Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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During seven weeks in 2002, Malvo (then 17 years old) and Muhammad, the “D.C. Snipers,” murdered 12 individuals, inflicted grievous injuries on six others, and terrorized the area with a shooting spree. The two were apprehended while sleeping in a car. A loaded rifle was found in the car; a hole had been “cut into the lid of the trunk, just above the license plate, through which a rifle barrel could be projected.” At the time, a Virginia defendant convicted of capital murder, who was at least 16 years old at the time of his crime, would be punished by either death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. A jury convicted Malvo of two counts of capital murder but declined to recommend the death penalty. He was sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment without parole. Malvo later pleaded guilty in another Virginia jurisdiction to capital murder and attempted capital murder and received two additional terms of life imprisonment without parole. The Supreme Court subsequently held that defendants who committed crimes when under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to death; cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole unless they committed a homicide that reflected their permanent incorrigibility; and that these rules were to be applied retroactively. The Fourth Circuit concluded that Malvo’s sentences must be vacated because the retroactive constitutional rules for sentencing juveniles were not satisfied. The court remanded for resentencing to determine whether Malvo qualifies as a rare juvenile offender who may, consistent with the Eighth Amendment, be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole because his “crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility” or whether those crimes instead “reflect the transient immaturity of youth,” so that he must receive a lesser sentence. View "Malvo v. Mathena" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action against defendants, alleging excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to defendants, holding that, although the district court erred in determining a law enforcement officer did not violate plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights, the officer was entitled to qualified immunity because the constitutional violation was not clearly established when the incident occurred. In this case, plaintiff was shot by the officer because he was suspected of breaking and entering and battery, and the officer was aware of these crimes before interacting with plaintiff; plaintiff was standing about 20 feet from the officer holding a knife, inflicting harm on himself and stumbling, but not threatening others or making sudden movements; and plaintiff was refusing to obey the officer's repeated commands to drop the knife at the time he was shot. The court also affirmed the court's judgment on the common law intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against the officer and on the respondeat superior claim asserted against the County. View "Wilson v. Prince George's County" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of qualified immunity to defendants, the town manager and its director of public safety, regarding plaintiffs' alleged due process violations after plaintiffs were terminated from their employment with the Department of Public Safety based on the content of private text messages. The court held that defendants deprived plaintiffs of constitutionally cognizable liberty interests under clearly established law, and plaintiffs were not afforded due process of law. The court held, however, that the district court erred in holding that defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity as to plaintiffs' First Amendment claims. In this case, plaintiffs' evidence did not establish beyond debate that their interest in speaking freely outweighed the Department's interest in maintaining order and discipline. Therefore, the court reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings. View "Cannon v. Village of Bald Head Island" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of the City's motion to dismiss an action filed by Rockville Cars, alleging a violation of its procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment when the City suspended its building permit. The court held that a property right failed to vest in Rockville Cars' building permit when its application contained material misrepresentations. Furthermore, even if Rockville Cars did have a property interest, it failed to take advantage of the sufficient process afforded to it by the state. View "Rockville Cars, LLC v. City of Rockville" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's grant of habeas relief and remanded with instructions to dismiss petitioner's habeas application with prejudice under the court's decision in United States v. Surratt, 855 F.3d 218 (4th Cir. 2017) (en banc). Petitioner was sentenced to 118 years in prison for nonhomicide crimes that he committed when he was 15 years old. Petitioner sought habeas relief after the Supreme Court decided Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), which prohibited juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide crimes from being sentenced to life without parole. While the application was pending, Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell issued petitioner a partial pardon, reducing his sentence to 40 years' imprisonment. The court reasoned that had the district court properly applied Surratt, it would have been required to conclude that Governor McDonnell's valid partial pardon reducing petitioner's sentence to 40 years' imprisonment rendered his habeas application moot and that the district court was therefore without jurisdiction to address it and opine on the constitutionality of petitioner's original sentence under Graham. View "Blount v. Clarke" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's judgment in an action by plaintiffs, five officers charged in a homicide case, alleging claims of malicious prosecution, defamation, and false light against a state attorney. Plaintiffs alleged that defendant's role in independently investigating their conduct stripped her of absolute prosecutorial immunity and that their allegations of malice or gross negligence overcame Maryland's statutory immunity protections. The court rejected plaintiffs' invitation to cast aside decades of Supreme Court and circuit precedent to narrow the immunity prosecutors enjoyed. The court also found no justification for denying defendant the protection from suit that the Maryland legislature has granted her. In this case, defendant's alleged wrongs fell squarely within the umbrella of absolute immunity where plaintiffs challenged specific conduct that she performed in her role as an advocate. View "Nero v. Mosby" on Justia Law

