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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Lewis and two others robbed a pawnshop. Lewis pointed his firearm at the manager and struck him in the back of the head three times, causing him to fall to the floor. The robbers stole 28 firearms, more than $61,000 worth of jewelry, and $2,000 in cash. The police found a “red spot” on the back of the manager’s head, which was not bleeding. The manager felt “dizzy” and was taken to the hospital. His medical expenses totaled $3,676.92. Lewis pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery, 18 U.S.C. 1951(a), Hobbs Act robbery, and brandishing a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, 18 U.S.C. 924(c). The PSR recommended a two-level enhancement because a victim sustained bodily injury. Lewis objected that an injury must be “significant” to sustain the enhancement and that an injury must have “more than momentary consequences” to be “significant.”The district court “guess[ed]” that the manager had suffered a “mild concussion,” applied the enhancement and sentenced Lewis to 46 months followed by 84 months for Count III. The Fourth Circuit vacated. The court erred in imposing the injury enhancement. The prosecution failed to produce police reports, medical records, photographs, or testimony with respect to the injury to establish that the manager received more-than-precautionary medical attention. Nor did it establish that the manager’s injuries lasted for a “meaningful period.” View "United States v. Lewis" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Burr was convicted for the 1991 murder of an infant, “Susie.” Burr was living with Susie’s mother, Bridges, and was physically abusive to Bridges. Bridges had returned home to find Susie unconscious, having seizures, bruised, and with broken bones. Burr was sentenced to death. Burr has pursued habeas remedies before the state and federal courts. In 2020, the district court declined to grant habeas relief on the basis of claims under "Brady" and "Napue," related to transcripts of interviews with two witnesses, Susie’s brother, Scott, and Bridges.The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Burr has not demonstrated that the state court’s decision was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts,” 28 U.S.C. 2254(d)(2). The state court did not unreasonably apply Brady when it concluded that “any inconsistencies between the trial testimony of [Bridges and Scott] and their pre-trial comments to the prosecutors are of de minimis significance.” Burr did not explain how the transcript would have allowed him to impeach that testimony. The jury could make its own determination of how much weight to give the statements of a young child who repeatedly stated that he could not remember key details. Burr has not pointed to any “false impression” about Scott’s testimony that prosecutors should have been aware of and flagged but that the jury would not also have been aware of after listening to that testimony. View "Burr v. Jackson" on Justia Law

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Defendants Williams, Bennett, Johnson, and Farris pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine. Although defendants' pleas did not specify that the methamphetamine was of Ice-level purity, the district court at sentencing found that the conspiracy involved Ice and that each was responsible for its distribution. The district court sentenced defendants using the drug-quantity table in USSG 2D1.1(c) .The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendants' sentences, concluding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in deciding not to reject the Ice Guidelines because of the vastness of this conspiracy and the danger posed by Ice and the appropriateness of treating higher purity methamphetamine more seriously than lower purity methamphetamine. The court concluded that the district court must have latitude to consider whatever reliable evidence is available to make its 80% purity determination. While such evidence may be used, it must be sufficiently reliable and specific that it actually supports the government's position that the drug's purity is 80% or above. The court explained that, given the evidence presented as to each of the defendants, it was not clearly erroneous for the district court to determine that the government met its burden of proving the conspiracy involved Ice. Finally, there was no error in sentencing Johnson under criminal history category II. View "United States v. Williams" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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During an automobile stop in Richmond, Virginia, Ball struggled with a Virginia law enforcement officer, pulled out a gun, and shot the officer in the forehead at close range, killing him. Virginia prosecutors charged him with capital murder. Pursuant to a plea agreement, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with all but 36 years suspended. Following community outrage over the sentence, federal prosecutors charged Ball with possession of a firearm by a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). The district court sentenced Ball to the statutory maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment and, as a variance, required that the 10 years be served consecutive to the state sentence.The Fourth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the federal indictment should have been dismissed because that prosecution violated the Double Jeopardy Clause, was unnecessarily delayed within the meaning of FRCP 48(b), having been initiated more than two years after the shooting, and constituted vindictive prosecution under the Due Process Clause because the federal prosecution and sentence were “intended to punish him for negotiating a favorable deal with state prosecutors.” The federal government articulated valid federal interests in prosecuting Ball for his violation of federal law, pointing to its prioritization of felon-in-possession cases, and the serious nature of Ball’s conduct. View "United States v. Ball" on Justia Law

