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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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In 2003, Taylor and a co-conspirator went to rob Taylor’s marijuana customer, Sylvester. The co-conspirator carried a semiautomatic pistol, which discharged during the attempt. Sylvester sustained a fatal gunshot wound. An indictment alleged Taylor conspired to commit Hobbs Act robbery, 18 U.S.C. 1951; attempted Hobbs Act robbery, 18 U.S.C. 1951; and used a firearm in furtherance of a “crime of violence,” 18 U.S.C. 924(c), citing as predicate crimes of violence the conspiracy and the attempted Hobbs Act robbery. Taylor pled guilty to the conspiracy and section 924(c) counts and was sentenced to 240 months’ incarceration for the conspiracy and 120 consecutive months for the 924(c) conviction.Taylor’s first motion to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. 2255 was denied. Taylor obtained permission to file a second section 2255 motion in light of the Supreme Court’s "Johnson" decision, which substantially narrowed the definition of “violent felony” in the Armed Career Criminal Act. In the meantime, the Fourth Circuit invalidated section 924(c)(3)(B), one of two clauses defining “crime of violence,” and held that conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery does not qualify as a “crime of violence” under either clause. The Supreme Court similarly invalidated section 924(c)(3)(B) as unconstitutionally vague.The Fourth Circuit vacated Taylor’s 924(c) conviction. The elements of attempted Hobbs Act robbery do not invariably require “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force,” so the offense does not qualify as a “crime of violence” under 924(c). View "United States v. Taylor" on Justia Law

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Defendant pleaded guilty to operating a commercial vehicle without a permit and entered a conditional guilty plea to a marijuana charge, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion.The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress, holding that the Government has not carried its burden to show that the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop defendant or that the stop was a valid administrative inspection under New York v. Burger, 482 U.S. 691 (1987). In this case, absent articulable suspicion that defendant lacked the required permit to drive on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the officer was not entitled to stop defendant's vehicle at his discretion to check whether defendant possessed a permit. Furthermore, the officer was not acting pursuant to commercial trucking regulations when he stopped defendant's vehicle. Because the initial traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment, any evidence obtained from it, including the marijuana found in defendant's shoe, should have been suppressed. Therefore, the court vacated defendant's marijuana conviction and remanded. View "United States v. Feliciana" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Six years after defendant received a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes he committed when he was 17 years old, he moved to vacate his sentence in light of the Supreme Court’s intervening decisions in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016). The district court resentenced defendant to life imprisonment without parole after concluding that he presents "one of those uncommon cases where sentencing a juvenile to the hardest possible penalty is appropriate."The Fourth Circuit affirmed and held that, even assuming the district court plainly erred in not vacating defendant's witness tampering by murder conviction, he has not shown that the error affected his substantial rights. The court also held that defendant's sentence of life imprisonment without parole is procedurally reasonable where the district court conducted a thorough resentencing and did not abuse its discretion in its consideration of defendant's age at the time of the offense or his postconviction diagnosis and conduct. Furthermore, the district court amply explained why it concluded that "the harshest possible penalty"—life imprisonment without parole—was appropriate. Finally, the court held that defendant's sentence was not substantively unreasonable where the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that defendant's crimes, committed when he was 7-and-a-half months shy of his 18th birthday, reflected irreparable corruption rather than "the transient immaturity of youth." View "United States v. McCain" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit vacated defendant's conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm in light of United States v. Medley, ---F.3d--- (4th Cir. 2020). In Medley, the court held that the failure of an indictment to provide proper notice combined with an improper jury instruction that omits an element of a crime are substantial errors that ought to be corrected under plain error review.In this case, defendant argued that Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019), renders his indictment and conviction invalid where neither the indictment nor the jury instructions included a crucial element of the offense—that he knew his relevant status when he possessed the firearm. Applying Medley, the court held that the errors in this case warrant correction where defendant's indictment failed to provide him with notice that the Government would attempt to prove that he knew his prohibited status; afterwards, his conviction was predicated on an indictment that failed to allege an essential element of an offense and a verdict by a jury that was informed the Government was not required to prove that defendant knew his prohibited status; and, at trial, there was little—if any—evidence presented that would support that defendant knew his prohibited status. Therefore, the errors occurred at the inception of the Government's case against defendant and continued throughout. The court remanded with instructions to the district court to enter judgment dismissing the count without prejudice. View "United States v. Green" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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A motion pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 3583(e)(2) cannot be used to challenge the terms or conditions of supervised release on the ground that they are unlawful.After defendant pleaded guilty to two counts related to his role in a commercial sex operation and received a sentence of 70 months' imprisonment and five years' supervised release, the district court required that he register as a sex offender as a condition of supervised release. Defendant moved to modify the conditions of his supervised release under section 3583(e)(2), contending that the sex offender registration condition was illegal as applied to his offense of conviction. The district court denied the motion and defendant appealed. The Fourth Circuit held that defendant's motion for modification attacked the registration requirement on the ground that it was unlawful, using a motion under section 3583(e)(2) as a pathway to bring such a challenge presumably because other pathways (including a direct appeal) are now foreclosed. The court stated that defendant's current section 3583(e)(2) challenge is impermissible because it rests on the factual and legal premises that existed at the time of his sentencing. Accordingly, the court dismissed the appeal. View "United States v. McLeod" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of petitioner's 28 U.S.C. 2241 habeas application, rejecting his claim that he is entitled to habeas relief based on United States v. Chamberlain, 868 F.3d 290, 295 (4th Cir. 2017) (en banc), and the Sixth Amendment. In Chamberlain, the court held that the criminal forfeiture statute permits freezing only those assets traceable to the charged offense.The court held that petitioner failed to show that section 2255 would be "inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention." In this case, the court's existing "savings clause" jurisprudence makes abundantly clear that a section 2255 motion is fully adequate to address alleged Sixth Amendment violations. Furthermore, petitioner's statutory claim still fails the court's "savings clause" tests. Therefore, the district court properly dismissed the section 2241 application for lack of jurisdiction. View "Farkas v. Warden" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of petitioner's 28 U.S.C. 2254 motion for habeas relief, raising Sixth Amendment claims. Petitioner was convicted of beating, shooting, and robbing a prostitute in a hotel room.The court held that the state court's adjudication of petitioner's claims on the merits was neither unreasonable nor inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent. In this case, petitioner alleged that his lawyer should have sought forensic testing of various items in the hotel room to bolster his story. The court held that the state court reasonably determined that counsel's performance was not deficient as to the items found in the hotel room, and the state court reasonably determined that the failure to test petitioner's sock did not cause prejudice. View "Valentino v. Clarke" on Justia Law

