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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Muhammad, serving a 210-month sentence at FCI Loretto based on his convictions for conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 50 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing cocaine base, sought a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A), asserting that his increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 due to his age and medical conditions (chronic hypertension and cardiac arrhythmia) constituted extraordinary and compelling circumstances supporting his immediate release. Muhammad filed his motion for a sentence reduction 149 days after asking the warden to file the motion on his behalf and 132 days after the warden denied his request. Muhammad did not appeal the warden’s denial through the Bureau of Prison’s administrative remedy program. The district court held that because the warden responded to the request within 30 days, Muhammad had to exhaust his administrative remedies before he could file a motion on his own behalf.The Fourth Circuit vacated the dismissal. The district court erred in its interpretation of section 3582(c)(1)(A), which plainly provides that a defendant may file a motion on his own behalf 30 days after the warden receives his request, regardless of whether the defendant exhausted his administrative remedies. Moreover, section 3582(c)(1)(A)’s threshold requirement is non-jurisdictional and subject to waiver. View "United States v. Muhammad" on Justia Law

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After shooting at military helicopters flying over his Mississippi farm, Curbow was charged with a federal criminal offense. The Mississippi district court deemed Curbow to be mentally incompetent to stand trial and temporarily placed him in the custody for further evaluation. Staff members at the Federal Medical Center at Butner, North Carolina eventually concluded that Curbow was unlikely to be restored to competency in the foreseeable future and that his mental condition rendered him dangerous to others. The government filed a certificate in the Eastern District of North Carolina — as the district where FMC Butner is located — attesting that Curbow was a dangerous person.The North Carolina district court ordered Curbow’s civil commitment under 18 U.S.C. 4246. Curbow does not dispute that there was ample evidence before the court of his dangerousness but argued that he was ineligible for civil commitment because he was no longer in legal custody at the time of his dangerousness certification. The Fourth Circuit rejected that argument and affirmed. Curbow waived the theory that he was ineligible for section 4246 certification based upon unreasonable delays in his first two periods of section 4241(d) custody; with respect to his third period of custody, the court was entitled to accept that the government took a reasonable amount of time to be deliberate and ensure that it was evaluating Curbow’s dangerousness accurately — particularly considering his alleged criminal conduct and use of firearms. View "United States v. Curbow" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit held that an alien has no constitutional right to be advised of his eligibility for discretionary relief. The court affirmed the dismissal of petitioner's 28 U.S.C. 2255 habeas petition challenging his sentence for felony illegal reentry of an alien who has previously been removed, in violation of 8 U.S.C. 1326(a) and (b). Petitioner claimed that his trial counsel was ineffective by failing to recognize that he was innocent of illegal reentry because the underlying removal order was invalid.The court agreed with the district court's finding that petitioner could not collaterally attack (and thus invalidate) that order because he had not satisfied 8 U.S.C. 1326(d)'s three requirements for doing so. The court concluded that, at a minimum, petitioner failed to satisfy the third condition: the entry of the removal order was fundamentally unfair. In this case, petitioner identifies no other due process violations arising from his removal hearing; he cannot invalidate his removal order; and thus his claim of actual innocence fails. View "United States v. Herrera-Pagoada" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling that defendant can be reprosecuted on two 18 U.S.C. 924(c) charges without running afoul of the Double Jeopardy Clause. Pursuant to its precedent, the court is constrained to conclude that the vacatur of defendant's section 924(c) convictions constituted a procedural dismissal, and not an acquittal. The court explained that that is because the vacatur was unrelated to defendant's factual innocence. Rather, the vacatur was premised on the change of law wrought by United States v. Simms, 914 F.3d 229 (4th Cir. 2019) (en banc), and United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019). Accordingly, the court agreed with the district court that defendant can be reprosecuted without violating double jeopardy. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In 2015, Dylann Roof, then age 21, shot and killed nine members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina during a meeting of a Bible-study group. A jury convicted him on nine counts of racially motivated hate crimes resulting in death, three counts of racially motivated hate crimes involving an attempt to kill, nine counts of obstructing religion resulting in death, three counts of obstructing religion involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon, and nine counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence. The jury unanimously recommended a death sentence on the religious obstruction, 18 U.S.C. 247, and firearm counts. He was sentenced accordingly.The Fourth Circuit affirmed, upholding findings that Roof was competent to stand trial and a ruling that allowed him to represent himself during the penalty phase of his trial. Neither the Constitution nor the Federal Death Penalty Act requires that mitigation evidence be presented during capital sentencing over a defendant’s objection. Isolated witness testimony describing Roof as “evil” and stating that he would go to “the pit of hell” did not render the trial fundamentally unfair. The court rejected arguments that his convictions for religious obstruction were invalid under the Commerce Clause or required proof of religious hostility; that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. 249, was an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’s Thirteenth Amendment authority; that the Attorney General erroneously certified Roof’s federal prosecution; and that Roof’s firearm convictions under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) were invalid because the predicate offenses are not categorically crimes of violence. View "United States v. Roof" on Justia Law

