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

Articles Posted in Constitutional 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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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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Willie Slocum, Jr. appealed the denial of his motion to correct, vacate, or set aside his convictions and sentences based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Slocum was indicted on two counts of drug conspiracy under 21 U.S.C. § 846, but argued that the two charged conspiracies were actually one. He claimed that he was punished twice for the same conspiracy in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause, and that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to raise a double jeopardy challenge before the trial court. The district court denied his motion without ordering a response from the government or holding an evidentiary hearing.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that the district court erred in its decision. The appellate court determined that Slocum was indeed punished twice for a single conspiracy in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause. However, the court noted that it was unclear whether trial counsel had a strategic reason for failing to raise a double jeopardy challenge. The court concluded that Slocum was entitled to an evidentiary hearing under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b) where the performance of his trial counsel could be assessed. Therefore, the court vacated the district court’s denial of Slocum’s § 2255 motion and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on Slocum’s ineffective assistance claim. View "United States v. Slocum" on Justia Law

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The case involves Douglas Damon Whitley, who was convicted of Hobbs Act robbery, federal carjacking, and a firearm offense in connection with his theft of a Peloton delivery van and its contents. Whitley was sentenced to concurrent 84-month prison terms for the robbery and carjacking convictions. On appeal, Whitley argued that his convictions and sentences for both offenses violated the Double Jeopardy Clause, as he believed Hobbs Act robbery to be a lesser included offense of carjacking. He also contended that there was insufficient evidence of the specific intent needed to convict him of federal carjacking.The case was first heard in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Whitley and his co-defendant, Kindal Robinson, pleaded not guilty and proceeded to a joint jury trial. The jury found them both guilty of all charges. Whitley then filed a motion for judgment of acquittal, arguing that his convictions for both Hobbs Act robbery and federal carjacking violated the Double Jeopardy Clause. He also argued that the government failed to produce sufficient evidence of his specific intent to cause death or serious bodily harm, an essential element of federal carjacking. The district court denied Whitley’s motion, determining that Hobbs Act robbery is not a lesser included offense of carjacking and that a reasonable jury could have found that Whitley had the specific intent to kill or seriously injure the van driver.The case was then reviewed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The court disagreed with Whitley's arguments and affirmed the district court’s judgment. The court found that the jurisdictional elements of Hobbs Act robbery and federal carjacking differed, meaning that the two offenses were not the same under the Blockburger test. The court also found that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that Whitley had the specific intent to cause death or serious bodily harm, thus rejecting Whitley's sufficiency challenge. View "US v. Whitley" on Justia Law

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The case involves an incarcerated individual, Thomas Alexander, who alleged that two correctional officers violated his Fourth and Eighth Amendment rights by forcibly removing a contraband phone from his rectum in a prison shower. The officers, however, claimed that they found the phone in Alexander's pocket and used no more force than necessary. The incident was partially captured on video, but the footage did not conclusively resolve the dispute over where the phone was located.The United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina granted summary judgment in favor of the officers. The court relied on the video footage, concluding that it discredited Alexander's version of events to such an extent that no reasonable jury could have believed him.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated the lower court's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. The appellate court found that the video did not clearly depict what happened in the shower room and did not blatantly contradict Alexander's account. Therefore, the court held that the district court should have credited Alexander's version of events when considering the officers' summary judgment motion. The appellate court also concluded that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Alexander, a reasonable jury could find that the officers violated Alexander's Fourth and Eighth Amendment rights. View "Alexander v. Connor" on Justia Law

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The case involves Marshall and Tiffany Todman, who were evicted from their rental property in Baltimore. According to the Baltimore City Code, any personal property left in or around the premises after eviction is immediately considered abandoned, and the landlord takes ownership. The Todmans were evicted earlier than expected and lost their belongings under this ordinance. They sued the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, alleging that the city had deprived them of their personal property without due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of the Todmans.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that the Todmans were owed more process than they received and that the city was responsible for that failure of process. The court held that the city's Abandonment Ordinance violated the Todmans' constitutional rights by depriving them of their property without due process of law and that the city is liable for that violation. The court also dismissed the Todmans' conditional cross-appeal, which asked the court to review the district court's dismissal of their takings claim if the court found their due process claims lacked merit. View "Todman v. The Mayor and City Council of Baltimore" on Justia Law

