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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Defendant appealed his 84-month sentence for distribution of child pornography. He argued that the district court procedurally erred when it applied two enhancements which increased the suggested sentencing range under the Sentencing Guidelines. The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s application of that enhancement, vacated Defendant’s sentence, and remanded for resentencing.   The five-level exchange-for-value enhancement under Section 2G2.2(b)(3)(B) of the Sentencing Guidelines. In applying this enhancement over Defendant’s objection, the district court looked to the Fourth Circuit’s 2013 decision in United States v. McManus, 734 F.3d 315. Defendant argued that this was an error because McManus does not provide the proper test for defendants, like him, who were sentenced after a 2016 amendment to the Guidelines took effect.   The Fourth Circuit held that the district court procedurally erred when it applied two enhancements that increased the suggested sentencing range under the Sentencing Guidelines. Specifically, one of those enhancements is a five-level increase under Section 2G2.2(b)(3)(B) of the Guidelines. The court reasoned that the 2016 Guidelines amendment abrogated its holding in McManus for defendants sentenced after the effective date of the 2016 Guidelines. In light of the new standard imposed by the 2016 Guidelines, the district court’s application of the enhancement was an error, and that error was not harmless. View "US v. Jonathan Morehouse" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant, a former federal prison guard, was indicted for sexually assaulting a prisoner twice and then lying to law enforcement about it. A jury convicted Defendant only of making a false statement to law enforcement while acquitting him of the more substantial sex-crime charges. Following that verdict, the district court made two decisions that increased Defendant’s sentence. First, it imposed an enhanced statutory maximum that was neither charged nor submitted to the jury. Second, it varied upward to impose the sentence Defendant would have faced if he had been convicted of sexually abusing the prisoner. On appeal, Defendant challenged his false-statements conviction.   The Fourth Circuit rejected Defendant’s challenge to his false-statement conviction. The court held that sufficient evidence supported that conviction, and any arguable inconsistency with the jury’s acquittal on other counts does not invalidate the false-statement conviction. The court reasoned that sufficient evidence supported the finding that both of Defendant’s statements were false for the reason charged—that is, Defendant had performed a sexual act on an inmate.   Further, the court agreed that the district court judge improperly imposed an enhanced statutory maximum penalty based on a judicial finding not in the indictment or found by the jury. However, the court found the error harmless, reasoning that although Defendant could have been charged, he was not. And absent a charge and conviction, Defendant was not subject to the 8-year statutory maximum sentence. Finally, the court held that the district court did not impose an unreasonable sentence. View "US v. Chikosi Legins" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant appealed his felon in possession of a firearm conviction and sentence. Regarding his conviction, Defendant challenged the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress statements he made to the police, without the benefit of counsel, about the gun involved in the felon-in-possession charge. Regarding his sentence, he argues that the district court’s application of a Sentencing Guidelines enhancement, based on its finding that Defendant used the firearm to commit a carjacking, violated his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because it was based on acquitted conduct.   The Fourth Circuit rejected Defendant’s Sixth Amendment violation claims and affirmed the district court’s judgment. The court held that the district court did not violate Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel by admitting the uncounseled statements that he made to Maryland police after he was appointed counsel in his D.C. case. The court reasoned that Defendant did not request his attorney, ask for the interview to stop or say anything that a reasonable police officer in the circumstances would understand to be a request for an attorney.   Further, the court held that Defendant’s Sixth Amendment challenge to the use of acquitted conduct as the basis for his Guidelines sentence enhancement is foreclosed by Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit precedent. Finally, the district court did not err by enhancing Defendant’s sentence when it found, based on a preponderance of the evidence, that he used the firearm in connection with the carjacking at issue. View "US v. Jovon Medley" on Justia Law

