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

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The Fourth Circuit reversed defendant's conviction and sentence for using "abusive language" in violation of Virginia Code 18.2-416, as assimilated by 18 U.S.C. 13. The court explained that the First Amendment permits criminalization of "abusive language," but only if the Government proves the language had a direct tendency to cause immediate acts of violence by the person to whom, individually, it was addressed.The court concluded that the ugly racial epithet used by defendant undoubtedly constituted extreme "abusive language," but the Government failed to prove (or even to offer evidence) that defendant's use of this highly offensive slur tended to cause immediate acts of violence by anyone. In this case, the record contains no evidence that defendant employed other profanity, repeated the vile slur, or issued any kind of threat, let alone one dripping with racism. Furthermore, the Government failed to offer any contextual evidence that defendant's "mode of speech" was likely to provide violence by the store employee or the African American man or anyone else present. View "United States v. Bartow" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred by dismissing under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) the Foundation's complaint against the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections (the Board), alleging a violation of the disclosure provision in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). The Foundation sought disclosure of broad categories of documents related to the identification of North Carolina voter registrants whom the Board had identified as potentially failing to satisfy the statutory citizenship requirement.The court vacated the district court's judgment and remanded, concluding that the district court erred in holding that the Foundation failed to state a claim under the NVRA's disclosure provision simply because the request implicated potential criminal conduct of registrants. The court explained that the disclosure provision does not contain such a blanket exemption and requires a more exacting and tailored analysis than what occurred in this case. Because discovery was not conducted, the court cannot discern on this record whether the Foundation may be entitled to disclosure of some of the documents requested. Therefore, the court remanded to the district court for further consideration of the documents subject to four restrictions excluding from disclosure: (1) information precluded from disclosure by the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994; (2) information obtained from confidential federal databases under the United States Department of Homeland Security's Systemic Alien Verification for Entitlements system (the SAVE system) that is otherwise protected from disclosure by statute or by the Board's agreement with the Department regarding confidentiality; (3) any requested voter registration applications, or the names affiliated with those applications, that are subject to protection as part of any prior or current criminal investigation; and (4) the identities and personal information of individuals who potentially committed criminal offenses, including those who later were determined to be United States citizens, which must be redacted from any documents ultimately released as sensitive information vulnerable to abuse. View "Public Interest Legal Foundation v. North Carolina State Board of Elections" on Justia Law

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About a year after High was released from state prison, where he had served 20 years for murder, he began trafficking in illegal drugs. In 2017-2018, he distributed at least 168 grams of crack cocaine, 6.61 grams of marijuana, and 10,325 grams of cocaine powder. He pleaded guilty to distributing crack cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime and was sentenced to 84 months’ imprisonment, which represented a downward departure under U.S.S.G. 5K1.1 of over 60 months based on "substantial assistance." In May 2020, 16 months after his sentencing, High (age 42) sought compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A). He cited as “extraordinary and compelling reasons” the Covid-19 pandemic confronting the prison system and argued that he is not a danger to the community. High had been diagnosed with cardiovascular conditions. The government noted the absence of any infection at the institution where he was confined.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. The district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to reduce High’s term of imprisonment by approximately two-thirds, based on its consideration of the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors. The court was aware of the arguments, considered the relevant sentencing factors, and had an “intuitive reason” for adhering to what was already a below-Guidelines sentence; its explanation for denying High’s motion for compassionate release was adequate. View "United States v. High" on Justia Law