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Stokes’s South childhood included extreme abuse and neglect. When Stokes was 13, his mother died, leaving Stokes parentless. Stokes repeated the eighth grade three times. Stokes, at age 15, became involved with Smith, a friend of his mother’s. They married. In 1988, Stokes was convicted of assaulting Smith with a knife. The couple reunited. In 1991, Stokes assaulted Smith again. After his release from prison, Stokes participated in the rape and murder of his cellmate’s ex-wife. Stokes penned a detailed confession. The jury also heard about the subsequent murder of Ferguson, who had been aware of the murder plot. Stokes pleaded guilty to Ferguson’s murder.Sims’s appointed attorneys for the 1998 trial conducted a mitigation investigation. For the penalty phase, they planned to argue that Stokes’s HIV-positive status made him suitable for a life sentence. On the eve of sentencing, Stokes withdrew his consent, refusing to allow his counsel to mention his HIV status. Counsel did not present any personal evidence, believing that “an Orangeburg County jury” at that time would not be receptive to evidence about his childhood and “white jurors might react especially to Stokes, a Black man, raping Snipes, a white woman. They presented a single mitigation witness, a retired prison warden, who refused to meet Stokes, or interview anyone who knew Stokes. His testimony was counter-productive. The prosecution presented robust aggravating evidence. Evidence of Stokes’s 1991 assault of Smith was especially relevant; Stokes’s lead trial counsel had personally prosecuted that case against Stokes. Stokes was sentenced to death.The Fourth Circuit reversed the denial of habeas relief. Post-conviction counsel were ineffective, providing good cause for Stokes’s procedural default of his claim. The failure to adequately investigate and present personal evidence was objectively unreasonable and prejudicial. View "Stokes v. Stirling" on Justia Law

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Frank embezzled $19 million from his former employer, NCI, and pleaded guilty to wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1343. The district court sentenced Frank to 78-months’ imprisonment and ordered Frank to pay restitution of $19,440,331. The government has recovered over $7 million and attempted to garnish Frank’s 401(k) retirement account under the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act (MVRA), filing an Application for Writ of Continuing Garnishment, 18 U.S.C. 3664(m)(1)(A)(i), naming Schwab as the garnishee. Schwab currently holds approximately $479,504 in Frank's 401(k) account, which is covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001. Frank argued that ERISA’s anti-alienation provision protects retirement plans against claims by third parties. The Fourth Circuit affirmed that the MVRA permits the seizure of Frank’s 401(k) retirement account, notwithstanding ERISA’s protections. When the government enforces a restitution order under the MVRA, it stands in the shoes of the defendant, acquiring whatever rights to 401(k) retirement funds he possesses; the government’s access to the funds in Frank’s 401(k) account may be limited by terms set out in Frank’s plan documents or by early withdrawal penalties to which Frank would be subject. The court remanded so that the district court may decide what present property right Frank has in his account. The court rejected an argument that the Consumer Credit Protection Act, 15 U.S.C. 1673(a), limits the government to taking 25 percent of the funds. View "United States v. Frank" on Justia Law

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In 1993, Plymail was convicted for a 1992 sexual assault. Plymail filed a notice of intent to appeal in March 1994. What followed was an ordeal spanning over 20 years, six lawyers, and multiple state courts. Many delays stemmed from disagreements with the attorneys, difficulty contacting them, various courts taking too long to rule on simple motions, and Plymail’s battle with ulcerative colitis. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed Plymail’s convictions in 2015.Plymail filed a federal habeas petition asserting that his incarceration was unconstitutional based on the delay of his appeal, comments made by the trial judge that coerced the jury into rendering a verdict, and improper statements made by the prosecutor during closing arguments. The district court rejected his claims. The Fourth Circuit reversed. Plymail is entitled to habeas relief based on the prosecutor’s improper statements exhorting the jury to protect women and send a message to the community and to “sadomasochistic” persons. Those statements rendered the trial so fundamentally unfair as to deny Plymail due process of law. View "Plymail v. Mirandy" on Justia Law

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Before pleading guilty, Glover attempted to hire an attorney. The attorney sent thousands of dollars sent by Glover's family to the DEA, believing the funds were drug proceeds. The government seized the funds under 21 U.S.C. 881(a)(6). Glover began filing pro se motions concerning the seized funds. Glover and his second appointed counsel (Ehlies) requested a “Farmer” hearing on the subject of the seized funds. The government acknowledged that a hearing pursuant to Farmer "might be necessary.” Instead of setting such a hearing, the court focused on Glover’s frequent pro se motions and whether Glover wanted to continue to be represented by counsel. The court stated that it would not appoint new counsel and indicated that it would not address the “Farmer” issue unless Glover chose to represent himself.Glover pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of a drug containing cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and marijuana; and conspiracy to conduct financial transactions involving proceeds of unlawful activity. Before sentencing, Glover filed a pro se motion requesting to withdraw his plea, making numerous allegations of misconduct by Ehlies. The court declined to appoint new counsel, determining that Glover could either proceed pro se (he again declined) or be represented by Ehlies, and denied the motion.The Fourth Circuit vacated. Precedent precluded Glover’s argument that the government wrongly seized untainted assets needed to hire the counsel of his choice but Glover’s attorney had a conflict of interest at his plea withdrawal hearing and substitute counsel should have represented him there. View "United States v. Glover" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's convictions for charges related to bank robbery and firearm possession, rejecting his numerous claims of error. The court concluded that the automobile exception justified both searches of the vehicle and thus there was no error in denying defendant's motion to suppress evidence; there was no abuse of discretion in denying defendant's motion to disqualify a witness's counsel and to exclude witness testimony where the district court satisfied itself that no actual conflict jeopardized the integrity of the proceedings; even if the district court committed evidentiary errors, the errors were harmless; defendant waived his claim of work-product privilege regarding the private investigator's notes; defendant failed to make a showing of materiality under either Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), or the less onerous standard for in camera review; viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, ample evidence supported the verdict; and defendant's two arguments raised for the first time on appeal under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) failed because either defendant's substantial rights were not affected or binding precedent foreclosed his arguments. View "United States v. Caldwell" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law