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Petitioner is serving a life sentence upon a South Carolina conviction for assault and battery with intent to kill. One claim in Petitioner’s state habeas petition alleged that his state appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to file a Petition for Rehearing in the Court of Appeals. The district court granted Section 2254 relief, but not on the ground Petitioner raised. Instead, the district court determined Petitioner was entitled to relief because his appellate counsel (1) failed “to timely advise him of the adverse decision of the Court of Appeals on his direct appeal and of his right to seek further appellate review,” and (2) sent a letter containing counsel’s “forged signature” that “inaccurately informed Petitioner that his state court appellate rights had been exhausted.” South Carolina appealed, arguing that the district court’s judgment conflicts with the rigorous standards that apply when a state prisoner seeks to challenge the constitutionality of his state sentence in federal court.   The Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and denied Petitioner’s writ of habeas corpus. The court held that no ineffective assistance of counsel claim can arise based on conduct relating to discretionary, subsequent appeals. The court reasoned that the district court impermissibly altered the claim presented in Petitioner’s sec. 2254 petition. As for the claim Petitioner actually raised, the district court properly held that he had not shown that he was entitled to relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). View "Clinton Folkes v. Warden Nelsen" on Justia Law

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Defendant used counterfeit $20 bills to purchase a firearm and ammunition. A federal grand jury indicted Defendant on possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon and passing counterfeit money. Defendant subsequently pled guilty to possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon, and the government dismissed the other count.At sentencing, the district court applied a sentencing enhancement under Section 2K2.1(b)(6)(B) of the Sentencing Guidelines based on the fact that used the firearm "in connection with another felony offense." The court then sentenced Defendant to sixty-two months’ imprisonment and three years of supervised release. Defendant appealed, challenging the application of the Section 2K2.1(b)(6)(B) enhancement, claiming he did not use the firearm in connection with the offense of passing counterfeit money.The Fourth Circuit affirmed Defendant's sentence, determining that any error the district court may have committed, such error was harmless. The court noted that, in its opinion, the district court explained that, even without the enhancement, Defendant's sentence would have been the same.The court also rejected Defendant's claims under United States v. Rogers, 961 F.3d 291 (4th Cir. 2020), finding that the presentence report put Defendant on notice that his sentence might include discretionary conditions of supervised release. View "US v. Robert Cisson" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant pled guilty to Continuing a Criminal Enterprise (“CCE”) and Money Laundering and the district court sentenced Defendant to 420 months incarceration on the CCE offense and 240 months’ incarceration for money laundering, to be served concurrently. Defendant filed a pro se motion to reduce his sentence pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018 (“FSA”), which the district court denied on grounds that Defendant’s convictions were not covered offenses. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling denying Defendant’s pro se motion to reduce his sentence pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018 (“FSA”), holding that Defendant’s conviction under Sections 848 (a) and (c) is not a covered offense under the FSA. The court reasoned that although Defendant’s conviction for Sections 848(a) and (c) required a finding that he committed a continuing series of drug violations, the quantity and drug type of these violations made no difference for sentencing purposes, whereas they would matter to secure a conviction and sentence under Section 848(b). Further, since the Act altered drug quantities required to trigger the penalties for 841(b)(1)(A) or 841(b)(1)(B), it also modified the drug quantities required to sustain a conviction under 848(b). Thus, after Woodson and before Terry, since the Act modified the statutory penalties applicable to 848(b) and (e), 8 it would have been conceivable that the Act modified the statutory penalties for Defendant’s “statute of conviction,” thus rendering his 848 (c) conviction a covered offense under the FSA. View "US v. Jerrell Thomas" on Justia Law