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The case involves Angel Cartagena, an inmate in the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) prison system, who challenged the conditions of his 18-month confinement at the River North Correctional Center. Cartagena alleged that his confinement was too restrictive and caused him emotional distress and severe mental anguish, in violation of his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as statutory prohibitions against discrimination. VDOC officials had determined that Cartagena was seriously mentally ill and unable to function in the general prison population, so they assigned him to the VDOC’s Secure Diversionary Treatment Program (SDT Program) at the River North facility. Cartagena refused to comply with the treatment regimen prescribed for him and complained about the consequential restrictions of the Program.The district court granted the prison officials’ motion to dismiss Cartagena’s complaint, concluding that Cartagena had failed to state plausible claims for relief. The court found that Cartagena had not sufficiently alleged a deliberate indifference by prison officials to his condition, the deprivation of a constitutionally protected liberty interest, or discrimination because of his disability.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that Cartagena failed to demonstrate the required mens rea for an Eighth Amendment violation, as the prison officials had offered him treatment, which he refused. The court also found that Cartagena failed to adequately allege a cognizable liberty interest in his placement in the SDT Program, and therefore, the Due Process Clause requires no process related to his placement in the Program. Finally, the court concluded that Cartagena failed to plausibly allege that he was “otherwise qualified” for the benefits that he seeks and therefore to state a claim for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. View "Cartagena v. Lovell" on Justia Law

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The case involves 360 Virtual Drone Services LLC and its owner, Michael Jones, who sought to provide customers with aerial maps and 3D digital models containing measurable data. However, the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors argued that doing so would constitute engaging in the practice of land surveying without a license, in violation of the North Carolina Engineering and Land Surveying Act. Jones and his company sued the Board, arguing that the restriction on their ability to offer these services without first obtaining a surveyor’s license violates their First Amendment rights.The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Board. The court concluded that Jones had standing to challenge the statute based on his desire to create “two-dimensional and three-dimensional maps with geospatial data.” It also concluded that the Engineering and Land Surveying Act implicated the First Amendment. However, it found that the Act constituted “a generally applicable licensing regime that restricts the practice of surveying to those licensed” and primarily regulated conduct rather than speech, such that intermediate scrutiny applied. Finally, the court concluded that the Act survived intermediate scrutiny.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court concluded that the Act, as applied to the plaintiffs, was a regulation of professional conduct that only incidentally impacts speech. Therefore, it applied a more relaxed form of intermediate scrutiny that mandates only that the restriction be “sufficiently drawn” to protect a substantial state interest. The court found that the Act met this standard and therefore did not violate the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights. View "360 Virtual Drone Services LLC v. Ritter" on Justia Law

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A group of parents in Montgomery County, Maryland, challenged the local school board's decision to include LGBTQ-inclusive books in the English Language Arts curriculum without providing parents notice or the option to opt their children out of exposure to these books. The parents, who held various religious beliefs, argued that the board's decision violated their rights under the Free Exercise and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.The United States District Court for the District of Maryland denied the parents' motion for a preliminary injunction, which would have required the board to provide notice and an opt-out option. The parents appealed this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that the parents had not shown a likelihood of success on the merits of their claims, a necessary requirement for a preliminary injunction. Specifically, the court found that the parents had not provided sufficient evidence to show that the board's decision coerced them or their children to act or believe contrary to their religious faith. The court also found that the parents had not shown that their due process rights were likely to be violated. The court noted that the parents still had the right to instruct their children on their religious beliefs and to discuss the topics raised in the books with their children. View "Mahmoud v. McKnight" on Justia Law

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Lonnie Billard, a former teacher at Charlotte Catholic High School (CCHS), sued the school for sex discrimination under Title VII after he was fired for his plans to marry his same-sex partner. The district court granted Billard's motion for summary judgment and denied CCHS's motion, which raised several affirmative defenses, both statutory and constitutional.The district court found that CCHS had indeed fired Billard because of his plans to marry his same-sex partner, which amounted to sex discrimination as defined by Title VII. The court rejected CCHS's affirmative defenses, including its interpretation of Title VII's religious exemption, its defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and its First Amendment defenses. The court also ruled on the ministerial exception, despite CCHS's waiver of that defense, and found that Billard did not satisfy the criteria for the ministerial exception.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's decision. The appellate court concluded that because Billard played a vital role as a messenger of CCHS's faith, he falls under the ministerial exception to Title VII. Therefore, the court instructed the district court to enter judgment for CCHS. View "Billard v. Charlotte Catholic High School" on Justia Law