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Notable Seventh Circuit Cases for February

February brought several meaty criminal (or criminal-adjacent) appeals:

  • Thomas Moorer v. City of Chicago, et al., No. 22-1067: This § 1983 case centers on whether Chicago PD had probable cause to detain Moorer on suspicion of being the shooter in a messy homicide investigation. It would appear that Moorer was developed as a suspect almost entirely on the strength of questionable eyewitness evidence and, following lengthy pretrial detention, he was ultimately acquitted of the murder at a jury trial. Moorer argues police violated his constitutional rights because there was never any probable cause to detain him on suspicion of committing the crime. However, his claim goes nowhere given the miserable state of the law with respect to probable cause and eyewitness identifications. (“We have held that an identification by even one eyewitness who lacks an apparent grudge against the accused person is sufficient to demonstrate probable cause.”). Because Moorer cannot demonstrate that the identifications were “so incredible that an officer could not reasonably believe the witnesses were telling the truth,” the district court correctly granted summary judgment in favor of the police. Moorer’s appellate arguments are trial-type attacks related to his ultimate guilt or innocence and do not undermine probable cause.
  • United States of America v. Adrian L. Johnson, No. 22-2932: Johnson was stopped as a result of his expired license plates. When police ran his information, things got worse, as it turned out he had a suspended sentence and a prior conviction, meaning his operation of the car was actually a misdemeanor offense under Indiana law. As the car was not registered to Johnson, the officer decided to impound the vehicle. Under local law enforcement policy, this meant the car needed to be inventoried. Police graciously offered to have Johnson sit in the police car while the “inventory” was conducted; as he was walked to the rear of the squad, the officer who initiated the stop (who happened to be a K9 handler) walked his dog around the car. The dog alerted and serious contraband was found inside. On appeal, Johnson contends that this was a Rodriguez violation. Notably, however, he failed to sufficiently preserve an argument that would have “parsed” the timeline of the stop to show a deviation from the traffic stop mission. Instead, the Court reviews whether the dog sniff prolonged the overall length of the stop. Thus, while the Court concludes that an officer cannot “drag her feet” in order to effectuate a sniff, that is not what happened here. Likewise, while it leaves open the possibility that securing Johnson in the car as a means of effectuating the sniff may have violated Rodriguez, the record is silent on this point. It is the defendant’s burden, however, to develop the record as to whether “every moment was spent in traffic-related tasks” and the Court therefore declines to address this potential argument. Under these facts, and with the record before it, the Court affirms.
  • Darnell Dixon v. Tarry Williams, No. 21-1375: This month brought several habeas appeals. The procedural history for this case is especially lengthy, as it stems from a 1992 homicide. Dixon was convicted in large part based on his confession, which he refused to sign off on, consistently claiming it was false. There was “thin” corroborating evidence at trial and Dixon was also prohibited from presenting evidence that a witness had actually failed to identify him in a lineup. Sometime in the intervening two decades of litigation, it turned out that the officer who obtained Dixon’s confession was found to have tortured suspects (no really, he was named in the “Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission’s” report) and has been repeatedly shown to have perjured himself in numerous criminal cases. And, as it turns out, the State’s attorney who participated in the interrogation was also crooked. In this proceeding, however, none of these extremely concerning background facts are sufficient to merit relief. Dixon’s new habeas claims are all procedurally defaulted; accordingly, he must prove his “actual innocence” to succeed at this stage of the litigation. (We are generalizing significantly here because of space constraints). Essentially, evidence that a dirty cop was involved in the investigation (without proof of coercion or torture in this case) does not prove Dixon’s innocence–especially given the fact that his co-actor has never backed down from his claim that he committed the crime with Dixon. The Court therefore deals quickly with Dixon’s remaining constitutional claims and affirms.
  • Donald A. Pierce v. Frank Vanihel, No. 22-2073: In this habeas appeal, Pierce faults his lawyer for not objecting to testimony that violated a state evidentiary rule. First, he argues that the state court unreasonably determined the facts when it concluded that counsel made a “knowing, strategic” decision not to object to inadmissible testimony. There’s a dense discussion here about the intricacies of the evidentiary rule at issue, but the upshot is that there was sufficient evidence in the record to conclude counsel “intentionally refrained from objecting” as a result of a conscious defense strategy. Second, Pierce argues the state court unreasonably concluded that counsel was not deficient. Under the “double deference” the Court must apply in assessing this IAC claim, the Court concludes that habeas relief is unwarranted. The state court “has offered a reasonable argument that counsel behaved competently.”
  • Monta Anderson v. United States of America, No. 22-2666: This is a long decision, but it’s actually a relatively straightforward IAC case. Anderson claims his lawyer was ineffective for not investigating whether the heroin he was convicted of trafficking was a “but-for” cause of a downstream user’s death. This matters because, under federal law, this would have generated a “prospective mandatory minimum term of life.” However, because a toxicologist could have undermined the government’s ability to prove that fact, then, theoretically, the life sentence counsel tried to negotiate Anderson out from under did not apply. If it’s true that no life sentence was in play, then counsel was ineffective for urging Anderson to accept a 20-year sentence to avoid that (inapplicable) enhancement. The problem, however, is that everyone in this appeal–including a prior panel of the 7th that remanded for an evidentiary hearing–missed the fact that Anderson was legally eligible for a mandatory life term due to other applicable enhancers. Accordingly, he cannot show prejudice and the Court affirms the denial of his collateral attack.
  • United States of America v. Brandon Cade,No. 23-1001: Cade was approached by police on the streets of Chicago for “carrying a bag over his shoulder.” When police noticed that the woman (T.J.) with Cade was drinking out of a red solo cup, things escalated from there. The car which the two were standing outside of was searched; both Cade and T.J. were eventually handcuffed to each other. Following the discovery of a firearm, Cade was read his rights and admitted ownership of the gun found inside the car, leading to this felon in possession prosecution. On appeal, Cade fails to show that the initial contact with law enforcement was an unlawful seizure. Instead, the Court concludes it was “consensual” notwithstanding that it was kicked off when police parked in front of Cade’s car and activated their emergency lights. The Court also has no trouble concluding that Cade’s later statement was “attenuated” from any unlawful police conduct.
  • United States of America v. Benjamin Biancofiori, No. 21-3372: Sometimes, zealous appellate advocacy requires the advancement of challenging, but nonetheless “meritorious” arguments; we believe counsel for Biancofiori wins this month’s prize for being willing to stand up for his client in the face of…let’s say skepticism from Judge Easterbrook. Biancofiori was convicted of trafficking women, using beatings and other mechanisms of abuse to compel their participation in his criminal enterprise. He was convicted under a federal statute titled, “Sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud or coercion.” Accordingly, Biancofiori argues that, as he trafficked adult women, the statute does not apply to his conduct. He argues that the statute likewise presents an absurd outcome if read otherwise, as it seems to punish the forceful trafficking of adults more harshly than the trafficking of children, which seems like a more serious offense. While the Court’s terse opinion holding otherwise suggests some level of disdain for these arguments, the Court is nonetheless forced to concede that the issue is unsettled and that “the argument has been made frequently in district courts, and at least one district court judge bought it.” Accordingly the Court grudgingly determines that Biancofiori has earned a precedential decision conclusively rejecting this argument. It also rejects a vagueness challenge for the same reasons it rejects the statutory construction arguments.
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