Wake Forest Law Review

By Ali Fenno

On November 23, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case of Rodriguez v. Bush.  In Rodriguez, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the failure of Nicanor Perez Rodriguez’s (“Rodriguez”) trial counsel, James Ervin (“Ervin”), to object to a trial judge’s rejection of Rodriguez’s plea agreement constituted “ineffective assistance of counsel” that justified relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254.  After applying a deferential review standard for ineffective assistance and state-adjudicated § 2254 claims, the Fourth Circuit held that Ervin’s conduct did not constitute “ineffective assistance of counsel” because the alleged omitted objection would have been meritless and thus did not prejudice Rodriguez’s case.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s denial of Rodriguez’s § 2254 petition.

Factual and Procedural Background

In 2006, a South Carolina trial court convicted Rodriguez on multiple counts of drug trafficking and sentenced him to 45 years’ imprisonment.  He had accepted a plea agreement on the first day of trial that recommended a 20-year sentence, but the plea agreement had been rejected by the trial judge without explanation the very same day.

In 2010, Rodriguez filed a motion for post-conviction relief (the “PCR Motion”), alleging that the rejection of the plea agreement constituted a violation of his federal due process rights and that Ervin provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to object to the rejection and thus preserve the issue for appeal.  The state court denied the PCR Motion, holding that Rodriguez failed to show that (1) Ervin should have objected to the plea deal, and (2) Ervin’s failure to object prejudiced Ervin’s case.  The Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed.

Rodriguez then filed this § 2554 petition in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina.  The district court denied the petition, and Rodriguez appealed.

Issues on Appeal and Standard of Review

In deciding whether Rodriguez’s § 2254 petition should have been granted, the Fourth Circuit first identified a de novo standard of review for § 2554 issues.  But it then noted that § 2254(d) only permits a federal court to grant a § 2254 petition previously adjudicated by a state court on the merits when the state court adjudication:

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or

(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

The court then reasoned that because the trial court addressed whether Ervin’s conduct constituted “ineffective assistance of counsel” to deny Rodriguez’s PCR Motion, the § 2254 petition could only be granted if the Fourth Circuit determined that the state court unreasonably applied the “ineffective assistance of counsel” standard.  The Fourth Circuit identified the correct standard as a two-pronged test articulated in Strickland v. Washington, which enables a party to prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim if he or she demonstrates that (1) “counsel’s performance was deficient” and (2) “the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.”  Accordingly, the single issue on this appeal was whether any reasonable argument could be made that Ervin satisfied the Strickland test.

Failure to Meet Strickland’s Prejudice Prong

To address this issue, the Fourth Circuit first noted that pursuant to Harrington v. Richter, review of the Strickland test is highly deferential to the state court, and “doubly” deferential when applied in conjunction with § 2554.  The court then looked at the prejudice prong of the Strickland test, reasoning that it did not need to first address the issue of a deficiency because it would be so easy to dispose of the ineffectiveness claim on prejudice grounds.  It articulated that to demonstrate prejudice, a petitioner “must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”  The court further defined a reasonable probability as “a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome,” and noted that, pursuant to Lockhart v. Fretwell, a petitioner will not show prejudice if the “omitted objection” is “wholly meritless under current governing law.”

In applying these rules to the facts of Rodriguez, the court concluded that the Ervin’s “omitted objection” to the rejection of the plea agreement was “wholly meritless.”  To come to this conclusion, it noted that in Missouri v. Frye, Santobello v. New York, and Lafler v. Cooper the Supreme Court clearly articulated that there is no federal due process right that a plea agreement be accepted by a judge.  Thus, the Fourth Circuit determined that any objection made by Ervin asserting that the plea agreement’s rejection violated Rodriguez’s federal due process rights would have been entirely without merit.  Accordingly, Rodriguez was not prejudiced by Ervin’s failure to make a meritless claim, and Ervin’s omission did not amount to an “ineffective assistance of counsel” justifying relief under § 2254.

Conclusion

Because Ervin’s omitted objection was wholly meritless, the Fourth Circuit determined that it was reasonable for the district court to conclude that Rodriguez did not demonstrate the requisite prejudice for an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, holding that the district court did not err when it denied Rodriguez’s request for relief under 28 U.S.C. §2254.