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Rocky Mount regulated sexually oriented businesses by requiring them to obtain a license prior to operation. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of American Entertainers' First Amendment overbreadth and Equal Protection challenge to Rocky Mount's licensing ordinance. However, the court held that the district court erred by rejecting American Entertainers' prior restraint claim where the challenged provision was insufficiently narrow, objective, and definite to pass constitutional muster. Accordingly, the court held as unconstitutional the relevant denial provision in the ordinance and remanded to the district court to consider whether and to what extent the provision was severable from the remainder of the ordinance. View "American Entertainers, LLC v. City of Rocky Mount, NC" on Justia Law

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Cohen, as the president and chairman of companies that sold insurance to those in the entertainment industry, was obliged to submit regular financial statements to insurance regulators. Beginning in 2008, Cohen engaged in a scheme to defraud policyholders and the public. Cohen created fraudulent financial documents and sent fraudulent representations to auditing firms and others, securing favorable opinions on the financial standing of his companies, which received more than $100,000,000 in premiums. Prosecutors secured a 31-count indictment, alleging that Cohen’s arrest upended his intentions to harm public officials. Cohen had purchased a long-range tactical rifle, plus ammunition and a night vision device and had researched homemade bombs, purchased ammonium nitrate and made recordings about plans to attack public officials. As his scheme unraveled, Cohen threatened witnesses. Cohen, who represented himself during most proceedings, eventually pleaded guilty to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, making false statements to insurance regulators, and obstruction of justice. Cohen was sentenced to 444 months in prison. The Fourth Circuit upheld Cohen’s appeal waiver and dismissed certain claims. The court rejected, on the merits, claims that the district court erred in failing to conduct a Farmer hearing on his asset seizure allegations and that Cohen’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel was contravened by the magistrate’s denial of his request to revoke his pro se status and have a lawyer appointed for his final sentencing hearing. View "United States v. Cohen" on Justia Law

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In 2017, Maryland enacted “An Act concerning Public Health – Essential Off-Patent or Generic Drugs – Price Gouging – Prohibition.” The Act, Md. Code, Health–General 2-802(a), prohibits manufacturers or wholesale distributors from “engag[ing] in price gouging in the sale of an essential off-patent or generic drug,” defines “price gouging” as “an unconscionable increase in the price of a prescription drug,” and “unconscionable increase” as “excessive and not justified by the cost of producing the drug or the cost of appropriate expansion of access to the drug to promote public health” that results in consumers having no meaningful choice about whether to purchase the drug at an excessive price due to the drug’s importance to their health and insufficient competition. The “essential” medications are “made available for sale in [Maryland]” and either appear on the Model List of Essential Medicines most recently adopted by the World Health Organization or are “designated . . . as an essential medicine due to [their] efficacy in treating a life-threatening health condition or a chronic health condition that substantially impairs an individual’s ability to engage in activities of daily living.” The Fourth Circuit reversed the dismissal of a “dormant commerce clause” challenge to the Act, finding that it directly regulates the price of transactions that occur outside Maryland. View "Association for Accessible Medicine v. Frosh" on Justia Law

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D.S. and S.P are high school students. D.S. (who is black and has learning disabilities) was charged with violating South Carolina’s Disturbing Schools Law, S.C. Code 16-17-420(A), “after becoming involved in a physical altercation which she did not initiate and in which she was the only person" injured. S.P. (who is white and suffers from disabilities) was charged with violating the Disorderly Conduct Law, S.C. Code 16-17-420(B), after she cursed at a student who had been teasing her and refused to leave as instructed. Other Plaintiffs include young black adults who were previously arrested and charged with violating the Disturbing Schools Law when they expressed concerns about police conduct and an afterschool program serving at-risk youth with two members (Latina and black girls) who were charged under the Disturbing Schools Law. The Fourth Circuit vacated the dismissal, for lack of standing, of a suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, challenging the laws as unconstitutionally vague. At least some of the plaintiffs do not rely on conjecture or speculation; they attend schools where they were previously arrested and charged under the statutes, and they do not know which of their actions at school will be interpreted to violate the statutes in the future. Plaintiffs also allege that the laws chill their exercise of free expression, forcing them to refrain from exercising their constitutional rights or risk arrest and prosecution. View "Kenny v. Wilson" on Justia Law