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Defendant pled guilty to Continuing a Criminal Enterprise (“CCE”) and Money Laundering. During his sentencing, and under the 1994 Sentencing Guidelines, the district court sentenced Defendant to 420 months’ incarceration on the CCE offense and 240 months’ incarceration for money laundering, to be served concurrently. Defendant later filed a pro se motion to reduce his sentence pursuant to the First Step Act of 2018 (“FSA”), which the district court denied on grounds that Defendant’s convictions were not covered offenses. On appeal, Defendant argued that his CCE offense is a covered offense under the FSA because Congress amended the crack cocaine drug weight required to trigger a mandatory life sentence under Section 848(b).   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision finding that Defendant’s conviction under Sections 848 (a) and (c) and pursuant to Terry is not a covered offense under the First Step Act of 2018. The court reasoned that though the Act did modify the penalties for Defendant’s predicate violations under 841(a)(1) and 846, Defendant’s statutory penalty range for violating 848(a) and (c) remained the same before and after the FSA. Thus, because Defendant is serving a sentence for violating 848(a) and (c), his offense is not a covered offense under the FSA. View "US v. Jerrell Thomas" on Justia Law

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The jury found Defendant guilty of conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery, two counts of Hobbs Act robbery, brandishing a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence, and witness tampering. On appeal, Defendant asserted four evidentiary challenges. The Fourth Circuit affirmed Defendant’s convictions holding that Defendant’s guilt was so overwhelming that the erroneously admitted evidence did not affect the trial’s outcome.   The court agreed with Defendant that the district court erred when it allowed the victim store employees to testify about how the robberies affected their lives and when it allowed a law enforcement agent to interpret the recorded phone calls. However, the court held that the district court properly permitted the victim store employees to testify that Defendant was the decoy guy and was trying to act like he was afraid during a previous robbery. Further, the court held that the district court appropriately allowed a co-conspirator to testify that Defendant was dangerous and admitted the screenshots that the co-conspirator received of the photographs of the letters saying that he was an informant. View "US v. Charles Walker, Jr." on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant, a naturalized United States citizen, received advice from counsel in 2010 that because of his newly obtained citizenship, his guilty plea to a narcotics offense would not subject him to deportation. However, Defendant's citizenship was revoked in 2016. In 2018, Defendant received a Notice to Appear informing him that he would be removed from the country because his 2010 conviction was an aggravated felony. Upon receiving that notice, he filed a collateral attack upon his 2010 guilty plea under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2255. The district court found that Defendant’s 2018 petition was untimely under Sec. 2255(f)(4).The court reasoned that Sec. 2255 petitions must typically be filed within one year of the date “on which the judgment of conviction becomes final.” But petitions based on facts that arise after a conviction becomes final must instead be filed within one year of “the date on which the facts supporting the claim or claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.Defendant testified that his Alexandria-based attorney told him in 2016 that his conviction was an aggravated felony. The court found that notice alone triggered Sec. 2255(f)(4)’s limitations period. Second, even setting aside that admission, the nature of Defendant’s sentencing proceedings on July 8, 2016, put him on inquiry notice that his 2010 conviction was an aggravated felony. Therefore, the court held that the district court correctly dismissed the petition as untimely. View "US v. Jose Nunez-Garcia" on Justia Law

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Defendant moved for relief under Sec. 2255 after he was convicted of causing the death of another through the use of a firearm during a “crime of violence” and sentenced to death. Defendant claims that the Government failed to prove that he committed a “crime of violence.”The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of Defendant's petition. The court reasoned that to support a conviction for using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a “crime of violence,” the Government need only prove one qualifying predicate offense. That crime must be a felony that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another.” Further, the court must ask whether the “most innocent conduct” criminalized by the statute meets the definition of a “crime of violence.” In certain situations, the court applies a “variant” of the categorical approach referred to as the modified categorical approach. The court uses the modified categorical approach when the statute at issue is divisible. Divisible statutes set forth “multiple, alternative versions of the crime” with distinct elements, while indivisible statutes merely set out different means of completing the crime.The court applied the modified categorical approach. The court found that federal premeditated first-degree murder is a “crime of violence.” Moreover, federal premeditated murder requires an intentional mens rea and thus does not in any way violate Borden’s requirement. Thus, premeditated murder in violation of Sec. 1111(a) is categorically a “crime of violence.” View "US v. Richard Jackson" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law