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

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence for possession with intent to distribute a mixture containing fentanyl and heroin. The court concluded that police had probable cause to search the shoebox for drugs under the automobile exception where the officers used a reliable informant who had provided accurate information in the past and where officers corroborated significant parts of the informant's information. The court also concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion by admitting a video that showed defendant opening a heroin package under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 where it was highly probative to the government's case and to undermining defendant's defense. Finally, the court concluded that there was no error in the district court's application of a two-level sentencing enhancement for obstruction of justice under USSG 3C1.1 for perjury during sentencing. View "United States v. Gondres-Medrano" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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A week after a gunman opened fire inside a Parkland, Florida school with an AR-15-style assault rifle, a 911 call reported a man with an assault rifle walking along Route 33 in Putnam County. Corporal Donahoe and Deputy Pauley were dispatched, knowing that a k-12 school was less than a mile ahead of the armed man (Walker), who was wearing military-style clothing. Seeing Walker, the officers believed that he could be under the age of 18. It is generally legal in West Virginia for persons over the age of 18 to openly carry firearms. Walker challenged the officers’ authority to stop and detain him and initially declined to produce identification, He relented but refused to provide information about his gun and his reason for carrying it. Donahoe did not restrain Walker, pat him down, or otherwise touch him. Donahoe called for a criminal history check, telling Walker “I have the absolute legal right to see whether you’re legal to carry that gun,” indicating that Walker could not leave. Learning that Walker was 24 and only had a misdemeanor conviction, Donahoe returned Walker’s identification papers and told him that he was free to go. The encounter lasted less than nine minutes.The Fourth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Donahoe in Walker’s suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. There was reasonable suspicion supporting Donahoe’s investigatory detention of Walker. Lawful conduct can contribute to reasonable suspicion; the circumstances of Walker’s firearm possession were unusual and alarming enough to engender reasonable suspicion. View "Walker v. Donahoe" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit considered two petitions for review challenging FERC's issuance of a license to McMahan, authorizing McMahan to operate the Bynum Hydroelectric Project on the Haw River in North Carolina. Assuming without deciding that a state may waive its certification authority under section 401 of the Clean Water Act by coordinating with an applicant in a scheme to defeat the statutory review period through a process of withdrawing and resubmitting the certification application, the court concluded that FERC's finding of coordination between McMahan and NCDEQ is not supported by substantial evidence. Furthermore, without evidence of improper coordination, the court concluded that FERC erred by determining that North Carolina waived its certification authority under section 401.In Case No. 20-1655, the court granted NCDEQ's petition for review of FERC's determination that NCDEQ waived its rights under the Clean Water Act to issue a water quality certification for the Project. The court vacated the license issued by FERC and remanded with instructions for FERC to reissue the license to include the water-quality conditions imposed by NCDEQ. In Case No. 20-1671, the court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction that portion of PK Ventures' petition for review challenging the validity of McMahan's state applications for a section 401 certification. Finding no merit to the remaining claims, the court otherwise denied the petition for review. View "North Carolina Department of Environmental Equality v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction for one count of illegal reentry after deportation for an aggravated felony in violation of 8 U.S.C. 1326(a), (b)(2), holding that section 1326 is constitutional. The court rejected defendant's contention that section 1326 violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendment right to a jury by splitting factual findings between the jury and an administrative agency. Rather, the court explained that United States v. Mendoza-Lopez, 481 U.S. 828, 837 (1987), remains binding where section 1326 does not incorporate, as an element, the facts supporting the underlying removal order. Therefore, those facts need not be found beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury. The court also rejected defendant's contention that section 1326 violates the Fifth Amendment right to due process because it allows reliance on a discretionary decision by an executive officer, concluding that the Supreme Court has sanctioned such reliance in the context of section 1326.However, the court remanded for resentencing on procedural reasonableness grounds. In this case, the district court's sentence was procedurally unreasonable to the extent that it failed to consider defendant's argument regarding his stale drug convictions and his argument regarding sentencing disparities. View "United States v. Perez-Paz" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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In 1998, defendant was sentenced to 570 months' imprisonment following his conviction on numerous counts of racketeering and related offenses. Over 20 years later, one count constituting a 360-month component of his sentence was vacated because of a change in the law. Defendant was resentenced to 360 months' imprisonment, which was an upward variance from the recommended Sentencing Guidelines range of 188 to 235 months' imprisonment. Defendant appealed, contending that his new sentence violates the Ex Post Facto Clause and the Due Process Clause and that it is procedurally and substantively unreasonable.The Fourth Circuit rejected defendant's ex post facto challenge and concluded that defendant's argument against the retroactive application of United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), has been universally rejected. The court also rejected defendant's contention that the district court's imposition of a sentence on his remaining seven convictions that is greater than the sentence he received on those convictions at his original sentencing violated the Due Process Clause, and concluded that defendant did not receive an increased aggregate sentence and his attempt to establish a presumption of vindictiveness failed. Finally, the court concluded that defendant's law of the case argument is at odds with the Supreme Court’s decision in Pepper v. United States, 562 U.S. 476 (2011).The court also concluded that the record demonstrates that the district court imposed the above-Guidelines sentence at issue here as a variance, not a departure; there was no ground for reversal based on defendant's claim of unwarranted sentencing disparities; the district court did not erroneously fail to take defendant's military service and PTSD into account; the district court adequately articulated its reasons for imposing the upward variance; and the record reflects that the district court considered both the mitigation and rehabilitation evidence presented and weighed it against the seriousness of the offense. Accordingly, the court affirmed defendant's sentence. View "United States v. Abed" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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On rehearing en banc, the court granted the petition for review of the BIA's decision affirming the IJ's denial of petitioner's claims for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and order of removal.The court concluded that the BIA erred at every step of the asylum analysis. The court explained that both the IJ and BIA legally erred in relying solely on the notion that petitioner's injuries did not require medical attention as grounds to reject petitioner's persecution argument. On remand, the court instructed that the BIA should bear in mind that the harm need not be physical. Where physical harm has occurred, as here, the main question is whether petitioner's mistreatment was of "sufficient severity," keeping in mind that a key difference between persecution and less-severe mistreatment is that the former is systematic while the latter consists of isolated incidents. Furthermore, the agency should also recognize that death threats need not be made directly to the petitioner. The court recognized the commonsense rule and instructed the BIA to apply on remand: Where a petitioner is a child at the time of the alleged persecution, the immigration court must take the child’s age into account in analyzing past persecution and fear of future persecution for purposes of asylum. Therefore, even if petitioner's beatings and the threats made against him would not rise to the level of past persecution for an adult, they may satisfy past persecution for a child. In determining whether petitioner had a well-founded fear of future persecution, the court concluded that the district court erred by conflating the persecution analysis with the nexus analysis. The court further concluded that there is no support whatsoever for the IJ or BIA's conclusion that petitioner has not sufficiently alleged a cognizable protected social group. Reviewing this claim under a substantial evidence standard, the court concluded that a reasonable adjudicator would be compelled to conclude that petitioner's membership in his nuclear family was at least one central reason for the alleged persecution committed on behalf of the gang. Finally, the court concluded that petitioner sufficiently exhausted his governmental control challenge. On the merits, the court concluded that the BIA's cursory analysis was erroneous for two reasons: (1) the agency essentially imposed a per se reporting requirement; and (2) it ignored vital evidence favorable to petitioner.Because the BIA rested its conclusion as to withholding of removal on its flawed asylum determination, the court vacated the BIA's withholding conclusion as well. Likewise, the IJ and BIA's CAT analyses did not adequately address petitioner's evidence regarding police consent and/or acquiescence. The court vacated the immigration court decisions and remanded for further proceedings. View "Portillo-Flores v. Garland" on Justia Law

Posted in: Immigration Law
