Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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Defendant pleaded guilty to one count of possession of child pornography and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment followed by a lifetime of supervised release. On appeal, defendant challenges three special conditions of supervised release: the employment restriction, the Internet restriction, and the location restriction.The Fourth Circuit held that the employment restriction, requiring that defendant must not work in any type of employment without the prior approval of the probation officer, is overbroad and lacks a sufficient nexus to the nature and circumstances of the offense. However, the court upheld the Internet restriction and location restriction. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, and vacated and remanded in part. On remand, the district court is instructed to craft more precisely an employment restriction that bears a nexus to defendant's particular misconduct without jeopardizing the salient goal of safeguarding children's safety. View "United States v. Hamilton" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's orders partially granting defendants' motions for sentence reductions pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act. In each case, the district court granted defendants' motions pursuant to a standard "AO 247" form in which the district court checked the box for "granted" and reduced the term of supervised release on each of defendants' sentences by one year. However, the district court did not alter the underlying sentences.Applying de novo review, the court held that the district court failed to provide individualized explanations to each defendant in the face of newly presented, post-sentencing conduct. The court agreed with defendants that their cases are factually similar to the defendants' cases in United States v. Martin, 916 F.3d 389 (4th Cir. 2019), and thus the court should vacate the district court's orders with instructions for the district court to provide individualized explanations consistent with Martin. The court explained that the presentation of post-sentencing mitigation evidence in each of defendants' motions is sufficient to rebut the Legree presumption that the district court, in fact, considered all of the relevant evidence. View "United States v. McDonald" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction for seventeen financial crimes and affirmed defendant's 240-month sentence. Defendant's conviction stemmed from her efforts to induce individuals to invest in her website and from her spending large sums of money on personal expenses unrelated to the website.The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying defendant's August 29, 2018 continuance motion where defendant had made multiple changes to her legal team and trial counsel stated that he would be prepared. The court upheld the criminal forfeiture order where any error regarding the securities fraud counts did not affect defendant's substantial rights; the district court did not plainly err in considering defendant's ability to pay the forfeiture judgment in addition to the restitution judgment; and the criminal forfeiture is not unconstitutionally excessive under the Eighth Amendment. Finally, the court held that defendant's sentence is procedurally and substantively reasonable. In this case, the totality of the sentencing transcript demonstrates that the district court carried out its statutory duty by listening to the positions advanced by both parties and making an individualized finding pursuant to the 18 U.S.C. 3553 factors. Furthermore, the district court thoroughly addressed the section 3553 factors, ultimately varying downward from the guidelines' range. View "United States v. Bennett" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's 360-month sentence imposed after he pleaded guilty to one count of sexual exploitation of a child. The court held that defendant's sentence is both procedurally and substantively reasonable. In this case, the district court did not err by failing to explain why it had rejected all of his non-frivolous arguments for a downward variance from the Guidelines range; the district court did not plainly err by applying a sentencing enhancement under USSG 2G2.1(b)(5) for violation 18 U.S.C. 2251(a) as "a parent, relative, or legal guardian of the minor involved in the offense;" and defendant's within-Guidelines sentence was substantively reasonable where the district court considered defendant's criminal history and his acceptance of responsibility, and did not impose an unreasonable sentence. View "United States v. Lester" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit vacated defendant's 13-year sentence and 5-year term of supervised release imposed after he pleaded guilty to Hobbs Act robbery and to use of a firearm in the course of a crime of violence. The court held that two financial conditions of supervised release that appeared in defendant's written judgment were not pronounced orally by the district court during his sentencing hearing. Therefore, under the court's recent decision in United States v. Rogers, 961 F.3d 291 (4th Cir. 2020), defendant was never sentenced to those conditions. Accordingly, the court vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Singletary" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit held that defendant's conditions of supervised release banning legal pornography and internet access cannot be sustained as "reasonably related" under 18 U.S.C. 3583(d)(1) and are overbroad under 18 U.S.C. 3583(d)(2). The court explained that the district court abused its discretion in imposing an outright ban on defendant possessing legal pornography or entering any location where it may be accessed. In this case, defendant violated his release by travelling outside the judicial district without permission, skipping therapy appointments, and lying to his probation officer, among other similar violative conduct. The court stated that pornography use was not the basis of any violation. Furthermore, when defendant lied about watching pornography during a polygraph exam at the outset of his sex offender treatment, the violative conduct was dishonesty, not pornography consumption. Finally, the pornography restriction impermissibly restricts more liberty than is reasonably necessary.The court also concluded that an outright ban on defendant's internet access cannot be sustained under section 3583(d)(1)'s "reasonably related" requirement absent some evidence linking his offense or criminal history to unlawful use of the internet. The government’s remaining arguments fail for the same reasons as the pornography restriction. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded with instructions to strike those conditions of supervised release. View "United States v. Ellis" on Justia Law

