Justia U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

by
Defendant was convicted of conspiring to engage in sex trafficking after she lured women into prostitution via social media and, in at least one case, attempted to use Facebook to force a young woman who had left her trafficking ring to return. While defendant was later on supervised release from her trafficking conviction, she used Facebook to help broker a drug deal.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's imposition of a social networking special condition of supervised release, concluding that the condition is not unconstitutionally vague. The court also concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion by imposing the social networking condition where the condition advanced the statutory goals of deterrence, protecting the public, and rehabilitation, and it deprived defendant of no more liberty than was necessary to accomplish these goals—even if it does prevent her from finding a romantic partner online during the period of supervision. Finally, while the court found no plain error in the district court's management of the hearing, the court joined the Seventh Circuit in cautioning against sitting Probation with the Government while in the courtroom. View "United States v. Comer" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
by
After defendant pleaded guilty to a single felon-in-possession charge, the district court imposed a two-year term of supervised release as part of his sentence, subject to the Western District of North Carolina's "standard" conditions. On appeal, defendant challenges five of his supervised release conditions as procedurally and substantively unreasonable.The Fourth Circuit agreed with defendant that the district court failed to adequately address nonfrivolous arguments that defendant made regarding the challenged conditions, rendering their imposition procedurally unreasonable. In this case, the whole of the district court's explanation of the supervised release conditions consisted of two sentences. On the record before the court, it is unclear whether the district court gave defendant's nonfrivolous arguments the consideration that they are due. Accordingly, the court vacated those conditions and remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Boyd" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
by
Plaintiff filed suit alleging that prison officials ignored his repeated medical complaints and denied him meaningful treatment, leading to his collapse and major surgery. Plaintiff alleged a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) claim against the United States for medical negligence, as well as a Bivens claim against certain individuals involved in his care for deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth Amendment.The Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court erroneously dismissed the FTCA claim because plaintiff did not secure a certification from a medical expert before filing suit, as required by West Virginia law. As two of its sister circuits have concluded, state-law certification requirements like West Virginia's are inconsistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and thus displaced by those rules in federal court. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court's dismissal of the FTCA claim.The court vacated the district court's grant of summary judgment to individual defendants on plaintiff's Bivens claims. The district court reasoned that plaintiff could not establish deliberate indifference as a matter of law. However, the court concluded that the district court did not first provide plaintiff, who proceeded pro se, with proper notice of his obligation to support his claims or an opportunity to seek discovery. Accordingly, the court vacated this portion of the district court's judgment and remanded for further proceedings on the Bivens claims. View "Pledger v. Lynch" on Justia Law

by
The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's sentence of 327 months' imprisonment imposed after he pleaded guilty to producing child pornography, as well as his within-Guidelines lifetime term of supervised release.The court concluded that defendants' sentence was procedurally reasonable where the district court imposed an upward variance, rather than a Guidelines departure, and thus notice was not required. The court rejected defendant's contention that the district court's reliance on the victim's self-harm and mental health problems prejudiced him because he lacked access to her medical records. Furthermore, the court found the district court's explanation entirely adequate to support the lifetime term of supervised release, especially in context of the parties' arguments. The court also found no reversible procedural error in the district court's pronouncement of the special conditions for defendant's supervised release. Finally, the court concluded that defendant's sentence was substantively reasonable and the district court did not abuse its discretion in sentencing defendant 5 years above the Guidelines range. Nor was the term of supervised release substantively unreasonable. View "United States v. Williams" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
by
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment reducing defendant's sentence by two years, rather than the five years that defendant requested. Defendant sought a reduction in sentence under the First Step Act, and the district court rejected defendant's proportionate argument in favor of individualized consideration. The district court acknowledged that defendant had come a long way since the imposition of his original sentence but that he must take responsibility for his actions in a way that he failed to do during his initial sentencing hearing.The court held that district courts should be afforded significant discretion in addressing requests for sentence reductions under the First Step Act. In this case, the district court fully explained its decision to reduce defendant's sentence by two years, considering defendant's arguments and the nature of his offense, his characteristics, including both his post-sentencing mitigation evidence and his criminal record, his new guidelines sentencing range, and the new statutory mandatory minimum in fashioning defendant's sentence. Therefore, the district court did not abuse its discretion in sentencing defendant. View "United States v. Webb" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
by
After he was diagnosed with nasal cancer, plaintiff filed suit against defendants, alleging that they produced the lumber that his father used in his woodshop and are liable to him for damages because they failed to warn his father that wood dust causes cancer. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants, concluding that during the exposure period, defendants did not have a duty to warn plaintiff's father that wood dust causes cancer because that fact was not known at the time as part of the "state of the art," i.e., the level of knowledge reached.The Fourth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the district court properly determined from the record that the state of the art did not indicate that wood dust causes cancer until 1995, a few years after the exposure period at issue ended, and thus defendants had no duty to warn plaintiff's father of any risk of cancer during that period. The court rejected plaintiff's contention that the district court established an Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) litmus test to the exclusion of other relevant evidence. Rather, the district court appropriately identified and relied on the state of the art as represented by studies collected and evaluated by experts in the field. View "Lightfoot v. Georgia-Pacific Wood Products, LLC" on Justia Law