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After a jury returned a special verdict finding Norfolk Southern materially breached its contract with Drummond, the district court entered a declaratory judgment for Drummond and awarded limited equitable relief.The Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court properly denied Norfolk Southern's Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) Motion and did not abuse its discretion in denying Drummond's Rule 59(e) Motion seeking complete rescission. In this case, the court saw no evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that Norfolk Southern expressly breached Article 13 of the Agreement. Furthermore, there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Norfolk Southern breached the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing. The court noted that whether or not there was evidence of damages is beside the point. In this case, the jury was only asked whether Norfolk Southern materially breached its agreement with Drummond and, if so, when. Given the court's standard of review, the discretion afforded to courts under Virginia law in making decisions about equitable relief, and the district court's expansive reasoning assessing equities unique to this case, the court declined to find that the district court abused its discretion in denying Drummond complete rescission. View "Drummond Coal Sales, Inc. v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co." on Justia Law

Posted in: Contracts
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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's resentence for charges related to a series of violent carjackings, which defendant actively participated in when he was fifteen-years old.The court concluded that defendant's punishment was carefully tailored and there was no Eighth Amendment violation. In this case, defendant's 52-year sentence did not violate Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 465 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190, 212 (2016). The court rejected defendant's contention that his sentence amounts to a de facto life sentence, concluding that defendant would be released in his sixties, which allows him "a limited period of freedom."The court also concluded that defendant's 52-year sentence was procedurally reasonable where the district court discussed each of defendant's mitigating arguments; gave defendant some credit for his maturation in prison; and addressed defendant's concerns regarding sentence disparities. However, the district court also highlighted the brutal nature of the carjackings and murders. The court also concluded that the sentence was substantively reasonable where the district court imposed a sentence many years below the advisory Guidelines range; did not abuse its discretion by placing significant weight on the seriousness of defendant's offense; and weighed the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) sentencing factors. View "United States v. Friend" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of a declaratory judgment holding that the clerks from two Virginia courts, that failed to make newly filed civil complaints timely available to the press and public, violated the First Amendment right of access to such documents.As a preliminary matter, the court concluded that this case is not moot where, absent the relief Courthouse News sought, nothing bars the clerks from reverting to the allegedly unconstitutional rates of access in the future; the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the clerks' motion to abstain; and the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the clerks' motion to dismiss for misjoinder.On the merits, the court applied the experience and logic test to Courthouse News' First Amendment right of access claim, concluding that the experience prong supports a First Amendment right of access to civil complaints, even before any judicial action in the case, and that public access to complaints logically plays a positive role in the functioning of the judicial process. Therefore, the press and public enjoy a First Amendment right of access to newly filed civil complaints. The court agreed with the district court's determination that the clerks violated Courthouse News' right of access to newly filed civil complaints. View "Courthouse News Service v. Schaefer" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs moved to enjoin implementation of the Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) program, a first-of-its-kind aerial surveillance program operated by the Baltimore Police Department and Commissioner Michael Harrison. While appeal was pending, the program completed its pilot run and the program was not renewed. After deleting the bulk of the AIR data, defendants moved to dismiss the appeal as moot.On rehearing en banc, the court concluded that the appeal presents a live controversy and is not moot. Plaintiffs sought to enjoin defendants' access to any data collected by the AIR program, and defendants retain the data that proved fruitful. In this case, plaintiffs have a concrete, legally cognizable interest in freezing the police department's access to images, which were obtained only by recording plaintiffs' movements and in which they may still appear.On the merits, the court concluded that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their Fourth Amendment claim and the remaining Winter factors counsel in favor of preliminary relief. The court applied Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018), concluding that the AIR program enables police to deduce from the whole of individuals' movements, and thus accessing its data is a search, and its warrantless operation violates the Fourth Amendment. The court reversed the denial of plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and remanded for further proceedings. View "Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle v. Baltimore Police Department" on Justia Law