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Defendants conditionally pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States with the substantive offense being a violation of the Anti-Riot Act. Defendants' charges arose from their violent participation in three white supremacist rallies during 2017.The Fourth Circuit held that, while the category of speech that lies at the core of the Anti-Riot Act's prohibition, called "incitement," has never enjoyed First Amendment protection, the statute sweeps up a substantial amount of speech that remains protected advocacy under the modern incitement test of Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969) (per curiam), insofar as it encompasses speech tending to "encourage" or "promote" a riot under 18 U.S.C. 2101(a)(2), as well as speech "urging" others to riot or "involving" mere advocacy of violence under section 2102(b).However, the court held that, in all other respects, the statute comports with the First Amendment. Because the discrete instances of overbreadth are severable from the remainder of the statute, the court held that the appropriate remedy is to invalidate the statute only to the extent that it reaches too far, while leaving the remainder intact. Finally, the court held that defendants' convictions stand because the factual basis of defendants' guilty pleas conclusively establish that their own substantive offense conduct—which involves no First Amendment activity—falls under the Anti-Riot Act's surviving applications. View "United States v. Miselis" on Justia Law

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Petitioner has been in prison for 44 years for a rape and burglary that he consistently maintained that he did not commit, claiming that police deliberately suppressed exculpatory evidence. The district court dismissed his petition for federal habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2254, concluding that the MAR (Motion for Appropriate Relief) Court's decision did not involve an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The MAR Court concluded that the cumulative effect of the withheld Brady evidence would have had no impact on petitioner's trial.The Fourth Circuit held that the MAR Court's analysis subjected petitioner to an enhanced burden, unreasonably applied Supreme Court law, and was objectively unreasonable. In this case, considering both the exculpatory and impeachment effects of the suppressed evidence, together with the shortfalls in the victim's identification and consistent testimony from alibi witnesses, the withheld evidence "could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict." Therefore, the court vacated the district court's dismissal of the petition. Because the district court failed to address the issue of whether the petition can survive the threshold requirements pursuant to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the court remanded for the district court to consider the issue in the first instance and to permit further discovery requested by petitioner. View "Long v. Hooks" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and sentenced to 78 months of imprisonment, followed by three years of supervised release. After defendant appealed his conviction and sentence, the Supreme Court issued Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019). Defendant then filed a supplemental brief raising further constitutional challenges, arguing that Rehaif invalidated his indictment and conviction.The Fourth Circuit applied plain error review and held that the asserted Rehaif errors violated defendant's substantial rights. The court stated that sustaining defendant's conviction under the present circumstances would deprive defendant of several constitutional protections, prohibit him from ever mounting a defense to the knowledge-of-status element, require inappropriate appellate factfinding, and do serious harm to the judicial process. Therefore, the court exercised its discretion to notice the errors and vacated defendant's conviction, remanding for further proceedings. View "United States v. Medley" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law