By Ali Fenno

On March 13, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case of United States v. Lara.  In Lara, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the district court violated the psychotherapist-patient privilege and the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination when, during a sentencing hearing, it considered statements the defendant, Juan Lara (“Lara”), made while participating in a compulsory Sex Offender Treatment Program (“Treatment Program”) that had been a condition to his probation. After examining the knowing and voluntary nature of Lara’s consent to his probation terms and the voluntary nature of the statements Lara made during the Treatment Program, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court did not err in considering the self-incriminating statements.

Factual and Procedural Background

In February 2008, Lara was convicted for the aggravated sexual battery of a mentally incapacitated victim under Virginia Code Section 18.2-67.3(A)(2) and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment with 17 years suspended. In addition, upon his release from confinement, Lara was to serve 20 years’ supervised probation and was required to complete a Treatment Program, allow the Treatment Program provider to have “unrestricted communication with the probation and parole department,” and “submit to any polygraph . . . deemed appropriate by [his] supervising officer.” Lara acknowledged and consented to these conditions before his release by signing a form that listed the conditions.

Lara’s probationary period started immediately upon his release in December 2009. He was referred to a Treatment Program, Flora Counseling Services Corporation (“Flora), and met with one of Flora’s licensed clinical social workers for an interview in April 2010. During the interview, Lara detailed his past sexual conduct with minors, commission of forcible sexual assaults, and involvement in two murders. He later confirmed these incidents in a polygraph examination and signed a written statement describing the incidents. Then, in July 2010, he signed a document entitled “Sex Offender Program Acknowledgment of Confidentiality Waiver” to acknowledge that all information he relayed to Flora’s therapists and group leaders “is not privileged or private” and that Lara “waive[d] any and all such rights of confidentiality which may exist by statute or rule of law.”

Lara successfully completed Flora’s Treatment Program, but in March 2014, in violation of his conditions of probation, he moved from Virginia to Texas without notifying his probation officer or updating his registration with the Virginia State Police’s Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry. Several months later, he was arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury for violating the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA).

Lara pleaded guilty to the SORNA violation and filed a motion to exclude from consideration at sentencing the statements he made during Flora’s Treatment Program interview that detailed his past criminal incidents. The district court denied his motion, holding that he had voluntarily waived any psychotherapist-patient privilege and that the Fifth Amendment did not protect him from the government’s use of voluntary disclosures of incriminating information. The court then concluded that Lara more likely than not committed the crimes he admitted to during Flora’s Treatment Program interview, and sentenced him to 120 months’ imprisonment.

Issues on Appeal and Standard of Review

The first issue on appeal was whether Lara knowingly and voluntarily waived the psychotherapist-patient privilege. The second issue was whether the incriminating statements Lara made during his intake interview invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.  A district court’s determination of whether a privilege should be recognized is a mixed question of law and fact. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit reviewed both issues de novo.

Waiver of the Psychotherapist-Patient Privilege

Lara first argued that he did not waive the psychotherapist-patient privilege because he was “compelled to participate” in Flora’s Treatment Program. In rejecting this argument, the Fourth Circuit first noted that the psychotherapist-patient privilege is strictly construed, and a defendant has the burden of showing that he did not waive the privilege by knowingly and voluntarily relinquishing it. The court then recognized that, especially when the probationary period is used as an alternative to incarceration, courts administering probation as a punishment may deprive a criminal offender of certain freedoms. The Fourth Circuit further identified multiple courts that had found a criminal defendant’s consent to court-imposed conditions of release to be voluntary despite the alternative of incarceration.

Here, Lara chose to agree to the terms of his supervised probation as an alternative to incarceration. Those terms explicitly authorized Treatment Program providers to have “unrestricted communication” with the state probation and parole department as an alternative to incarceration. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the alternative of incarceration did not eradicate the voluntary nature of Lara’s consent to the terms of his probation, and held that Lara waived any psychotherapist-patient privileges that may have applied to the incriminating statements he made while participating in Flora’s Treatment Program.

Failure to Invoke Fifth Amendment Privilege

Next, Lara argued that his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination was violated because the probation conditions required him to disclose incriminating information. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument as well. It first noted that the Fifth Amendment privilege “generally is not self-executing” and that a defendant “ordinarily must assert the privilege rather than answer if he desires not to incriminate himself.” But it then looked to Minnesota v. Murphy, where the United States Supreme Court recognized that the threat of revocation of probation could “trigger self-executing Fifth Amendment protections.” However, this could only occur when direct evidence indicated that the defendant only confessed because it was nearly certain that his silence would cause probation to be revoked.

