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

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Dolores Ortega-Cordova, a native and citizen of El Salvador, entered the United States without inspection in 2002. In 2012, he was arrested in Norfolk, Virginia, and charged with solicitation of prostitution under Virginia Code § 18.2-346(B). He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 90 days’ imprisonment, with 86 days suspended, and fined. The Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings against him. Ortega-Cordova conceded removability but applied for cancellation of removal under 8 U.S.C. § 1229b(b)(1).The Immigration Judge (IJ) denied Ortega-Cordova’s application, finding him ineligible for cancellation of removal because his conviction for solicitation of prostitution was deemed a crime involving moral turpitude under 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(A)(i). The IJ relied on the Board of Immigration Appeals’ (BIA) long-standing position that prostitution-related offenses are morally turpitudinous. The BIA affirmed the IJ’s decision, noting that Ortega-Cordova failed to prove that solicitation of prostitution is no longer considered morally reprehensible by society.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reviewed the case and upheld the BIA’s decision. The court concluded that solicitation of prostitution under Virginia law categorically involves moral turpitude because it debases a moral norm against treating sex as a commercial transaction. The court rejected Ortega-Cordova’s arguments that societal views on prostitution are evolving and that the statute criminalizes consensual conduct between adults. The court also dismissed his procedural arguments, including the claim that the BIA abused its discretion by not referring his case to a three-member panel. Consequently, the Fourth Circuit denied Ortega-Cordova’s petition for review. View "Ortega-Cordova v. Garland" on Justia Law

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Harris Ford, an inmate in the North Carolina Department of Corrections, filed a lawsuit against six prison officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that they violated his Eighth Amendment rights by failing to protect him from an attack by another inmate. Ford claimed that he had informed the officials of the risk through numerous complaints and grievances, but they were deliberately indifferent, leading to the attack where he was severely injured.The United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina granted summary judgment in favor of the prison officials. The court concluded that Ford's complaints were not specific enough to enable the officials to investigate and respond appropriately. Additionally, the court found that Ford failed to demonstrate the necessary mens rea of deliberate indifference required for an Eighth Amendment violation.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reviewed the case and affirmed the district court's judgment regarding five of the six prison officials. The appellate court agreed that Ford did not provide sufficient evidence to show that these officials were deliberately indifferent to his safety. However, the court vacated the summary judgment concerning Officer Jerry Ingram. The court found that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Ingram's actions, specifically his public questioning of Ford about the threats, knowingly exacerbated the risk to Ford and contributed to the attack. The case was remanded for further proceedings against Officer Ingram. View "Ford v. Hooks" on Justia Law

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Kenneth and Anita Wolke Brooks purchased 85 acres of land in Georgia for $1.35 million, subdivided it, and granted a conservation easement on a 41-acre parcel to Liberty County. They claimed a $5.1 million charitable deduction on their tax returns for this easement. The IRS disallowed the deductions for 2010, 2011, and 2012, citing non-compliance with the Internal Revenue Code and regulations, and imposed accuracy-related penalties for gross valuation misstatements.The Brookses challenged the IRS's notice of deficiency in the United States Tax Court. The Tax Court upheld the IRS's disallowance of the deductions and the imposition of penalties. The court found that the Brookses failed to provide a contemporaneous written acknowledgment of the donation, did not submit an adequate baseline report to Liberty County, and misrepresented their basis in the property. The court also found that the valuation of the easement was grossly overstated.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reviewed the case and affirmed the Tax Court's decision. The court held that the Brookses did not meet the statutory requirements for a charitable deduction due to the lack of a proper contemporaneous written acknowledgment and an inadequate baseline report. The court also agreed with the Tax Court's finding that the Brookses' valuation of the easement was speculative and unsupported, justifying the 40 percent penalty for gross valuation misstatements. The court concluded that the Tax Court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the IRS Civil Penalty Approval Form into evidence despite its late disclosure. View "Brooks v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue" on Justia Law

Posted in: Tax Law
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An elderly couple in Greenville, North Carolina, reported a breaking-and-entering at their residence around 4:00 a.m., hearing glass break and a male voice yelling. Officer David Johnson, who was nearby, responded to the call. Upon arrival, Johnson heard loud yelling and saw Sean Rambert running towards him while yelling. Johnson commanded Rambert to get on the ground eight times, but Rambert did not comply and continued to charge at Johnson. Johnson fired multiple shots at Rambert, who continued to advance even after being shot. Rambert eventually fell and later died from his injuries.The United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina denied Johnson’s motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The court found genuine disputes of material fact regarding the reasonableness of Johnson’s conduct and concluded that a jury could determine that Johnson violated Rambert’s Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force. The court also denied summary judgment on the remaining federal and state law claims against Johnson and the City of Greenville.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reviewed the case. The court held that Johnson was entitled to qualified immunity on the Fourth Amendment claim. The court found that Johnson’s use of deadly force was not objectively unreasonable given the circumstances, including Rambert’s aggressive behavior and failure to comply with commands. The court also determined that the law did not clearly establish that Johnson’s conduct was unconstitutional at the time of the incident. Consequently, the court reversed the district court’s denial of summary judgment on the § 1983 claim against Johnson. However, the court dismissed the appeal regarding the related state and federal claims and claims against the City of Greenville, remanding those issues for further proceedings. View "Rambert v. City of Greenville" on Justia Law

