Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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By an interim order dated April 2, 2020, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's decision denying defendant's motion for a reduced sentence, ruled that defendant was eligible for relief under the First Step Act, and remanded for the district court to consider whether to exercise its discretion under the Act to impose a reduced sentence. This opinion explains the reasons for the court's order. The court held that when the Fair Sentencing Act changed the quantities of crack cocaine to which 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(C) applies, it "modified" the statutory penalties of that subsection for purposes of crack cocaine offenders within the meaning of the First Step Act. In this case, defendant's sentence under subsection 841(b)(1)(C) was imposed for a "covered offense," and he is eligible for a First Step Act sentence reduction. Accordingly, the court vacated the district court's judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Woodson" on Justia Law

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Defendants Campbell, Shropshire, Wells, and Washington were convicted of charges related to their participation in a heroin-distribution conspiracy and related substantive-drug-distribution offenses. Washington was convicted of distributing heroin that resulted in the death of a young woman. The court held that the district court acted well within its discretion by admitting expert testimony on J.L.'s cause of death over Washington's objection; the district court acted within its discretion in rejecting Washington's proposed instruction; the evidence of the home-invasion robbery was properly admitted by the district court; Shropshire failed to show that clear prejudice resulted from the joint trial and the district court did not abuse its discretion; the court declined to address Shropshire's ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim; and the district court acted within its discretion in denying the motion for a mistrial after mitigating any risk of prejudice with a cautionary instruction. View "United States v. Campbell" on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed his conviction of 15 counts of unlawfully distributing controlled substances. Defendant's charges stemmed from his operation of a medical practice and his opioid prescription-writing practices. The Fourth Circuit agreed with defendant that, under United States v. Kennedy, 32 F.3d 876 (4th Cir. 1994) and Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), the district court improperly admitted the testimony of patients whose treatment by defendant was not the basis for any of the charges in the indictment. The court held that the testimony was not necessary to complete the story of the charged offenses under Kennedy, and was not otherwise admissible under Rule 404(b). Furthermore, because the government did not carry its burden of establishing that this error was harmless, the court vacated defendant's conviction and remanded for a new trial. View "United States v. Brizuela" on Justia Law

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On appeal, defendant contends that the delay of over six years between the date of his federal charge and the date of his guilty plea violated his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Defendant also contends that his sentence was procedurally unreasonable. The Fourth Circuit held that defendant's speedy trial argument is foreclosed by his guilty plea and, in any event, failed on the merits. In this case, defendant did not know of the pending federal charge until he was arrested and thus he did not experience oppressive pretrial incarceration or anxiety during the delay. Nor does defendant assert that the delay impaired his ability to prepare a defense. Furthermore, defendant failed to show prejudice. The court also held that defendant's sentence is procedurally reasonable where the district court acted within its discretion when it heard defendant's arguments and varied downward, albeit not as far as defendant would have liked. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's judgment. View "United States v. Macias Lozano" on Justia Law

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In explaining defendant's original sentence, the district court's order denying defendant's 18 U.S.C. 3582 motion referred to the government's motion under USSG 5K1.1 based on defendant's substantial assistance. The Fourth Circuit circuit reversed the district court's denial of defendant's motion to seal the order referring to defendant's assistance, because it was necessary to protect defendant from harm. In this case, defendant's request implicates the public's interest in accessing judicial records, the government's interest in protecting cooperating defendants in federal custody, and defendant's interest in his own safety. Furthermore, the district court ignored facts showing that defendant faces a heightened risk of harm in prison and failed to consider the increased risks that all government cooperators now face due to the advent of electronic filing and the use of the internet to identify cooperators. View "United States v. Doe" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction for possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of methamphetamine, along with simple possession of a smaller quantity. The court agreed with defendant that the district court erred in permitting the government to deviate from the order of closing arguments prescribed in Rule 29.1 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The court explained that the district court's decision to allow the government to waive its initial closing argument—yet retain the opportunity to rebut defendant's—violates the letter and spirit of that rule, inasmuch as it impairs a defendant's ability to rebut the government's arguments in the prescribed manner. However, the court held that this error did not prejudice defendant in light of the overwhelming evidence supporting the verdict. Furthermore, the court found no error with respect to defendant's remaining claims. View "United States v. Smith" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's imposition of a condition of supervised release requiring defendant to comply with the rules of his sex-offender treatment program, which ban him from viewing any materials that sexually arouse him. The court held that the ban is permissible under 18 U.S.C. 3583(d) and is not overbroad because the district court made an individualized assessment, based on the testimony of defendant's treatment provider, that it was necessary. Furthermore, it is enforced in a way that avoids the issues with which the vagueness doctrine is concerned, and it is not an impermissible delegation because only the district court will decide whether defendant violated his conditions of release. View "United States v. Van Donk" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit reversed defendant's sentence and remanded for resentencing, holding that 22 of his conditions for supervised release are inconsistent with his oral sentence and therefore void. In this case, the written judgment's 22 "standard" conditions are not part of defendant's sentence because the district court did not pronounce them orally at his sentencing hearing. The court explained that the requirement that discretionary conditions be pronounced in open court gives defendants a chance to object to conditions that are not tailored to their individual circumstances and ensures that they will be imposed only after consideration of the factors set out in 18 U.S.C. 3583(d). View "United States v. Rogers" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit denied petitions for review of the BIA's final order of removal. Applying the modified categorical approach, the court held that defendant's prior conviction for distribution of cocaine under Virginia Code 18.2-248, including distribution of that substance as an accommodation under Virginia Code 18.2-248(D), satisfies the federal definitions of an "aggravated felony" and of a crime "relating to a controlled substance" pursuant to 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), 1227(a)(2)(B)(i). The court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying petitioner's motion to reconsider. View "Cucalon v. Barr" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted for possessing a firearm as a felon and sentenced to 63 months' imprisonment and a three-year period of supervised release. The district court additionally recommended, without explanation, that defendant receive addiction treatment while incarcerated and ordered, as a special condition of his supervised release, that defendant participate in an addiction treatment program. The Fourth Circuit held that defendant's sentence is procedurally unreasonable because the district court failed to provide an adequate explanation for imposing as a special condition of supervised release the requirement of addiction treatment. The court also held that the district court failed to address defendant's nonfrivolous mitigation arguments. Therefore, the court remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Lewis" on Justia Law