The Fourth Circuit then examined the factual record and could not find any direct evidence that Lara made the incriminating statements during Flora’s Treatment Program interview under the threat of revocation of his probation. Indeed, the state court could not have revoked his probation if he had asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege during the interview. Thus, the Fourth Circuit held that the statements were voluntarily made and did not invoke Lara’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

Conclusion

Because Lara’s incriminating statements were knowingly and voluntarily made, the Fourth Circuit concluded that he waived the psychotherapist-patient privilege and did not invoke the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, holding that the district court did not err when it considered at the sentencing hearing the incriminating statements Lara made during Flora’s Treatment Program.

 

By M. Allie Clayton

Today, in the criminal case of United States v. Powell, a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court in holding that a juror’s statement of “everything would be alright” and that the father needed to give his son “a good kick in the butt” was too ambiguous to establish actual juror bias.  Because the statement was ambiguous, Powell’s counsel’s response was within the range of competent representation, and thus not a violation of Powell’s Sixth Amendment right.

Facts and Procedural History

In June 2005, Powell was convicted by a jury of numerous drug and firearms charges. The district court sentence of 300 months’ imprisonment was affirmed by the Fourth Circuit on direct appeal. The Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded for resentencing due to Kimbrough v. United States. On remand, the District Court resentenced Powell to the same term.  Powell again appealed the judgment, which was affirmed by the Fourth Circuit, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari.

In this case, Powell has filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 with 16 different challenges to his conviction and sentence, most of which allege ineffective assistance of counsel. The specific claim as to ineffective assistance of counsel in this case is that his trial counsel’s performance was deficient because she did not bring to the attention of the trial court the fact that a juror approached Powell’s father and told him “everything would be alright” and that “he needed to give his son ‘a good kick in the butt.’” Powell alleged that the statement by the juror demonstrated that the juror was biased against him and if his counsel had brought this to the attention of the court, the court would have inquired about the juror’s prejudgment, and possibly removed the juror and replaced her with an alternate.

The Issue

Is the juror’s statement of “everything would be alright” and that “[Powell’s father] needed to give his son ‘a good kick in the butt’” sufficient to demonstrate a juror’s actual bias—thus requiring Powell’s counsel to bring that to the court’s attention?

Sixth Amendment Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel

Under Strickland v. Washington, there are two requirements for a defendant to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel: (1) the counsel’s performance was deficient and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.

Under the first prong, the defendant must meet a high bar. The defendant must prove that his counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and that counsel’s errors were “so serious that counsel was not functioning as ‘counsel.’” The court is required to give a great amount of deference to the counsel’s decision-making and must be careful to eliminate any hindsight distortion and evaluate the decision from the counsel’s perspective at a time.

Sixth Amendment Right to an Impartial Jury

There is a presumption that jurors are impartial, unless there are indications to the contrary.  To be impartial, under the Sixth Amendment, the jury must be able to decide the case based on the evidence before it.  The question regarding juror impartiality is whether a juror can lay aside her opinion and render a verdict based on the evidence presented in court.

Reasoning

As it relates to this specific case, the “question is whether the juror’s statement to Powell’s father indicated that the juror was biased and unable to decide the case solely on the evidence.” The next question is “whether counsel’s failure to bring the statement to the attention of the court amounted to constitutionally deficient representation.”

In this case, the statement’s meaning is not clear. A reasonable lawyer who was told of the statement could conclude that the juror’s statement was “so ambiguous that it could not be taken as indicating that the jury was actually incapable or unwilling to base a verdict solely on the evidence presented at trial.”  The actions of the lawyer in not bringing the matter up were reasonable not only due to the ambiguous content of the statement, but also the risk of alienating the juror based on the mere act of inquiring about the juror’s bias. A reasonable lawyer could have concluded that the client’s interests were best served by not bringing the statement to the attention of the court.

The record further established that the lawyer was reasonable in not bringing the matter up because of how unsure she was as to the significance, if any, of the statement.  Even Powell and his father only described the statement as “troubling” or “strange.”  Powell and his father never stated that they felt panicked when they realized the person who made the statement was a juror in Powell’s trial. Those facts alone indicate that even Powell and his father did not take the juror’s statement as demonstrating a “clear and unmistakable bias against Powell.”

