US v. Lopez — criminal — reversal — Vanaskie
Criminal defendants don’t win too many Third Circuit appeals, especially by published opinion and most especially under plain-error review. But it happened today. The court vacated Victor Lopez’s conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm, holding that the prosecution violated Doyle v. Ohio by impeaching Lopez with his post-Miranda silence and ordering a new trial despite trial counsel’s failure to object to the error. The court ruled that the error affected the outcome because the error impacted Lopez’s credibility and the case hinged on credibility.
In a footnote, the court lamented that the Doyle error was “particularly egregious” because such errors “unfortunately resurface too often, threatening to undermine the integrity of proceedings in our courts.” After reiterating that it remained troubled by the recurring violations, the court “commend[ed] Assistant United States Attorney Steven G. Sanders for his forthright acknowledgment of the Doyle error during oral argument,” noting, “He was a model of professionalism in apologizing for the error at trial and vowing to take steps to avoid having this type of error recur.” Audio of the oral argument is here.
For criminal defense counsel, three prejudice points bear noting:
- The whole record matters. In finding that the error affected the outcome, the court didn’t just look at the testimony, it also looked at how the prosecutor argued that testimony at closing and at the questions jurors asked during deliberations.
- The fact that the credibility contest was between a defendant and police officers did not prevent the court from finding a reasonable probability that the error affected the outcome. Nor did the fact that the dispute was over whether the cops framed the defendant. In other words, the court recognized a reasonable probability that, without the improper impeachment, the jury would have believed that the defendant was telling the truth that the cops framed him, and that two police officers were lying when they said they found the gun on him.
- The court rejected the government’s argument that the Doyle error did not make a difference because the jury also had valid reasons to disbelieve the defendant (he had prior felony convictions and gave a false name when arrested).
Joining Vanaskie were McKee and Jordan. Arguing counsel were Steven Sanders for the government and my former colleague Maria Pulzetti of the EDPA Federal Community Defender for Lopez.
In re: World Imports — bankruptcy — reversal — Jordan
The Third Circuit today reversed a district court ruling in a bankruptcy case, holding that contractual modifications to a creditor’s maritime liens were enforceable on goods in the creditor’s possession.
Joining Jordan were McKee and Vanaskie. Arguing counsel were Brendan Collins for the creditor and David Braverman for the debtor.