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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Appellant appealed the district court’s denial of his motion for a reduced sentence pursuant to section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018 (the “First Step Act”), which makes retroactive the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (the “Fair Sentencing Act”) that reduced sentencing disparities between cocaine and crack cocaine offenses. Appellant contends that pursuant to United States v. Collington, 995 F.3d 347 (4th Cir. 2021), section 404 decisions must be procedurally and substantively reasonable, and the district court’s decision not to reduce his sentence was substantively unreasonable. In contrast, the United States (the “Government”) insists that Collington is distinguishable and limited to section 404 grants as opposed to denials. Therefore, the Government argues that the more circumscribed review for abuse of discretion applies to the district court’s denial of section 404 relief in this case.   The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s order denying Appellant’s section 404 motion and remand for reconsideration. The court concluded that the requirements outlined in Collington apply generally in the section 404 context -- that is, regardless of whether the district court grants or denies the motion. Here, although the district court’s order denying Appellant’s section 404 motion was procedurally reasonable, it was not substantively so. View "US v. Mitchell Swain" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant was convicted at a bench trial of receiving and possessing child pornography found on his phone. He appealed, making six arguments. The Fourth Circuit explained that based on the totality of the circumstances of Defendant’s questioning show Defendant was not in custody, so his Miranda rights were not violated. Although admitting the cellphone report into evidence violated Defendant’s Confrontation Clause rights, the court found that the error was harmless. And the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence of past wrongs, in allowing the Detective’s lay-opinion testimony, or in fashioning its restitution order. But the lifetime ban on internet and computer usage is foreclosed by the Fourth Circuit’s caselaw. So the court reversed as to that condition and remanded to the district court. View "US v. Augustin Arce" on Justia Law

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A jury convicted Defendant for his role in a drug trafficking conspiracy, and the district court sentenced him to 276 months in prison. On appeal, his counsel filed a brief pursuant to Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967), representing that Defendant has no meritorious grounds for appeal but questioning whether the district court erred by applying the Sentencing Guidelines’ two-level enhancement for maintaining a premises for the purpose of drug distribution.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that the evidence supports the district court’s findings that Defendant and his coconspirator dealt drugs out of the coconspirator’s home, where they stored and packaged drugs that Defendant then sold directly outside the home and along the street. The district court, therefore, did not clearly err in applying the premises enhancement. View "US v. Keith Barnett" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant a Mexican citizen who migrated to the United States illegally as a minor in 2006, was deported in 2011 following a four-minute removal hearing. During that hearing, the immigration judge neglected to advise Defendant about his eligibility for voluntary departure or inform him of his right to appeal. Then, in his written summary order, the immigration judge indicated that Defendant had waived his right to appeal. Upon discovering him in the country once again in 2018, the Government opted to arrest and charge him with illegal reentry. Defendant moved to dismiss his indictment, arguing that the 2011 deportation order underlying his Section 1326 charge was invalid.   The district court agreed, finding that the immigration judge’s failure to advise Defendant regarding his eligibility for voluntary departure rendered his 2011 removal fundamentally unfair. Defendant nevertheless maintains that the district court’s decision must be affirmed on an alternative basis: that the immigration judge’s denial of his right to appeal also prejudiced him. The Fourth Circuit agreed and affirmed the dismissal of Defendant’s indictment.   The court concluded that Defendant would have been granted voluntary departure on remand. The court rejected the Government’s contentions that Defendant would not have been eligible for voluntary departure. Further, the Government has waived any other arguments against that eligibility by failing to raise them before the court. Ultimately the court agreed with Defendant that, but for the denial of his appeal rights, he would not have been deported. Accordingly, the court concluded that his 2011 removal hearing was fundamentally unfair. View "US v. Bonifacio Sanchez" on Justia Law