Disposition

While it might have been more prudential to bring the matter to the attention to the court, the failure to pursue the issue with the court was not so problematic as to make defendant’s counsel’s performance constitutionally deficient.  Therefore, the district court’s order denying Powell’s § 2255 motion is affirmed.

By Kelsey Hyde

Today, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion, In re William Robert Gray, Jr., deciding on a motion for authorization to file a second or successive application for a writ of habeas corpus. The movant (“Gray”) had sought the Court’s approval to file a second petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, as would be necessary under 28 U.S.C. §2244(b), but the Fourth Circuit held this action was unnecessary based on finding that Gray’s petition was in fact a “first challenge” to a new or intervening judgment. By way of this ruling, the Fourth Circuit joined the Third, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuit Courts in their treatment of habeas petitions filed after a new, intervening judgment as not second or successive within the meaning of §2244(b).

Factual Background & Procedural History of Gray’s Claims

            In 1993, Gray was convicted in North Carolina of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Gray then filed a 28 U.S.C. §2254 petition—an application for a writ of habeas corpus for a person in custody based on the judgement of a State court—in federal district court, which was dismissed. However, the Fourth Circuit reversed in part, finding that Gray’s counsel had been ineffective at his sentencing and ordering the district court to grant the writ of habeas corpus, unless the State were to afford Gary a new sentencing hearing within a reasonable period of time. When resentencing still had not occurred after five years, Gray filed his own pro se motions challenging both this delay and his underlying conviction, which were all denied by the district court and affirmed by the Fourth Circuit. Then, the State decided it would not seek the death penalty and finally resentenced Gray to life in prison. Gray then filed this motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b) for approval to file a second or successive § 2254 petition regarding his underlying criminal conviction.

Gray’s Contentions & Issue Presented to the Fourth Circuit

            Ultimately, Gray contended that the Fourth Circuit’s approval under § 2244(b) was not necessary because his resentencing acted as a new, intervening judgment, and therefore his petition was not “second or successive.” The issue for the Court’s consideration was whether, following a successful habeas petition regarding sentencing, Gray could then challenge his underlying conviction without triggering the “second or successive” requirements, and therefore not requiring court of appeals approval.

“Second and Successive Petitions” for Habeas Relief

            Per 28 U.S.C. §2244 and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), a petitioner incarcerated based on a State judgment cannot bring “second or successive” motions for habeas relief, and such claims shall be dismissed unless authorized by the appropriate court of appeals. §2244(b)(1), (3). However, authorization to file may be found unnecessary if the court of appeals determines that the petition in question is not in fact second or successive. Thus, a court must first determine whether a petition is second or successive, and only then if it is found to be second or successive should the court review the claim for satisfaction of the §2244(b) requirements. Magwood v. Patterson, 561 U.S. 320, 334-35 (2010). The Supreme Court in Magwood also emphasized that this second or successive distinction must be made with respect to the particular judgment being challenged, and resentencing a defendant is an “intervening judgment” such that a subsequent petition regarding this new sentencing would not be second or successive. Id. at 339, 342. However, the Court in Magwood only decided the issue in regards to another petition following a new sentencing judgment, and did not have occasion to determine whether this result also applied when the subsequent petition went to the defendant’s underlying conviction and adjudication of guilt, rather than sentencing. Id. at 342. The Third, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits all had occasion to decide this precise issue, and all but one (the Seventh Circuit) determined that where a defendant received a new judgment as a result of a habeas petition relating to resentencing, a subsequent petition relating to their underlying conviction would not be considered “second-in-time” such that §2244(b) applied and required authorization. The issue presented in Gray’s claim had yet to be addressed by the Fourth Circuit.

Petition Not Considered “Second or Successive” Where Defendant Received Intervening Judgment on Sentencing But Now Seeks to Challenge Conviction

            The Fourth Circuit sided with the majority of the other circuits mentioned, and found that a movant in Gray’s situation—filing a habeas petition relating to underlying conviction after a successful habeas petition relating to sentencing—would not be submitting a second-in-time petition such that § 2244(b) would apply. The Court believed that, in the Magwood ruling, the Supreme Court made clear that an intervening judgment wholly resets the “habeas counter” at zero. Additionally, the Court also found this conclusion fitting in light of other Fourth Circuit precedent. See In re Wright, 826 F.3d 774 (4th Cir. 2016) (finding §2244(b)’s “second and successive” requirements did apply where prisoner’s first §2254 petition was dismissed, there was no intervening judgment, and the subsequent petition was challenging the same judgment yet merely setting forth an argument that had not been included in his original.) Moreover, the Court found this interpretation of Magwood to be consistent with the AEDPA’s goal of limiting the ability to make these successive petitions to these narrowly-defined circumstances, and further emphasized that this ruling in no way inhibits the other procedural safeguards that effectively bar excessive and redundant claims.