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In 2010, Lancaster was sentenced to 180 months’ imprisonment for conspiracy to traffic in crack cocaine and cocaine powder. In 2020 he sought a sentence reduction under the First Step Act of 2018, 132 Stat. 5194, to the sentence that would have been imposed, had the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 been in effect at the time of his offense. The district court denied Lancaster’s motion, concluding on the merits that it would have imposed the same sentence on him had the Fair Sentencing Act been in effect. The court did not recalculate Lancaster’s Guidelines range and apparently did not consider the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors in light of current circumstances. Lancaster argued that he no longer qualifies as a career offender for purposes of sentencing.The Fourth Circuit vacated. Additional analysis was required. Lancaster was convicted under 21 U.S.C. 846, a statute for which sentences were modified by the Fair Sentencing Act, and is eligible for discretionary relief under the First Step Act, which made the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. The court was, therefore, required to consider that Lancaster no longer could be sentenced as a career offender and consider section 3553's factors. View "United States v. Lancaster" on Justia Law

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Officer Richardson stopped a car driven by Davis because he believed that the vehicle’s windows were tinted too dark. Davis had a history of felony drug charges and convictions. Other officers arrived. About three minutes into the stop, while Richardson talked with the other officers, Davis drove off without his license or proof of insurance, which were in Richardson’s possession. The officers gave chase. Davis raced through a residential neighborhood until he reached a dead-end, drove between houses and into someone’s backyard, got out of his vehicle carrying a backpack, ran into a swamp, and got stuck. Richardson drew his service weapon and ordered Davis to come out.Davis returned to dry land, dropping the backpack, and lying down on his stomach. Richardson patted Davis down and found a large amount of cash. Richardson handcuffed Davis, placed him under arrest, then unzipped the backpack and discovered large amounts of cash and plastic bags containing what appeared to be cocaine. A search of Davis’s vehicle revealed a digital scale and bundles of cash. The officers also received a report that Davis tossed a firearm out of his car window, then recovered a handgun from Davis’s path through the residential area. The district court denied Davis’s motion to suppress.The Fourth Circuit vacated. Incident to an arrest, a vehicle may be searched without a warrant if it was reasonable for the police to believe that the arrestee “could have accessed his car at the time of the search.” The court extended that holding to the search of the backpack. Davis was handcuffed and lying on his stomach during the search. View "United States v. Davis" on Justia Law

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DHS Agent Swivel saw someone whom he thought he recognized from a prior case. It was Santos-Portillo, a Honduran national who was in the U.S. illegally, having been deported in 2011. Agents staked out Santos-Portillo’s house, arrested Santos-Portillo. and took him to an ICE office, where he was fingerprinted. Agent Swivel then gave Santos-Portillo Miranda warnings and interrogated him. Santos-Portillo admitted he was from Honduras, that he had previously been deported, and that he had not obtained permission to return to the U.S. Santos-Portillo was charged with violating 8 U.S.C. 1326(a). At Santos-Portillo’s detention hearing Swivel testified that he neither sought nor secured an administrative arrest warrant to detain Santos-Portillo. Santos-Portillo unsuccessfully moved to suppress all post-arrest evidence, citing 8 U.S.C. 1357(a), which permits warrantless arrests only if agents have probable cause and have a “reason to believe . . . there is [a] likelihood of the person escaping before a warrant can be obtained.”Santos-Portillo was convicted and deported again. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Section 1357(a) does not authorize courts to suppress evidence for violations of the provision. Based on a “proper respect for Congress’s role in determining the consequences of statutory violations,” the court rejected a request to exercise its discretion to create a suppression remedy. View "United States v. Santos-Portillo" on Justia Law