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In 2001, defendant was convicted of one count of possessing a firearm as a felon and sentenced under the heightened penalties of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) based on then uncontested proof that he had at least three violent felony convictions. After the Supreme Court's ruling in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), defendant filed a 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion contending that he had been improperly sentenced as an armed career criminal and sought resentencing without the ACCA's enhanced penalties.The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of the section 2255 motion, holding that defendant's 1971 conviction for attempted rape, in violation of Va. Code Ann. 18.1-44, does not qualify as a violent felony under the ACCA's force clause and cannot be used to support his ACCA-based conviction. The court explained that every conviction for section 18.1-44 does not necessarily involve a use of force sufficient to satisfy the ACCA's force clause. The court also held that defendant's 1990 burglary conviction does not qualify as an ACCA predicate under the force clause. The court took no position on the substantive question of whether defendant's conviction for use of a firearm during an abduction qualifies as an ACCA violent felony. The court remanded with instructions for the district court to consider the parties' arguments in the first instance. View "United States v. Al-Muwwakkil" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder for hire, carjacking resulting in death, and murder with the use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. Defendant was sentenced to death, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Defendant now files this motion under 28 U.S.C. 2255 to vacate or correct his sentence, asserting 18 grounds for relief. The district court denied his motion and denied a certificate of appealability (COA).The Fourth Circuit granted a COA as to four issues: (1) whether defendant's 18 U.S.C. 924 conviction is invalid; (2) whether trial counsel provided ineffective assistance; (3) whether the government violated Brady v. Maryland; and (4) whether the government exercised its peremptory jury strikes in a discriminatory manner. The court vacated the district court's ruling dismissing defendant's claim that his counsel was constitutionally ineffective in failing to investigate mitigating evidence of brain injury and potential mental illness and remanded that claim for an evidentiary hearing. The court otherwise affirmed the district court's judgment. View "United States v. Runyon" on Justia Law

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After defendant, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, was convicted of mail fraud and wire fraud for the misuse of public assets, he filed a motion challenging the fairness of his trial on the grounds that a juror allegedly engaged in misconduct and was biased. The district court denied defendant's motion for a new trial, sentenced defendant to 24 months' imprisonment, and imposed a fine and restitution. In the present appeal, defendant challenged the district court's judgment dated February 25, 2019, alleging only that the district court abused its discretion in denying his request for an evidentiary hearing to investigate the juror's potential misconduct and bias.The Fourth Circuit rejected defendant's contention that a juror's use of social media during the trial constituted misconduct in violation of Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227 (1954), entitling him to an evidentiary hearing. In this case, the juror's Twitter activity related to football and did not refer to any facts about the case or the scandal at large. The court concluded that, at bottom, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying defendant's motion for an evidentiary hearing under Remmer because defendant failed to make a credible allegation that an improper contact occurred. The court also held that because defendant has not made a colorable showing that the juror dishonestly answered material questions during voir dire, the district court did not abuse its discretion in failing to hold an evidentiary hearing to investigate McDonough bias. Finally, the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to hold an evidentiary hearing on actual bias. View "United States v. Loughry" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit vacated defendant's conviction of one count of employing, using, persuading, inducing, enticing, or coercing a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct "for the purpose of producing [a] visual depiction of such conduct" in violation of 18 U.S.C. 2251(a). The court agreed with defendant that the district court incorrectly instructed the jury that section 2251(a) merely requires filming to be "a purpose," which can arise at any time, of engaging in the sexual conduct. The court stated that the instructional error in this case—which was objected to and went to the absolute heart of the defense—is too much to overlook because it fundamentally misconstrued the statute, prejudicing defendant. The court remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. McCauley" on Justia Law