by
The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's grant of the motion to dismiss plaintiffs' action seeking an injunction and a declaratory judgment that several federal laws and regulations that prevent federally licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to any 18, 19, or 20 year olds violate the Second Amendment.The court rejected the government and amici's argument that the challenged laws fall into two categories on the presumptively valid list in Dist. of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 592–95, 628 (2008): conditions on commercial sales and longstanding regulations.The court found that 18 year olds possess Second Amendment rights, concluding that the Constitution's text, structure, and history makes clear that 18 to 20 year olds were understood to fall under the Second Amendment's protections. The court explained that those over 18 were universally required to be part of the militia near the ratification, proving that they were considered part of "the people" who enjoyed Second Amendment rights, and that most other constitutional rights apply to this age group.The court also concluded that the laws do not pass intermediate scrutiny. The court acknowledged that the government's interest in preventing crime, enhancing public safety, and reducing gun violence are not only substantial, but compelling. However, the court explained that, to justify this restriction, Congress used disproportionate crime rates to craft over-inclusive laws that restrict the rights of overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens. And in doing so, Congress focused on purchases from licensed dealers without establishing those dealers as the source of the guns 18 to 20 year olds use to commit crimes. The court reasoned that Congress may not restrict the rights of an entire group of law-abiding adults because a minuscule portion of that group commits a disproportionate amount of gun violence. The court stated that Congress's failure to connect handgun purchases from licensed dealers to youth gun violence only serves to highlight the law's unduly tenuous fit with the government's substantial interests. Therefore, 18 to 20 year olds have Second Amendment rights and the challenged laws impermissibly burden such rights. The court reversed the district court's denial of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "Hirschfeld v. Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco & Explosives" on Justia Law

by
Petitioner and her minor daughter petitioned for review of the BIA's final order affirming the denial of their application for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture (CAT). At issue on appeal is whether the IJ and the BIA erred in concluding that petitioner failed to demonstrate that she was persecuted on account of her membership in her proposed particular social group, namely her nuclear family.Under well-established precedent in this circuit, and based on the unrebutted, substantial evidence in the record, the Fourth Circuit held that any reasonable adjudicator would be compelled to conclude that petitioner's membership in her nuclear family was at least one central reason for her persecution. Petitioner has established a nexus between her membership in her proposed particular social group and the persecution she suffered. In this case, the court agreed with petitioner's contention that she has established that she was persecuted in Honduras on account of her membership in her proposed social group where gang members extorted money from her each month because her husband worked in the United States. Furthermore, the IJ and the BIA erred by applying a legally incorrect and "excessively narrow" approach to analyzing whether petitioner satisfied the statutory nexus requirement. Accordingly, the court reversed the agency's determination as to nexus, vacated the final order of removal and the denial of petitioner's application for asylum and withholding, and remanded for further proceedings. Finally, the court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to consider petitioner's CAT claim because she failed to exhaust all available administrative remedies. View "Perez Vasquez v. Garland" on Justia Law

Posted in: Immigration Law
by
Defendant was convicted by a jury of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine. Defendant was sentenced by the district court to 420-months in prison and a five-year term of supervised release.The Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court did not err in denying the suppression motion because, at the time the searches were conducted, defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the two FedEx packages that were addressed to a deceased person. The court explained that defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the packages addressed to the deceased because, at the time of the searches, there were no objective indicia that defendant owned, possessed, or exercised control over the packages. The court also rejected defendant's arguments regarding the procedural and substantive reasonableness of his sentence. In this case, the district court did err by applying the two-level leadership enhancement under USSG 3B1.1(c) and, even if the district court had erred, the error was harmless. Furthermore, the district court's comments at sentencing concerned defendant's actions and behaviors and did not establish that the district court was biased. Finally, the district court took care in addressing the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) sentencing factors and defendant failed to rebut the presumption that his sentence is substantively reasonable. View "United States v. Rose" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
by
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of a 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition for habeas relief, finding petitioner's ineffective-assistance claim procedurally barred and his other claims without merit. In this case, a jury found petitioner guilty on two counts of first degree murder and two counts of discharging a firearm into an occupied building resulting in serious bodily injury. Defendant was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole for the murder convictions, as well as consecutive terms for the firearm convictions.The court concluded that the state court's determination that the trial court was not disproportionate or arbitrary in excluding expert testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 was not an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. Because petitioner has not established that an exception applies to excuse his procedural default, the court declined to reach the merits of his ineffective-assistance claim. In doing so, the court also found that the district court did not abuse its discretion by not granting petitioner an evidentiary hearing on this claim. The court rejected petitioner's claim, pursuant to Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 855 (2017), that the jury's verdict resulted from racial animus. The court first determined that no clearly established law when the state post-conviction court rejected petitioner's claim provided a racial-animus exception to the no-impeachment rule. The court then determined that the state court's resolution of petitioner's claim reasonably applied the law that was clearly established at that time. Furthermore, Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 310 (1989), provides an independent barrier to petitioner's claims. View "Richardson v. Kornegay" on Justia Law