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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Appellant pleaded guilty to one charge of being a felon in unlawful possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sections 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2), but reserved his right to appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence seized during a warrantless search of his vehicle after officers visually observed a glass stem pipe in the console of his car. Appellant now makes that appeal, arguing the stem pipe was insufficient to trigger the plain view exception to the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unreasonable searches.   In finding neither clear factual error nor an error of law in the district court’s reasoning the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that for the plain view exception to apply, the government must show that: “(1) the officer [was] lawfully in a place from which the object [could] be plainly viewed; (2) the officer ha[d] a lawful right of access to the object itself; and (3) the object’s incriminating character [wa]s immediately apparent.” United States v. Jackson, 131 F.3d 1105 (4th Cir. 1997).   Here, even though a glass stem pipe may be put to innocent uses—uses that continue to expand and should be taken into consideration—here, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government and in its totality, the plain view exception applies, and the search of the vehicle was lawful. View "US v. Ricky Runner" on Justia Law

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Justice 360 offers post-conviction representation to South Carolina’s death-row inmates. In the current matter, Justice 360 acts solely on its own behalf. The organization’s Amended Complaint alleges that South Carolina Code Section 24-3-580 (“Identity Statute”)— which protects against the disclosure of certain information related to the State’s execution protocols—violates its First Amendment right to counsel clients and to participate in public debate about the death penalty.The district court rejected those assertions, and Justice 360 timely appealed, challenging only the dismissal of its claims against the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC” or the “Department”) and its director. The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded with instructions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, holding that Justice 360 lacks standing. The court explained that granting Justice 360 the relief it seeks in its Amended Complaint would amount to no more than an impermissible advisory opinion, as the organization’s alleged injuries would remain unredressed. View "Justice 360 v. Bryan Stirling" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff sued the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency alleging religious discrimination and retaliation under Title VII. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal. The court explained that because the alleged discrimination and retaliation arose from Plaintiff’s failure to satisfy additional security requirements and would require the court to review the merits of the security-authorization decision, the court is bound by the decision in Department of the Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518 (1988), to affirm the district court’s dismissal of this matter for lack of jurisdiction.   The court explained that it agrees that courts must exercise caution in expanding the reach of Egan. Nevertheless, the court declined to adopt the hardline position, urged by Plaintiff, that Egan’s rationale may only ever apply to determinations explicitly labeled “security clearances.” Rather, as in Foote and Sanchez, this case requires a more detailed analysis of whether the judgment at issue is of the type that Egan intended to shield from judicial review. Furhter, the court held that the CIA’s decision to stop Plaintiff’s assignee-security authorization processing is the kind of discretionary predictive judgment shielded from judicial review by Egan. View "Nathan Mowery v. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency" on Justia Law

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Petitioner was convicted of two capital murders and sentenced to death in a South Carolina state court. During the penalty phase, the government and defense experts agreed that Petitioner suffered persistent childhood abuse; they also agreed that he had at least one mental illness—rumination disorder—and disagreed as to another—schizophrenia. Yet, the sentencing judge concluded that Petitioner was not conclusively diagnosed as mentally ill and found no “conclusive proof of mitigating circumstances.” Petitioner filed the instant federal petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section 2254, raising several claims. The district court dismissed his petition, and Petitioner appealed.   The Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded with instructions that the district court issue a writ of habeas corpus unless the State of South Carolina grants Petitioner a new sentencing hearing within a reasonable time. The court concluded that the state court’s conclusion that the sentencing judge “considered Petitioner’s mitigation evidence as presented” was an unreasonable determination of the facts and its conclusion that the sentencing judge gave “proper” consideration was contrary to clearly established federal law. The court wrote it has grave doubt that the state court’s errors did not have a substantial and injurious effect. View "Quincy Allen v. Michael Stephan" on Justia Law

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On appeal, prisoner Plaintiff raised constitutional and state-law claims against numerous prison officials arising from a physical altercation at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia. As part of his evidentiary showing, Plaintiff repeatedly sought the production of videos recording the encounter. When he learned that some of the videos were not preserved, Plaintiff moved for spoliation sanctions.   After an evidentiary hearing, the magistrate judge denied Plaintiff’s spoliation motion and recommended entering judgment against him on all claims and counterclaims. The district court substantially adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendations without explicitly addressing Plaintiff’s objections to the order denying spoliation sanctions.The Fourth Circuit vacated the order of the district court entering judgment to Defendants and remand for a hearing on Plaintiff’s objections to the denial of spoliation sanctions, and for any other proceedings, the district court deems appropriate. The court held that the district court abused its discretion by implicitly overruling Plaintiff’s spoliation objections when several critical issues were left unresolved by the magistrate judge.   Specifically, the court explained that the magistrate judge erred in requiring Plaintiff to produce evidence that “the defendants purposefully disposed of any video recordings in an effort to prevent their use at trial.” Under Rule 37(e), when “electronically stored information that should have been preserved . . . is lost because a party failed to take reasonable steps to preserve it,” then “upon finding prejudice to another party from loss of the information,” the court “may order measures no greater than necessary to cure the prejudice.” Accordingly, only a finding of prejudice is required for such not-greater-than-necessary sanctions. View "Gary Wall v. E. Rasnick" on Justia Law