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Eunice Nkongho was investigated for her involvement in a munitions export and money laundering conspiracy. Federal agents stopped her at the airport and seized her electronic devices. Nine days later, they obtained a warrant to search her phone, uncovering incriminating text messages. Nkongho was charged with money laundering and conspiracy to launder money. She moved to suppress the evidence from her phone, but the district court denied the motion. At trial, the government used her text messages and call history as key evidence. A jury convicted her, and she was sentenced to twenty-four months’ imprisonment and three years’ supervised release.The United States District Court for the District of Maryland denied Nkongho’s motion to suppress, holding that the seizure of her devices fell within the border search exception, which does not require a warrant. The court found that the scheme involved the theft and international transfer of military equipment, justifying the seizure. The court also rejected her argument that the nine-day delay in obtaining a search warrant was unreasonable, emphasizing the government’s heightened interest in the devices.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reviewed the case and affirmed the district court’s decision. The appellate court held that the agents had probable cause to believe Nkongho was part of an international munitions export conspiracy, justifying the seizure of her devices under the border search exception. The court also found that the nine-day delay in seeking a search warrant was not unreasonable, given the agents’ need to consult legal counsel. Additionally, the court upheld the district court’s calculation of Nkongho’s sentence, including the loss amount attributed to her and the denial of a role reduction in the offense level. View "United States v. Nkongho" on Justia Law

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The case involves Jamie Christopher Henderson, who was convicted and sentenced following a jury trial for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and cocaine base, possession with intent to distribute cocaine base, and possession of firearms in furtherance of his drug trafficking crimes. Henderson appealed his convictions and sentence, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support these convictions, and that his sentence is procedurally and substantively unreasonable.The case originated from an incident on April 30, 2019, when law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at Henderson’s residence. They witnessed Henderson toss items underneath a vehicle, including a gun. The officers recovered a loaded handgun, a plastic bag with cocaine and crack cocaine, a cigarette lighter, and a glass crack pipe from underneath the vehicle. Henderson was arrested. Inside the trailer, police found a loaded rifle, a loaded handgun, cocaine powder and crack cocaine in a toilet tank, and a second loaded handgun in a kitchen trash can. They also seized three digital scales and a digital video recorder containing footage from security cameras showing Henderson and other men, armed with multiple handguns and a rifle, standing in the front yard of the residence as cars and people would approach it.Henderson was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and cocaine base, possession of a firearm in furtherance of the drug-distribution conspiracy, possession with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base, possession of a firearm in furtherance of the possession-with-intent offense, and possession of a firearm as a felon. He pleaded not guilty. At trial, the Government presented the testimony of the law enforcement officers, Henderson’s videotaped confession, the security footage from the trailer, and a letter Henderson had written to his brother. Henderson presented the testimony of his mother and daughter who claimed that Henderson was a drug user, thief, and liar—but not a drug dealer. The jury convicted Henderson on all counts.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the convictions and sentence. The court found that there was substantial evidence to support the conviction and that the sentence was not procedurally or substantively unreasonable. The court noted that Henderson faced a heavy burden in challenging the sufficiency of the evidence and that the court's role was limited to considering whether there was substantial evidence to support the conviction. The court found that there was abundant independent evidence that Henderson was engaged in a large-scale drug trade, which supported the trustworthiness of his confessions. The court also found that the district court did not err in calculating the quantity of drugs attributable to Henderson for sentencing purposes. The court concluded that Henderson's sentence was substantively reasonable and that he failed to overcome the presumption of reasonableness that applies to a below-Guidelines sentence. View "United States v. Henderson" on Justia Law

