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

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Petitioner filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. 2254, seeking relief from his convictions in Maryland state court for attempted first degree murder, first degree assault, use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence, and second degree assault. Petitioner's conviction stemmed from domestic abuse incidents involving his ex-wife where he ultimately shot her.Petitioner claims that he is entitled to habeas relief because (1) he did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his right to a jury trial, in violation of Patton v. United States, 281 U.S. 276 (1930); (2) the prosecution suppressed material evidence, in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963); and (3) he received ineffective assistance from his legal counsel, in violation of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The district court granted relief in part on the Patton and Brady claims, dismissing the Strickland claims without prejudice.The Fourth Circuit held that the district court's decision to grant petitioner habeas relief runs contrary to the deference that federal courts are required to afford state court adjudications of federal constitutional claims. In regard to the Patton claim, the court concluded that the state court's adjudication of petitioner's challenge to his waiver was not unreasonable under the standards of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The court explained that petitioner failed to make a plain showing that his waiver was not knowing and voluntary.In regard to the Brady claims, the court concluded that petitioner was not entitled to relief in regard to his paid informant claim, more lenient treatment claim, claims arising out of the government witness and the ex-wife's affidavit, as well as petitioner's claim regarding the alleged confession of other deaths. Finally, because the district court declined to consider petitioner's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland, and dismissed them without prejudice, the court also vacated this judgment. Accordingly, the court vacated and remanded for further proceedings. View "Horner v. Nines" on Justia Law

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After defendant was convicted on fraud charges stemming from an investment scam and sentenced to 26 years' imprisonment, he filed a 28 U.S.C. 2255 petition seeking to vacate his conviction and sentence. The Fourth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability on two of defendant's claims.First, defendant alleged that his lawyer guaranteed him – incorrectly, as it turned out – that he would be sentenced only to two to five years' imprisonment if he were convicted at trial, and that he relied on that guarantee when he rejected a plea offer from the government. The district court dismissed and concluded that any prejudice caused by counsel's error necessarily would have been cured when the court at defendant's arraignment advised him of his actual sentencing exposure. The court concluded that, because the district court's corrective came after defendant already had rejected the plea offer, the court cannot assume without more that it cured the prejudice defendant alleges. Therefore, the court concluded that defendant is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on this claim.Second, defendant alleged that his counsel performed deficiently in connection with the amount of restitution he owed, failing to object to the inclusion of losses that stemmed from conduct for which he had not been convicted. The court agreed with the district court's dismissal of this claim on the ground that challenges to restitution orders may not be raised by way of section 2255. However, defendant was not challenging only his restitution order; he also alleged that the same erroneous calculation affected his Guidelines sentencing range and hence his term of imprisonment. The court concluded that this claim is cognizable under section 2255. Accordingly, the court remanded to the district court to address it in the first instance. View "United States v. Mayhew" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction for receiving and possessing child pornography. Defendant argued that the district court should reduce his Sentencing Guidelines range pursuant to a provision that applies only to defendants whose "conduct was limited to the receipt or solicitation of" child pornography under USSG 2G2.2(b)(1). The court concluded that, because defendant admitted to unintentionally distributing such material, the Guideline does not apply to him. The court also concluded that, even when distribution is unintentional, it is not conduct limited to receipt or solicitation. Therefore, defendant's use of a peer-to-peer file-sharing network to unintentionally distribute child pornography rendered him ineligible for a reduction pursuant to section 2G2.2(b)(1). View "United States v. Miltier" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress a firearm. The court concluded that the Fourth Amendment was not implicated during defendant's encounter with police on April 7, because he never acquiesced (passively or otherwise) to a show of authority. Furthermore, even assuming that defendant acquiesced to a show of authority, there was a reasonable articulable suspicion to support the seizure in order to investigate who owned the firearm that the officer observed. In this case, the district court's reasonable suspicion determination rested on four factors: (1) the officer saw someone hide a firearm under defendant's seat; (2) defendant's claim of control over the Dodge; (3) defendant being the only adult associated with the Dodge; and (4) the time of day and location of the incident. View "United States v. Cloud" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Soloff collected and disseminated pornographic images and videos of children for nearly 20 years. Soloff pleaded guilty to receipt of child pornography, 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(2). His plea agreement forfeited “all rights . . . to appeal the conviction and whatever sentence is imposed . . . reserving only the right to appeal from a sentence in excess of the applicable advisory Guideline range” or a sentence obtained through prosecutorial misconduct or ineffective assistance of counsel. A magistrate conducted the hearing (FRCP 11), specifically confirming that Soloff understood that the appeal waiver, reading the entire waiver into the record. The magistrate conditionally approved the agreement, noting that “[f]inal approval” would “come at sentencing.” Before the sentencing hearing, the district court conditionally approved the plea agreement “pending receipt of the PSR.”At Soloff’s sentencing hearing, the court accepted the PSR; neither Soloff nor the government objected. Soloff’s Guidelines range was 151-188 months. Soloff’s attorney argued for a downward variance, citing mitigating factors. The court sentenced