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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Defendant challenged the admissibility of a handgun found in a rental car he had been driving that was parked outside of his hotel. Finding that Defendant had abandoned any legitimate expectation of privacy in the Charger, that Enterprise had given valid third-party consent to the search, and that the Government would have inevitably discovered the gun in the Charger, the district court denied Defendant’s motion to suppress.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment. The court explained that in suppression hearings, criminal defendants have the burden of putting forward evidence to support all elements of their reasonable expectation of privacy. Here, Defendant did not introduce any evidence to support his lawful possession of the Charger. View "US v. Derrick Daniels, Jr." on Justia Law

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Defendant was paid to drive a car with over $100,000 in drug-tainted cash hidden in a secret dashboard compartment. When police pulled him over, he acted suspiciously: He quickly shut down the GPS application running on his smartphone and struggled to answer where he was going with the money. His odd behavior continued when he arrived at the station: When police found five SD cards wrapped in a $100 bill in Defendant’s shoe, Defendant tried to destroy them by eating them. When police got a warrant to search the phone and SD cards, things went from bad to worse for Defendant—both the phone and the chips contained graphic and heinous child pornography. Defendant contends that the search warrant for the phone and SD cards should not have been issued.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed Defendant’s conviction, holding that the district court’s denial of Defendant’s motion to suppress was proper. The court explained that this case presents a model example of a proper investigation under the Fourth Amendment. The officers submitted a comprehensive affidavit with detailed facts showing drug trafficking. The magistrate combined those facts with commonsense inferences and determined that probable cause existed. And when the officers discovered evidence of other crimes, they immediately went back and obtained additional warrants to search and seize those files. View "US v. David Orozco" on Justia Law

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Defendant pleaded guilty to and was convicted of three felony offenses: (1) willfully injuring government property causing damage exceeding $1,000, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 1361; (2) using, carrying, and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, namely, the Section 1361 offense, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c); and (3) attempted injury to veterans’ memorials, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 1369. The district court sentenced Defendant to a term of 300 months’ imprisonment, which included a consecutive 120-month sentence for his conviction under Section 924(c).   At issue, on appeal, is whether a felony conviction under 18 U.S.C. Section 1361 for willfully injuring or committing depredation against government property, with damage exceeding $1,000, qualifies as a predicate crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c). The Fourth Circuit concluded that it does not because this property offense can be committed in a non-violent manner without “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another.” 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c)(3)(A). Because the district court erred in reaching a contrary conclusion, the court reversed the court’s judgment and remanded.   The court explained, that the least culpable felony under Section 1361 effectively constitutes intentional vandalism of government property. Because this conduct does not require the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force, the court held that a felony offense under Section 1361 does not qualify categorically as a predicate “crime of violence” defined by Section 924(c)(3)(A). View "US v. Yonathan Melaku" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Interim Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (the “State”), appealed from the district court’s order granting state prisoner Petitioner’s 28 U.S.C. Section 2254 petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Petitioner’s sole claim in his Section 2254 petition is that his lead trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to withdraw and testify on his behalf to impeach one of the State’s key witnesses.   The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded with instructions to dismiss Petitioner’s petition. The court explained that it is not free to reweigh evidence or interpose our own interpretations of the facts when reviewing a Section 2254 petition, even if we disagree with them or believe they are wrong. The court wrote that because the district court did just that, the court held that it must reverse its decision.   The court further explained that whether Sullivan or Strickland would supply the clearly established law, Petitioner has failed to carry his burden to secure habeas relief because he has no claim. He has failed to upend the state court’s conclusion that the alleged November 20, 2001, conversation between the key witness and his trial counsel never occurred, meaning he has not shown that she was operating under any conflict of interest during his trial. Nor has he demonstrated that his trial counsel possessed any information to impeach the key witness’s testimony had she withdrawn from her representation. In short, there is no factual support for the lone claim raised in Petitioner’s Section 2254 petition. View "Terrence Hyman v. Casandra Hoekstra" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant appealed from his convictions for conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and eight counts of mail or wire fraud. He argued that his trial was constitutionally defective, his indictment was constructively amended, his jury instructions prejudiced him, and his conviction for conspiracy to launder money must be reversed for lack of sufficient evidence.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed Defendant’s conviction, holding that his arguments—most of which were not properly preserved—are meritless. The court held that Defendant’s right-to-compel challenge falters, at minimum, at the third step of the plain error inquiry because he fails to show how the district court’s alleged Fifth Amendment error affected the outcome of his proceedings. 
 Further, even if the probable-cause finding for Count 2 were flawed, the Government would still have been well within its rights to seize Defendant’s properties based on the underlying and unchallenged probable-cause findings for these other counts.   Next, the court wrote that Defendant failed to show that his indictment contained an error, much less a plain error. It is well established that “[t]he allegation in a single count of conspiracy to commit several crimes is not duplicitous, for [t]he conspiracy is the crime, and that is one, however diverse its objects.” United States v. Marshall, 332 F.3d 254 (4th Cir. 2003).   Moreover, the court explained that even if it assumed that the district court’s concealment-money-laundering instructions were flawed, that error did not affect the outcome of Defendant’s proceedings because he was nevertheless convicted of conspiring to commit transactional money laundering. View "US v. David Miller" on Justia Law