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In 2019, a 13,000-volt electric cable owned by Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. (BG&E) was damaged at the bottom of Eli Cove in Pasadena, Maryland. BG&E alleged that the cable was struck by a barge owned by Coastline Commercial Contracting while performing work for a couple who owned property on the cove. BG&E sued Coastline and the property owners for negligence, invoking federal admiralty jurisdiction over the claim against Coastline and supplemental jurisdiction over the claim against the property owners. The central issue was whether a U.S. court has admiralty jurisdiction to determine the existence and extent of Coastline’s tort liability.The United States District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed the case, ruling that it did not have admiralty jurisdiction. The court found that Eli Cove was not part of the navigable waters because it could not accommodate commercial navigation and was not susceptible of being used as a highway for commerce. The court also found that the incident did not bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity because Coastline’s barge was present on Eli Cove solely to extend an existing pier at a private residence.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's decision. The appellate court held that the case falls within federal admiralty jurisdiction. The court found that the district court applied the incorrect standard when determining whether Eli Cove was navigable and whether the incident bore a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity. The court held that the incident had a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce and that the activity giving rise to the incident bore a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Baltimore Gas and Electric Company v. Coastline Commercial Contracting, Inc." on Justia Law

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The case involves Zackary Sanders, who was convicted for violating federal child pornography laws. Sanders had engaged in communications with underage boys, some as young as 13 years old, through various social media and communication applications. He had the minors send him explicit videos and pictures of themselves, some of which he later used as blackmail. Sanders stored these videos and photos, as well as other depictions of child pornography downloaded from the Internet, on the same electronic devices that he used to communicate with the minors. Sanders was indicted in 12 counts for the production, receipt, and possession of child pornography.The district court ordered the forfeiture of nine electronic devices on which Sanders stored child pornography and with which he committed the crimes. Sanders objected to the forfeiture, contending that the forfeiture statute did not reach so broadly as to require the forfeiture of non-contraband items that were also stored on the electronic devices. He requested that the district court order the government to allow his forensic expert to segregate and make digital copies of non-contraband items. The district court refused his request.On appeal, Sanders challenged the district court’s reading of the forfeiture statute. He also claimed, for the first time on appeal, that the forfeiture order’s inclusion of his non-contraband items was “plainly excessive under the Eighth Amendment.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court held that the forfeiture statute required the forfeiture of electronic devices that contain visual depictions of child pornography. The court also concluded that the forfeiture of the nine electronic devices, with the data contained on them at the time of forfeiture, was not grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offenses for which Sanders was convicted. View "U.S. v. Sanders" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around the tragic death of sixteen-year-old Peyton Alexander Ham. His mother, Kristee Ann Boyle, acting as the representative of his estate, filed a lawsuit against State Trooper Joseph Charles Azzari Jr. for excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and for assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress under Maryland state law. The incident occurred when Azzari responded to a dispatch reporting a suspicious man with a gun. Upon arrival, Azzari encountered Ham, who he believed was holding a gun. Azzari fired at Ham, who was actually holding a replica of a Sig Sauer. Azzari then noticed Ham had a knife and fired additional shots, resulting in Ham's death.The district court denied Boyle's request for additional time for discovery and granted Azzari's pre-discovery motion for summary judgment. The court determined that the evidence Boyle sought could not create a triable issue of fact regarding her claims and held that Azzari was entitled to summary judgment because his actions were reasonable even under Boyle’s proffered account of the relevant events.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit disagreed with the lower court's decision. The appellate court concluded that discoverable evidence could create a material dispute of fact and thus the district court abused its discretion in denying Boyle an opportunity to conduct discovery. The court did not assess the lower court's determination on the merits, but reversed its denial of Boyle’s motion for discovery, vacated its grant of summary judgment to Azzari as premature, and remanded the case for additional proceedings. View "Boyle v. Azzari" on Justia Law

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The case involves Okello Chatrie, who was convicted for robbing a credit union in Virginia. The police, unable to identify the suspect from security footage and witness interviews, obtained a geofence warrant to access Google's Location History data. This data revealed that Chatrie's phone was in the vicinity of the bank during the robbery. Chatrie was subsequently indicted and pleaded not guilty, moving to suppress the evidence obtained via the geofence warrant.The district court denied Chatrie's motion to suppress, citing the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. Chatrie entered a conditional guilty plea and was sentenced to 141 months' imprisonment and 3 years' supervised release. He appealed, arguing that the geofence warrant violated his Fourth Amendment rights and that the fruits of the warrant should be suppressed.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court held that Chatrie did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the two hours’ worth of Location History data voluntarily exposed to Google. Therefore, the government did not conduct a Fourth Amendment search when it obtained this information from Google. The court rejected Chatrie's argument that the geofence warrant violated his Fourth Amendment rights, stating that he voluntarily exposed his location information to Google by opting into Location History. The court also noted that the information obtained was far less revealing than that obtained in previous cases involving long-term surveillance. View "United States v. Chatrie" on Justia Law