Flechs" on Justia Law

by
The case involves Raji Afife Azar, who was charged with three counts of "computer crime" under ORS 164.377(2)(c) for selling items on eBay that he believed to be stolen. The state argued that by selling stolen merchandise on eBay, Azar had accessed and used a computer system for the purpose of committing theft of property. Azar moved for judgment of acquittal, arguing that the state had not proved that he had engaged in "computer hacking," which he asserted was required to establish computer crime. The trial court denied Azar's motion, and a nonunanimous jury convicted him of those counts.The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's denial of Azar's motion for judgment of acquittal. The court concluded that Azar's conduct of selling stolen property on eBay constituted computer crime under ORS 164.377(2)(c). The court reasoned that "theft" as used in ORS 164.377(2)(c) encompasses each of the forms of theft described in ORS 164.015, including theft by receiving.The Supreme Court of the State of Oregon reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals. The court concluded that the legislature did not intend for the computer crime statute to reach conduct such as Azar's, which may constitute "theft" within the meaning of the Criminal Code but neither interferes with another’s protected interests in a computer, computer system, or computer network nor depends on computer technology as the means of gaining access to the thing that the person seeks to unlawfully obtain. The court held that the trial court erred in denying Azar's motion for judgment of acquittal and remanded the case to the circuit court for further proceedings. View "State v. Azar" on Justia Law

by
In this case, the defendant, Cody Wayne Hopkins, was charged with Attempted Enticement of a Minor Using the Internet, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b). The accusation revolved around an online conversation Hopkins had with a government agent posing as a 13-year-old girl. Despite knowing her age, Hopkins continued the conversation, making explicit sexual remarks, and arranging to meet her at a nearby high school. Upon arriving, Hopkins was arrested, and in a subsequent interview, admitted to knowing the girl was underage but claimed his intention was only to talk to her.During his trial, Hopkins claimed he was severely sleep-deprived during the interview, which led to confusion. However, the prosecution implied that he was lying about this assertion since it was not mentioned in the interview's transcript, which was redacted and given to the jury. Furthermore, the prosecution argued that Hopkins intended to entice a minor into engaging in illegal sexual activity based on his explicit text messages, despite Hopkins's claims of merely wanting to talk.The jury found Hopkins guilty, and he moved for a new trial citing prosecutorial misconduct. He argued that the prosecution had attacked his credibility based on untrue facts - that he had not mentioned sleep deprivation during the interview - and had repeatedly misstated the elements of the charged crime. However, the district court denied his motion for a new trial.Upon review, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court found no plain error in the prosecution’s conduct that would affect Hopkins' substantial rights, as the evidence of his guilt was overwhelming. The court also did not find any exceptional circumstances warranting reversal due to the prosecutor's alleged misstatement of the elements of the crime during the closing argument. Lastly, the court concluded that the cumulative effect of the alleged prosecutorial misconduct did not deny Hopkins a fair trial. View "United States v. Cody Hopkins" on Justia Law

by
The defendant, Brian Orlandella, was convicted by a jury of sexual exploitation of a minor and transfer of obscene material to a minor. The charges arose from Orlandella's interactions with a minor via the Kik messenger app. On appeal, Orlandella raised five arguments, all of which were rejected by the court.Orlandella argued that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction, but the court held that a reasonable jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that he persuaded the minor to produce explicit videos and pictures. Orlandella also contended that the court erred by not giving the jury a specific unanimity instruction on Count One, but the court held that a general unanimity instruction was sufficient.Furthermore, Orlandella claimed that the government violated its obligations to disclose evidence that could have helped his defense. However, the court found that the evidence in question was not material and its suppression did not undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial. Orlandella also argued that the court erred by failing to give the jury a missing witness instruction regarding the government's failure to call the minor as a witness. The court found that the minor was not peculiarly available to the government and that Orlandella was not prejudiced by her absence. Finally, Orlandella contended that his incriminating statements were taken in violation of his Miranda rights. The court held that even if there was a Miranda violation, it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt given the overwhelming evidence against Orlandella. Consequently, his convictions were affirmed. View "United States v. Orlandella" on Justia Law

by
A case was brought before the Supreme Court of Iowa involving Kadin Miller, who was convicted of harassment after he posted a video of himself and his ex-girlfriend engaged in consensual sexual intercourse on a pornography website without her consent. This act was done to "annoy" and "get back at" his ex-girlfriend after their relationship ended on bad terms. As a result of his conviction, Miller was sentenced to two years in prison and was required to register as a sex offender. The main issue in the appeal was whether the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Miller was required to register as a sex offender pursuant to Iowa Code chapter 692A.Under Iowa law, individuals convicted of any sex offense are required to register as a sex offender if they reside, are employed, or attend school in the state. The law sets forth a comprehensive list of sex offenses that require an offender to register as a sex offender. However, the crime Miller was convicted of, harassment in the first degree, is not a per se sex offense. For non-per se sex offenses, an offender is required to register only if the state proves “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “a judge or jury” that the offense was “sexually motivated.”In this case, the Supreme Court of Iowa concluded that the State did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Miller's crime was sexually motivated. The court found that the district court's reasoning did not focus on the relevant statutory inquiry—whether the crime was sexually motivated—and instead focused on whether Miller had a sexual interest in the video. The court also noted that there was no evidence to support the district court's finding that Miller's commission of the crime of harassment was done for the purpose of his own sexual gratification. As such, the Supreme Court of Iowa reversed the district court's finding that Miller's crime was sexually motivated, and therefore, Miller was not required to register as a sex offender. View "State of Iowa v. Miller" on Justia Law

by
In the case before the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, the defendant, Randall Crater, was convicted of wire fraud, unlawful monetary transactions, and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business based on his involvement in a cryptocurrency scheme. The trial lasted eight days and was based on Crater's management of My Big Coin (MBC), a cryptocurrency company that allegedly misrepresented itself as a gold-backed digital currency and claimed a partnership with MasterCard. The defendant appealed two of the district court's rulings.Firstly, Crater argued that the district court violated his Sixth Amendment right to compulsory process by refusing to enforce subpoenas against three federal agency witnesses due to Crater's non-compliance with the agencies' Touhy regulations. Secondly, Crater contended that the district court did not perform its gatekeeping duty by admitting testimony from the government's cryptocurrency expert without holding a Daubert hearing.However, the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision, stating that Crater's arguments could not be reconciled with controlling precedent or the record in the case. The court found that Crater's failure to show how the excluded testimony of the federal agents would have been both material and favorable to his defense invalidated his Sixth Amendment claim. Furthermore, the court held that Crater's objections to the expert witness's qualifications and methodology were insufficient to necessitate a Daubert hearing. View "US v. Crater" on Justia Law