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In 2012, Bishop Lawrence sought to disaffiliate his South Carolina-based diocese from the Episcopal “Mother Church”. Some parishes followed suit. The Mother Church purported to remove Lawrence and selected a new bishop. The Disassociated Diocese and Parishes sued the Mother Church to clarify their property rights in diocesan. The Mother Church filed counterclaims and separately filed trademark and false-advertising claims. Both cases are ongoing.The Church Insurance Company, wholly owned by the Church Pension Fund, is a freestanding nonprofit affiliated with the Mother Church. Captive insurance companies may only cover the risks of their parent companies and related entities. Before the schism, the Company issued a Diocesan Program Master Policy, listing as “named insured” the Episcopal diocese and listing 56 participant parishes, including the now-Disassociated Parishes, in its declarations. Each parish has a separate, individualized insurance policy and paid premiums directly to the Company. The policies provide liability coverage for injuries arising out of “infringement of copyright, title, slogan, trademark, or trade name” and include a broad duty to defend. The Company has reimbursed the Disassociated Parishes’ defense costs in connection with both lawsuits.The Associated Diocese sued the Company, alleging breach of contract, bad faith, breach of fiduciary duty, and aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of that suit for lack of standing. The Company has not strayed beyond its limitations as a captive insurer or breached its obligations under the policies, so there is no injury traceable to such conduct. View "Episcopal Church in South Carolina v. Church Insurance Company of Vermont" on Justia Law

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Arlington filed suit against opioid manufacturers, distributers, and pharmacies, including the ESI Defendants, in state court for causing, or contributing to, the opioid epidemic in Arlington County. The ESI Defendants removed to federal court pursuant to the federal officer removal statute, claiming that their operation of the TRICARE Mail Order Pharmacy (TMOP) as a subcontractor to a contract between their corporate affiliate and the Department of Defense (DOD) satisfied each of the statute's requirements. The district court granted Arlington's motion to remand back to state court.The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the ESI defendants satisfied the requirements of the federal officer removal statute. The court concluded that the ESI Defendants met their burden of showing that they were "acting under" DOD in operating the TMOP in accordance with the DOD contract. Although the district court did not address the other two requirements of the federal officer removal statute—possession of a colorable federal defense and a causal relationship between the government-directed conduct and the plaintiffs' claims—the court found that judicial economy favors resolution of those questions without a time-consuming and costly remand. On the merits, the court concluded that the ESI Defendants also satisfied these two requirements. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "The County Board of Arlington County v. Express Scripts Pharmacy, Inc." on Justia Law

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Petitioner filed a whistleblower-retaliation complaint under 42 U.S.C. 5851 after the NRC rejected his applications for promotions. Petitioner is an NRC employee who made disclosures to Congress and the NRC's Inspector General regarding health and safety risks at a nuclear power plant. The ALJ dismissed the case because the United States had not waived sovereign immunity for such whistleblower actions against the NRC, and the ARB affirmed.After determining that it had jurisdiction over the petition, the Fourth Circuit denied the petition for review, agreeing with the ARB that Congress has not waived sovereign immunity for complaints against the NRC. In this case, petitioner failed to make the necessary affirmative showing of waiver with the required unequivocal expression. The court explained that the lesson in its recent decision in Robinson v. U.S. Dep't of Educ., 917 F.3d 799 (2019), is that the substantive and remedial provisions of a statute may not be coextensive. The court concluded that there is no doubt that the NRC is bound by the prohibitions of section 5851, but that fact alone is simply insufficient to form the basis of an unequivocal waiver of sovereign immunity. View "Peck v. U.S. Department of Labor" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against his former employer, the City of Newport News, alleging that it failed to accommodate his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Plaintiff alleged that the City concluded that he could not perform the essential functions of his job as a detective and then offered him the options of either retiring early or accepting reassignment to a civilian position he did not want. Plaintiff reluctantly retired.The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the City, concluding that it is generally inappropriate for an employer to unilaterally reassign a disabled employee to a position the employee does not want when another reasonable accommodation exists that would allow the disabled employee to remain in their current, preferred position. The court clarified that it did not hold that an employer can never reassign an employee when there exists a reasonable accommodation that will keep the employee in their current and preferred position. This broad question was not before the court. Nor should this opinion be read in any way to restrict the ability of employers and employees to agree to a voluntary transfer. Rather, the court simply reiterated that reassignment is strongly disfavored when an employee can still do their current job with the assistance of a reasonable accommodation, and that reassignment should therefore be held "in reserve for unusual circumstances." View "Wirtes v. City of Newport News" on Justia Law