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Walters entered his ex-girlfriend’s home, struck her with a hammer, and left with her cell phone and $700. Walters was arrested and charged in West Virginia state court with first-degree robbery, malicious assault, and burglary. Public defender Stanley represented him. In March, the state extended a plea offer. Stanley’s office timely received the offer, set to expire in April, but failed to communicate it to Walters until July. Despite Walters’s requests for a new attorney, Stanley continued to represent Walters. In July, the state extended another plea offer. Stanley communicated that offer to Walters and secured a 30-day extension. The July plea offer lapsed.Walters filed an ethics complaint. Stanley explained that Walters refused to respond to the July plea offer and had indicated that he would only “plead[] guilty to a misdemeanor, serve a year in jail, and make restitution." After negotiating a plea with new representation Walters pleaded guilty to reduced charges. The court sentenced Walters to 43-65 years’ incarceration, citing Walters’ criminal history, the seriousness of the offense, and the danger he posed to the community,After exhausting state remedies, Walters sought federal habeas relief. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of his petition, which alleged ineffective assistance of counsel. The state court appropriately concluded that Walters failed to show a reasonable probability that he would have accepted the March plea offer had Stanley timely communicated it. Walters cannot demonstrate prejudice. View "Walters v. Martin" on Justia Law

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As students were arriving at the high school, an administrator reported an unknown man (Coleman, age 39) “asleep or passed out” in his vehicle with a crossbow visible in the backseat. The vehicle, stopped but running, was primarily parked in a travel lane. Deputy Johnson believed possession of the crossbow was illegal under Virginia law because it could fire “a projected missile on the school campus.” During questioning, Coleman stated that he had a firearm in the vehicle’s center console. Johnson asked Coleman to exit the vehicle. When Coleman did so, Johnson observed “a fairly large bag of a green leafy substance that appeared to be marijuana” beside the driver’s seat. Another deputy searched the vehicle, finding marijuana, crystal methamphetamine, individual baggies, a scale, a .38 Special revolver, and the crossbow.Coleman was among 28 defendants indicted for participating in a drug trafficking organization. Coleman was charged in two drug counts and for using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime. Coleman unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that Johnson did not have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to conduct an investigative “Terry” stop because possession of a crossbow on school grounds is not illegal in Virginia. The Fourth Circuit affirmed his convictions and 211-month sentence. Even if Coleman had not possessed the crossbow, Johnson would have had reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigative stop based on the totality of the circumstances. View "United States v. Coleman" on Justia Law

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Canales-Granados, born in El Salvador, was admitted to the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident in 2001. In 2018, he was convicted of criminal offenses, which he attributes to a multi-year struggle with substance abuse. He pleaded guilty to Virginia petit larceny, felony eluding, felony hit and run, and driving under the influence. For the latter three convictions, he was sentenced to 15 years and 60 days in prison. All but five days of the sentence were suspended; he was instead sentenced to a residential addiction treatment program.Charged with removability under 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(A)(ii) because he was an alien convicted of two or more crimes involving moral turpitude (CIMTs) not arising out of a single scheme of criminal misconduct, Canales-Granados contended that neither Virginia felony hit and run nor Virginia felony eluding qualified as CIMTs. An IJ agreed that the hit and run conviction was not a CIMT but determined that felony eluding was. That conviction, when combined with Canales-Granados’ petit larceny conviction, gave him two CIMTs, rendering him removable. The BIA affirmed. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The phrase “crime involving moral turpitude” is neither unconstitutionally vague nor violative of the nondelegation doctrine. Virginia’s felony eluding statute qualifies as such an offense. View "Granados v. Garland" on Justia Law

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Ojedokun participated in a complex international operation designed to obscure the proceeds of a U.S.-based fraud scheme that involved contacting elderly victims on internet dating websites. In 2019, after relocating to this country from Nigeria, Ojedokun was questioned and arrested by the FBI at his Illinois home and was indicted. The grand jury returned a superseding indictment in August 2020, which Ojedokun unsuccessfully moved to dismiss as untimely. Ojedokun filed multiple unavailing suppression motions, was convicted of conspiracy to commit money laundering, 18 U.S.C. 1956(h), and was sentenced to 108 months' imprisonment.The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Section 1956(f) overcomes the presumption against exterritorial jurisdiction not only as applied to the substantive money laundering offenses, but also with respect to conspiracy offenses under 1956(h). By making an agreement with at least one U.S. resident and engaging in a conspiracy extensively carried out in this country, Ojedokun participated in conduct relevant to the 1956(h) charge that transpired within the U.S., placing his actions within the confines of 1956(f)(1). The allegations in the Original Indictment afforded Ojedokun sufficient notice of what he was accused of in the Superseding Indictment, which related back to the date of the Original and was not barred by the statute of limitations. Ojedokun’s consent for the agents to enter his home was fully voluntary and the agents remained within the scope of that consent. View "United States v. Ojedokun" on Justia Law

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