Soloff to 151 months’ imprisonment, expressly noting the appeal waiver. After the sentencing, the district court issued an Order for Restitution, "in accordance with" the plea agreement. The Fourth Circuit dismissed Soloff’s appeal from his sentence as barred by the plea agreement’s appellate waiver. The court rejected Soloff’s claims that the waiver cannot bind him because the district court never explicitly accepted the plea agreement. All indicia establish that the court constructively accepted the agreement. View "United States v. Soloff" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of defendant's motion for compassionate release. Defendant began serving a 57-month term of imprisonment at FCI Elkton shortly after he pled guilty to one count of traveling to engage in illicit sexual conduct. Defendant sought compassionate release after staff and incarcerated persons were infected with the coronavirus, arguing that his chronic health conditions placed him at a heightened risk for contracting and suffering severe complications from the disease.The court concluded that, although the district court erred in applying USSG 1B1.13, p.s. to defendant's motion, the district court did not abuse its discretion in applying the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors to defendant's case. In this case, the district court was entitled to consider the amount of time defendant had already served as one factor and to give great weight to the nature of defendant's offense, noting the particular circumstances of his conviction. View "United States v. Kibble" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm, holding that the district court did not err in computing defendant's criminal history score. The court rejected defendant's contention that the district court erred in adding one criminal history point under USSG 4A1.1(c) based on his North Carolina conviction for possession of marijuana, which was treated under North Carolina law as a prayer for judgment continued (the PJC disposition).The court explained that Section 4A1.1(c) directs that one additional point be added to a defendant's criminal history score for any "prior sentence" less than 60 days, with a limitation of four total points under that section. The court further explained that the plain language of Section 4A1.2(f) encompasses defendant's PJC disposition, notwithstanding the fact that his sentencing in that case was deferred indefinitely. Contrary to defendant's contention, the court stated that the range of sentencing options under North Carolina law is not dispositive in the court's analysis, because federal rather than state law applies to its interpretation of the Guidelines. Furthermore, the naming conventions of the state dispositions do not affect the present outcome. Nor does state law treatment of a diversionary disposition influence application of the Guidelines. Therefore, the court concluded that, under the Guidelines, the adjudication or admission of guilt preceding entry of the PJC, rather than the ultimate outcome of the PJC disposition, places such a disposition in the category of cases assigned one criminal history point under Section 4A1.1(c). In this case, the record shows that defendant had been afforded the benefit of rehabilitative disposition but did not take advantage of that benefit. View "United States v. Miller" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit vacated defendant's conviction and 210-month sentence for possession with intent to distribute hydrocodone and oxycodone. The court concluded that counsel was constitutionally ineffective because counsel unreasonably failed to argue meritorious objections and advised his client to waive those objections without understanding the gravity of that waiver. Furthermore, those objections would have resulted in a reduction of the Guidelines range applicable to defendant's sentence. Based on the disparity between her sentence and those of similar defendants, and on the overwhelming record evidence of defendant's addiction to opioids, the court concluded that defendant has rebutted the presumption of reasonableness and established that her sentence is substantively unreasonable. The court remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Freeman" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress, concluding that officers did not have reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk him and thus violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search.In this case, officers relied on information from a confidential informant; two interactions that officers believed were consistent with the manner in which illegal drugs are bought and sold, but in which no drugs were found; and a single officer witnessing a handshake between defendant and another man and concluding that it was a hand-to-hand drug transaction, even though the officer did not see anything exchanged. Furthermore, the officers concluded that this amounted to reasonable suspicion, overlooking the facts that the interaction took place in a public space, in broad daylight, outside of the vehicles, and in front of a security camera. After the interaction, defendant went into a store, rather than immediately leaving the scene. Therefore, the court agreed with defendant that, under the totality of the circumstances, the officers did not have more than a mere hunch that criminal activity was afoot when they stopped him. View "United States v. Drakeford" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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An inmate at the Rockbridge County, Virginia Regional Jail, was badly beaten and potentially poisoned; he was taken to the hospital. Officer requested that the Sheriff’s Office investigate. Investigators discovered that another inmate also showed signs of being severely beaten but was not taken to the hospital. Virginia State Police dispatched agents to investigate. A member of the Rockbridge staff and a State Police officer, who was also a sworn member of the FBI’s violent crime unit, noticed an “incident report” created by Hassler, the jail’s head nurse, included several inconsistencies. A State Police investigator and an FBI agent interviewed Hassler, who admitted that “[he] wrote this report to cover [his] butt.” Hassler denied knowing that there was an investigation.Hassler was charged with obstruction of justice, 18 U.S.C. 1519. The court rejected Hassler’s objection to the government’s proposed jury instruction, arguing that, under “Rehaif,” he could not be convicted unless, at the time he acted, he knew or contemplated that a federal investigation—as opposed to a state or local investigation— was occurring or would occur. Hassler was sentenced to 12 months and one day of imprisonment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Knowledge of a federal investigation under section 1519 is a jurisdictional element and not a separate mens rea requirement that the jury must specifically find. View "United States v. Hassler" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law