Seventh Circuit Affirms Life Sentence Notwithstanding Supreme Court’s Recent Eighth Amendment Decisions

From the time of its decision in Harmelin v. Michigan (1991), affirming a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a drug trafficking offense, through its decision in Ewing v. California (2003), affirming a de facto life sentence for shoplifting, the Supreme Court showed little interest in using the Eighth Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause as a basis to limit the length of prison sentences.  More recently, however, the Court has begun to extend the principles it developed to regulate capital sentencing into the noncapital realm.  First, in Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court banned life without parole for juveniles not convicted of homicide.  Then, in Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Court banned the use of mandatory “LWOP” sentences for all juveniles — even those convicted of homicide.

The Court’s trajectory seems to threaten Harmelin.  Even if the logic of Graham permits LWOP for drug trafficking, the logic of Miller arguably requires a consideration of mitigating circumstances before the sentence can be imposed — prohibits, in other words, LWOP as a statutory minimum for a drug offense.

While the Supreme Court might eventually reach this destination, the Seventh Circuit has decided not to try to get there first.  

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Defendant Can Challenge Attorney’s Failure to Appeal Despite 2255 Waiver, Seventh Circuit Says

Charged in federal court with drug trafficking, Fred Dowell decided to enter into a plea agreement with the government.  The deal included various stipulations as to his sentence, but reserved for Dowell the right to challenge the government’s contention that he should be sentenced as a career offender under the federal sentencing guidelines.  Assuming the stipulations were accepted by the sentencing judge, Dowell waived his right to appeal the sentence, except that he expressly reserved the right to appeal an adverse career offender determination.  Dowell also surrendered his right to mount a collateral attack on the sentence under 28 U.S.C. §2255.

Dowell was, in fact, sentenced as a career offender.  By his account, he instructed his lawyer to appeal this decision, as he had reserved the right to do.  No appeal was filed.  By the time Dowell realized this, it was already too late for an appeal to be taken.  Accordingly, he tried a §2255 motion in the district court, contending that his lawyer’s failure to appeal constituted ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment.  Sorry, said the district court, but you waived your rights under §2255 in the plea agreement.

Earlier today, the Seventh Circuit reversed in Dowell v. United States (No. 10-2912).  

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Seventh Circuit to Form 19: Drop Dead!

Last week I bemoaned how the Seventh Circuit had thoroughly botched the already confusing state of affairs that is the elements of a prima facie copyright infringement claim. But as a bonus, the Peters v. West opinion also had troubling things to say about what is now required to successfully plead a copyright infringement claim under the new “plausibility” regime announced by the Supreme Court in Twombly and Iqbal.

As a refresher, here’s how the Peters court defined the element of infringement (the other element for a claim of copyright infringement being ownership of a valid and registered copyright):

Fundamentally, proving the basic tort of infringement simply requires the plaintiff to show that the defendant had an actual opportunity to copy the original (this is because independent creation is a defense to copyright infringement), and that the two works share enough unique features to give rise to a breach of the duty not to copy another’s work.

Note that the court is discussing what the plaintiff must ultimately prove, which even after Twombly and Iqbal is not necessarily what the plaintiff must allege. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema, which distinguished between those two, is still good law; Iqbal simply requires that the plaintiff allege enough to make a claim plausible, which may or may not require pleading specific facts. Nevertheless, many courts even pre-Twombly have been requiring plaintiffs to march through the elements in their complaints, and now post-Iqbal, each of those elements must be “plausible.”

So what does a plaintiff, according to the Seventh Circuit, now have to plead in order to plausibly allege infringement?

Continue ReadingSeventh Circuit to Form 19: Drop Dead!