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Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sections 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2). He appealed from the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence of a firearm seized from his “fanny pack,” a small bag strapped around his waist. Defendant argued that the officers (1) lacked reasonable suspicion to stop him as he was walking at a fairground in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and (2) exceeded the scope of any permissible stop and frisk by placing him in handcuffs and by ultimately searching the fanny pack.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the district court did not err in denying the suppression motion. The officers had reasonable suspicion to think that Defendant, a convicted felon and gang member who had posted a recent incriminating statement on social media and whose residence had been the target of recent shootings, was engaged in criminal activity and was armed and dangerous. The court further concluded that the officers did not exceed the scope of the brief detention and frisk by handcuffing Defendant and, after feeling a hard object in his fanny pack, by opening the pack and seizing the firearm. Those actions were justified to ensure the safety of both the officers and other people nearby. View "US v. Chandler Gist-Davis" on Justia Law

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Defendant sought vacatur of his 2003 conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm. The basis for Defendant’s coram nobis petition is primarily the decision in United States v. Simmons, pursuant to which neither of the North Carolina criminal offenses underlying his 2003 firearm conviction qualifies as a felony. The district court denied Defendant’s coram nobis petition, ruling that he failed to explain why he had not challenged the 2003 conviction in a timelier fashion.   The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling and remanded. The court wrote that Defendant and the government — do not dispute that Defendant is actually innocent of his 2003 firearm conviction. And they also do not dispute that Defendant satisfies the first and fourth requirements of the coram nobis writ. Therefore the focus is on the other requirements of coram nobis relief: timeliness (the second) and adverse consequences (the third).   The court held that in considering the competing contentions the court has no reason to rule against Defendant on the second coram nobis prong. In an ideal world, Defendant would have promptly identified the Simmons and Miller decisions, as well as their impact on his 2003 firearm conviction, and he would have filed his coram nobis petition soon after Miller was rendered. However, in the ideal world, Defendant would not have been invalidly convicted in 2003. Further, the court explained that an essential purpose of the coram nobis remedy is to “achieve justice.” The court wrote that in order to achieve justice in this situation it is obliged to set the record straight. View "US v. Brooks Lesane" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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A jury convicted Defendant of conspiring to transmit national defense information to Chinese agents, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 794(c), and making materially false statements to FBI agents, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 1001(a)(2). On appeal, Defendant challenges the district court’s application during trial of the “silent witness rule” — under which sensitive evidence is disclosed to the jury and the trial’s other participants but not to the public — contending that it violated his right to a public trial, in violation of the Sixth Amendment, and his right to present a complete defense, in violation of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. He also mounted two distinct challenges to the district court’s instruction of the jury.   The Fourth Circuit rejected Defendant’s challenges and affirmed the district court’s ruling. The court wrote it does not suggest that the use of the silent witness rule could never implicate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial, as reliance on the silent witness rule has the potential to interfere meaningfully with the public’s ability to understand what is happening in the proceedings, despite their physical presence in the courtroom. But it doubts that the limited use of the silent witness rule as it was applied in this case amounted to a sanctionable closure of the courtroom.   Further, in response to Defendant’s argument that the district court “watered down” the mens rea requirement for the conspiracy offense, the court found Defendant’s reasoning unpersuasive, as he focuses too narrowly on one small segment of the instructions without context. View "US v. Kevin Mallory" on Justia Law

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Defendants led a violent street gang known as the Black Mob Gangstas, which was responsible for two murders. Several gang members were indicted, most of which entered guilty pleas and then testified against Defendants. Defendants were convicted of various offenses including murder in aid of racketeering and conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana. Each defendant received multiple consecutive life sentences.Defendants appealed on several issues, each of which was rejected by the Fourth Circuit. The court determined that the evidence was sufficient to support each of Defendants' convictions. The court also rejected Defendants' claim that the Double Jeopardy Clause precludes their convictions for drug conspiracy, firearms murder, and VICAR murder because they constituted the "same offense." The Fourth Circuit also held that the district court did not err in severing Defendants' trials, finding that Defendants did not suffer a miscarriage of justice as a result of the joint trial. Finally, the Fourth Circuit found that the district court did not err in imposing consecutive life sentences.Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Defendants' convictions and sentences in full. View "US v. Demetrice Devine" on Justia Law

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A jury in the Eastern District of Virginia convicted Defendant of defrauding investors in his technology company out of millions of dollars. The district court sentenced him to 151 months in prison, the bottom of the applicable Sentencing Guidelines range. Defendant appealed, raising two issues. First, he claimed that the indictment against him did not adequately allege venue in the Eastern District of Virginia. Second, he contended that the Fourth Circuit must vacate his sentence because the district court did not address his argument for a downward variance.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment and held that Defendant’s sentence is procedurally reasonable. The court explained that although the district court did not address Defendant’s specific contention about the alleged policy failings of the fraud Guidelines, it did address and reject his argument that the fraud enhancements consequently overstated his culpability. Defendant did not raise any other objection to his sentence, and the record reveals that the district court provided a thorough and individualized explanation for its sentencing decision. View "US v. Andrew Powers" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law