Fourth Circuit Orders District Court to Hear Petition as First Challenge, Not Second-in-Time

Because Gray’s §2254 petition was not second or successive, the Fourth Circuit found that review under §2244(b) was unnecessary, and thus directed the district court to hear the petition as a first challenge to this new judgment.

 

By: Kristina Wilson

On Thursday, January 19, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case United States v. Blankenship. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the defendant’s conviction for federal mine safety laws and regulations and held that the District Court committed no reversible error. The defendant raises four arguments on appeal.

Facts and Procedural History

The defendant owns and operates Upper Big Branch Coal Mine (“The Mine”). The Mine had received repeated citations for violations of the Mine Safety & Health Act of 1977 (the “Mine Safety Act”) and its accompanying regulations. 30 U.S.C. § 801 et seq. Many of these violations related to improper ventilation and the accumulation of combustible materials. The defendant was made aware of these violations on a daily basis through routine reports. In 2015, a jury convicted the defendant of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws. On appeal, the defendant raised the following four contentions: i) the District Court erroneously concluded that the indictment sufficiently alleged a violation of Section 820(d); ii) the District Court improperly denied the defendant the opportunity for cross examination; iii) the District Court incorrectly instructed the jury regarding the 30 U.S.C. § 820(d); and (iv) the District Court incorrectly instructed the jury as to the state’s burden of proof.

The District Court Did Not Err in Refusing to Dismiss the Indictment

Under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, an indictment must contain the elements of the offense charged, fairly inform a defendant of the charge, and enable the defendant to plead double jeopardy as a defense in a future prosecution for the same offense. United States v. Perry, 757 F.3d 166, 171 (4th Cir. 2014). An indictment that sets forth the statutory language itself is usually sufficient under this standard, provided that the language sets forth all the elements of the offense without uncertainty or ambiguity. Id. The indictment in question used the language of the 30 U.S.C. § 820(d) , which provides that an operator of a mine may not willfully violate a mandatory mine health or safety standard.

The defendant argued that the indictment was insufficient because it did not cite any specific mine safety laws or regulations that he allegedly conspired to violate. The Fourth Circuit noted that although the indictment itself did not set out the specific citations, the indictment included as an attachment a thirty-page document that detailed the specific laws and regulations violated and how the defendant violated them. Thus, the Fourth Circuit dismissed the defendant’s first contention.

The District Court Did Not Deny the Defendant the Opportunity for Cross Examination

When a new matter is revealed on redirect examination, a defendant is entitled to cross examination concerning the new matter. United States v. Fleschner, 98 F.3d 155, 158 (4th Cir. 1996). A new matter is testimony that raises a subject outside the scope of direct examination or testimony that is materially diffferent from the testimony presented on direct examination. United States v. Jones, 982 F.2d 380, 384 (9th Cir. 1992).

The defendant argued that a witness’s testimony regarding a statement allegedly the defendant allegedly made, as well as made testimony regarding safety violations constituted new matters. However, even if the testimony did constitute new matters, the Fourth Circuit asserted that the District Court could only have committed harmless error. The content in the questioned testimony, according to the fourth Circuit, was sufficiently introduced and examined at various points throughout the trial. Moreover, the defendant cross examined the witness for five full days at trial, which the Fourth Circuit felt was sufficient opportunity. Therefore, the District Court’s holding that the testimony did not constitute a new matter could only have been harmless error.

The District Court Did Not Improperly Instruct the Jury

The defendant argued that the District Court improperly instructed the jury on the meaning of “willfully” in 30 U.S.C. § 820(d). The District Court gave the following four instructions regarding the definition of willfully under the statute: i) knowingly taking actions that cause a mine health or safety standard to be violated, ii) knowingly failing to take an action required to meet mandatory mine health or safety standards and knowingly allowing that omission to continue, iii)knowingly failing to take actions that are necessary to comply with mandatory mine health and safety standards, or iv) or knowingly, purposefully, and voluntarily taking action or failing to take action with reckless disregard for whether that action or failure to act will cause a mandatory safety or health standard violation.