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Appellants operated for around seven years an enterprise known as “Trained to Go” (TTG) within one of West Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Appellants distributed drugs and engaged in countless acts of violence using firearms. They exercised their constitutional right to a jury trial and were convicted for their actions, including for conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). They now bring numerous challenges to their convictions and sentences, including their right to a public trial, the evidence admitted at trial, and more.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed Appellants’ convictions and sentences on all fronts, save one. The court reversed one Appellant’s Section 922(g)(1) conviction, vacated the judgment as to him, and remanded for further proceedings consistent with our opinion. The court explained that Appellants contend that any RICO conspiracy was confined to a neighborhood in Baltimore. But the government must only prove a “de minimis” effect on interstate commerce. Appellants argue that the de minimis standard does not apply to their activity because it was purely intrastate activity. But the de minimis standard does in fact apply. In Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court made clear that “when ‘a general regulatory statute bears a substantial relation to commerce, the de minimis character of individual instances arising under that statute is of no consequence.’” Construing all this evidence in the light most favorable to the government, the court found there is sufficient evidence that the conspiracy affected interstate commerce. View "US v. Montana Barronette" on Justia Law

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Petitioner was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. During his state post-conviction relief (PCR) and federal habeas proceedings, Petitioner argued that the State of South Carolina’s failure to produce three pieces of evidence violated his due process rights because he could have used that evidence to impeach prosecution witnesses. Considering the entire record and the overwhelming evidence of Petitioner’s guilt, every court to address this argument has deemed the undisclosed evidence not material.The Fourth Circuit agreed and denied Petitioner’s petition for habeas corpus. The court explained that having granted every permissible assumption in Petitioner’s favor and having carefully considered all the undisclosed evidence in light of the entire record at trial, the court concluded that Petitioner has not carried his burden to prove a reasonable probability that, had he received the undisclosed evidence, the jury would not have convicted him of murder or recommended a sentence of death. View "Marion Bowman, Jr. v. Bryan Stirling" on Justia 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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Defendant pleaded guilty to “knowingly” possessing a firearm after being convicted of “a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.” 18 U.S.C. Sections 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2). Two years later, the Supreme Court held that the word ‘knowingly’ applies both to the defendant’s conduct and to the defendant’s status. Defendant was was not advised of the second knowledge requirement before pleading guilty, and his lawyer made no objection to that omission.The Fourth Circuit vacated Defendant’s conviction. The court held that Defendant s the rare defendant who can make the “difficult” showing that, had he been properly advised, “there is a reasonable probability that he would not have pled guilty,” Greer v. United States, 141 S. Ct. 2090 (2021).The court explained that “satisfying all four prongs of the plain-error test is difficult,” and the ultimate decision to grant relief is always discretionary. Greer, 141 S. Ct. at 2096–97. Here, based on on all the facts and circumstances of this case, the court concluded it is appropriate to exercise our discretion to correct this particular Rehaif error. That error resulted in Defendant unknowingly agreeing that the government need not advance proof of the knowledge-of-status element, notwithstanding his persistent and contemporaneous assertions that he had not known of his legal status at the relevant time. Because these circumstances raise obvious—and troubling—questions about whether Defendant would have so agreed had he been fully and correctly informed, allowing the current plea to stand without further inquiry would seriously affect the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings. View "US v. Antwan Heyward" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The appeal turns on a plea agreement between Defendant and the government. In that agreement, the government promised to dismiss two of the three counts on which Defendant had been indicted. In exchange, Defendant agreed to plead guilty to the remaining count: committing a crime of violence – kidnapping – while having failed to register as a sex offender. But under the parties’ conditional plea agreement, Defendant expressly reserved the right to appeal his conviction on the ground that kidnapping is not categorically a crime of violence. Defendant did appeal, and the government conceded that under intervening precedent, he was correct.   The Fourth Circuit, therefore, vacated the judgment against Defendant and remanded to the district court. The district court then entered the decision at issue on appeal: Over Defendant’s objection, the court allowed the government to proceed against Defendant on one of the charges previously dismissed under the plea agreement, for failure to register as a sex offender.   On appeal, Defendant challenges that decision and his resulting conviction, arguing that his plea agreement barred the government from pursuing the dismissed charges. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit vacated Defendant’s conviction and sentence and remanded to the district court with instructions to order his release from federal custody. The court explained that the parties that Section 3296 is neither sufficient (the government) nor necessary (Defendant) to allow for prosecution on the dismissed charges after Defendant’s conviction was vacated on appeal; here, it is the plea agreement itself that controls. That is enough to dispose of this case. View "US v. Shelby Petties" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal 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