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Defendant challenged the admissibility of a handgun found in a rental car he had been driving that was parked outside of his hotel. Finding that Defendant had abandoned any legitimate expectation of privacy in the Charger, that Enterprise had given valid third-party consent to the search, and that the Government would have inevitably discovered the gun in the Charger, the district court denied Defendant’s motion to suppress.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment. The court explained that in suppression hearings, criminal defendants have the burden of putting forward evidence to support all elements of their reasonable expectation of privacy. Here, Defendant did not introduce any evidence to support his lawful possession of the Charger. View "US v. Derrick Daniels, Jr." on Justia Law

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Defendant was paid to drive a car with over $100,000 in drug-tainted cash hidden in a secret dashboard compartment. When police pulled him over, he acted suspiciously: He quickly shut down the GPS application running on his smartphone and struggled to answer where he was going with the money. His odd behavior continued when he arrived at the station: When police found five SD cards wrapped in a $100 bill in Defendant’s shoe, Defendant tried to destroy them by eating them. When police got a warrant to search the phone and SD cards, things went from bad to worse for Defendant—both the phone and the chips contained graphic and heinous child pornography. Defendant contends that the search warrant for the phone and SD cards should not have been issued.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed Defendant’s conviction, holding that the district court’s denial of Defendant’s motion to suppress was proper. The court explained that this case presents a model example of a proper investigation under the Fourth Amendment. The officers submitted a comprehensive affidavit with detailed facts showing drug trafficking. The magistrate combined those facts with commonsense inferences and determined that probable cause existed. And when the officers discovered evidence of other crimes, they immediately went back and obtained additional warrants to search and seize those files. View "US v. David Orozco" on Justia Law

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Pro se Plaintiff sought to pursue a civil action in the Eastern District of Virginia against several Commonwealth officials, alleging that the Old Dominion’s 2021 House of Delegates election contravened the federal and state constitutions. More specifically, Plaintiff alleged that Virginia was constitutionally required to use 2020 U.S. Census data to draw the legislative districts for the 2021 House of Delegates election. On October 12, 2021, the district court dismissed Plaintiff’s claims against the Governor of Virginia and the State Board of Elections on grounds of Eleventh Amendment immunity.   On remand, the three-judge district court dismissed the entirety of Plaintiff’s complaint, ruling that he lacks Article III standing to sue. The court later reviewed the Standing to Sue Ruling, and found that the court possesses jurisdiction to review the Standing to Sue Ruling. The court then rendered an opinion to resolve both the Plaintiff’s Appeal and the Commonwealth’s Appeal.   The Fourth Circuit held that the three-judge district court properly ruled that Plaintiff does not possess the Article III standing to sue that is required to pursue this civil action. In making that determination, the court adopted the well-crafted and reasoned analysis of the Standing to Sue Ruling. Plaintiff cannot satisfy Article III’s injury in fact requirement, either as a voter or as a candidate for public office. However, the court modified the judgment of the three-judge district court to reflect that its dismissal of Plaintiff’s civil action is without prejudice. The court further, dismissed the Commonwealth’s Appeal as moot. View "Paul Goldman v. Robert Brink" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs brought a claim on behalf of thousands of West Virginia’s foster children challenging the State’s administration of child welfare services. Invoking Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), the district court abstained from hearing the case in deference to parallel state-court proceedings. Plaintiffs alleged that a federal class action is the most—if not the only—effective way to achieve the kind of systemic relief they seek.The Fourth Circuit reversed holding that principles of federalism not only do not preclude federal intervention, they compel it. Plaintiffs bring federal claims, and federal courts “are obliged to decide” them in all but “exceptional” circumstances. The court explained that Younger’s narrow scope safeguards Plaintiffs’ rights, bestowed on them by Congress in the Judiciary Act of March 3, 1875, to present their claims to a federal tribunal. 28 U.S.C. Section 1331. The court further wrote For years, West 4 Virginia’s response to any foster-care orders entered as part of the individual state hearings seems to have been to shuffle its money and staff around until the orders run out, entrenching rather than excising structural failures. Thus, forcing Plaintiffs to once more litigate their claims piecemeal would get federalism exactly backward. View "Jonathan R. v. Jim Justice" on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed from his convictions for conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and eight counts of mail or wire fraud. He argued that his trial was constitutionally defective, his indictment was constructively amended, his jury instructions prejudiced him, and his conviction for conspiracy to launder money must be reversed for lack of sufficient evidence.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed Defendant’s conviction, holding that his arguments—most of which were not properly preserved—are meritless. The court held that Defendant’s right-to-compel challenge falters, at minimum, at the third step of the plain error inquiry because he fails to show how the district court’s alleged Fifth Amendment error affected the outcome of his proceedings. 
 Further, even if the probable-cause finding for Count 2 were flawed, the Government would still have been well within its rights to seize Defendant’s properties based on the underlying and unchallenged probable-cause findings for these other counts.   Next, the court wrote that Defendant failed to show that his indictment contained an error, much less a plain error. It is well established that “[t]he allegation in a single count of conspiracy to commit several crimes is not duplicitous, for [t]he conspiracy is the crime, and that is one, however diverse its objects.” United States v. Marshall, 332 F.3d 254 (4th Cir. 2003).   Moreover, the court explained that even if it assumed that the district court’s concealment-money-laundering instructions were flawed, that error did not affect the outcome of Defendant’s proceedings because he was nevertheless convicted of conspiring to commit transactional money laundering. View "US v. David Miller" on Justia Law