The defendant argued that the fourth definition allowed the jury to impermissibly equate reckless disregard and willfulness. However, the Fourth Circuit noted that both “reckless disregard” and “plain indifference” can generally constitute criminal willfulness. RSM, Inc. v. Herbert, 466 F.3d 316, 320 (4th Cir. 2006). The Fourth Circuit then had to determine whether reckless disregard could constitute criminal willfulness specifically under the statute in question. To answer this question, the Fourth Circuit first examined precedent that held that a defendant violated the Mine Safety Act when intentionally or with reckless disregard disobeyed mandatory safety standards. United States v. Jones, 735 F.2d 785, 789 (4th Cir. 1984). The Fourth Circuit also examined the Mine Safety Act’s legislative intent and history and held that Congress enacted the Mine Safety Act to punish habitual offenders against a backdrop of courts construing criminal willfulness to include reckless disregard when defendants continually violate a federal law despite repeated citations. Thus, the District Court did not incorrectly define “willfulness” under the statute.

The District Court’s Use of the Two-Inference Instruction Was Not Reversible Error

The defendant finally argued that the District Court’s use of the two-inference instruction reduced the government’s burden of proof to a preponderance of the evidence. The two-inference instruction tells the jury that if the evidence permits reasonable conclusions of both guilt and innocence, the jury should favor innocence. Although the Fourth Circuit had not yet had the opportunity to evaluate the two-inference instruction, it noted that other circuits generally disapproved of the practice as failing to instruct the jury on how to find if the evidence of guilt is stronger than that of innocence, but not beyond a reasonable doubt. United States v. Khan, 821 F.2d 90, 92 (2d Cir. 1987). The Fourth Circuit agreed that this inference was problematic and prohibited its future use.

However, the Fourth Circuit did not agree that the use of the two-inference instruction was reversible error. It concluded that throughout the trial, the government’s burden was properly stated as beyond a reasonable doubt. Further, the District Court also repeatedly instructed the jury on the presumption of innocence. Therefore, the use of the two-inference instruction did not constitute reversible error.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s conviction of the defendant for health and safety violations under the Mine Safety Act.

 

 

By Kelsey Mellan

On February 23, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in United States v. Hill, a criminal appeal on behalf of two defendants. Defendant-Appellants Darren Hill (“Hill”) and Lloyd Dodwell (“Dodwell”) appealed the Western District of North Carolina’s denial of their motion to suppress evidence pertaining to an allegedly unconstitutional traffic stop in 2012. The Defendants argue this traffic  stop violated their Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress, determining that the stop did not offend its Fourth Amendment jurisprudence at the time it occurred.

 Facts & Procedural History  

On May 2, 2012, Defendants were traveling in an SUV through Henderson County, North Carolina. Deputy David McMurray (“Deputy McMurray”) was patrolling the area when he noticed Defendants’ SUV traveling closely behind another vehicle. Deputy McMurray subsequently pulled over Defendant’s and approached their vehicle. Dodwell was driving and Hill was in the passenger seat. After Deputy McMurray explained the stop, Dodwell admitted to following too closely. Deputy McMurray then asked Dodwell to exit the vehicle and follow him to his patrol car so he could issue a warning ticket. While Deputy McMurray was entering the ticket information, he engaged Dodwell in conversation. Some of Deputy McMurray’s questions pertained to the stop and others ranged to more personal, off-topic questions. Specifically, Deputy McMurray asked Dodwell who owned the vehicle – to which Dodwell answered that he it belonged to either Hill’s girlfriend or sister. Upon questioning, Dodwell also acknowledged that he had previously been arrested for drugs.

Deputy McMurray then returned to the vehicle to speak with Hill to determine who owned the vehicle. While speaking with Deputy McMurray, Hill made numerous statements that conflicted with information Dodwell provided. As he later testified, Deputy McMurray became concerned that some criminal activity was occurring because of Defendants’ contradictory statements and nervous behavior, and the confusion over the owner of the SUV. Moreover, Defendants were traveling from Atlanta which, according to the government, is the “largest source of narcotics on the east coast.” in a type of vehicle commonly used for drug trafficking. After further discussion with each Defendant, Deputy McMurray notified them he was going to call for another deputy so he could run his drug-detection dog around the SUV. He explained that he would only search the vehicle of the drug-detection dog alerted, but would not search if the dog did not alert. Both Defendants consented to this search.

As a result of the search, Deputy McMurray and his team found over $30,000 of bundled U.S. currency, which Deputy McMurray believed to be drug proceeds. During the search, another officer on the scene read Defendants their Miranda rights and each Defendant consented to questioning. The rest of the search revealed no other contraband in the SUV. Ten days later while reviewing the recording of the stop, Deputy McMurray saw that Hill had deposited a bag containing cocaine hydrochloride behind the patrol car’s driver seat.

A grand jury indicted Defendants for possession with intent to distribute at least 500 grams of cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Both Defendants filed a motion to suppress which the magistrate joined for hearing. After the hearing, the magistrate recommended that the district court deny Defendants’ motion. Defendants generally objected to the magistrate’s memorandum and recommendation (“M&R”) on the grounds that the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court accepted the M&R and denied Defendants’ motion to suppress in full because (1) Deputy McMurray did not unreasonably extend the traffic stop prior to issuing the ticket and (2) Deputy McMurray’s post-ticket extension was justified by both reasonable suspicion and Defendants’ consent.

Defendants’ Fourth Amendment Challenge

On appeal, Defendants argue that Deputy McMurray impermissibly extended the traffic stop both before and after issuing a warning ticket, based on Supreme Court precedent from Rodriguez v. United States and Fourth Circuit precedent set in United States v. Williams. The government argues that any de minimis pre-ticket delay was allowed under governing precedent at the time of the stop. Moreover, the government claims Defendants waived their rights to challenge the reasonableness of the post-ticket extension by failing to sufficiently object on that ground.

The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” According to the Supreme Court in Illinois v. Caballes, a routine traffic stop becomes an unreasonable seizure when law enforcement impermissibly exceeds the stop’s scope or duration. The Supreme Court limited the permissible scope and duration of a traffic stop in Terry v. Ohio. If a traffic stop strays outside the boundaries of its permissible scope or duration, the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule normally prevents the government from using evidence obtained during said search against the victim of the illegal seizure. The Supreme Court explained an exception to this exclusionary rule in Davis v. United States – the good-faith doctrine. This doctrine protects law enforcement action taken in “objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent” at the time of the search or seizure. The Fourth Circuit determined this doctrine applies in this case.

Yet, Defendants asked the Fourth Circuit to analyze Deputy McMurray’s conduct in 2012 under the standards set out in Rodriguez and Williams – cases that were not decided until 2015. Defendants argued that Deputy McMurray violated their Fourth Amendment rights by asking off-topic questions before writing a ticket. But when this search was conducted in 2012, the Fourth Circuit’s binding precedent set in United States v. Digiovanni held that questioning or other activity unrelated to the initial purposes of the stop only rendered the stop unreasonable if the officer “failed to diligently pursue the purposes of the stop.” In Digiovanni, the Fourth Circuit determined that de minimis delay in issuing a ticket warranted suppression only when an officer did not begin, or completely abandoned, actions related to the cited purpose of the stop.

In this case, the Fourth Circuit decided that the record sufficiently demonstrates that Deputy McMurray’s questions were in continuance of the pursuit of activities related to the initial stop. Moreover, the Deputy continued issuing the warning throughout the pre-ticket process. Although his questions may have been off-topic, Deputy McMurray never strayed from diligently pursuing the purposes of the stop. Moreover, Defendants effectively waived their challenge to any post-ticket extension by failing to specifically object on those grounds before the district court. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit deemed this stop constitutional.

 Disposition

Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.

 

By Kelsey Mellan

On February 9, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in United States v. Spencer, a criminal appeal of an allegedly unreasonable sentence stemming from a “threatening communication” charge. Todd Spencer (“Spencer”) pleaded guilty to sending threatening communication to a federal employee in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 876(c). He was subsequently sentenced to 45 months in prison. Spencer challenged this sentence on both procedural and substantive grounds. The District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia determined this sentence was reasonable and upheld Spencer’s conviction. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding the 45-month sentence was both procedurally and substantively reasonable.

Facts & Procedural History

On September 12, 2013, Spencer sent a threatening letter covered in a mysterious white powder to the clerk’s office of the federal courthouse in Norfolk, Virginia. Parts of the letter read, “The very letter you hold may indeed be the last you hold. This letter may contain on it what takes your last breath…Good luck to you.” The clerk who opened the letter was understandably “disconcerted and afraid.” The U.S. Marshals called to the courthouse instructed her to lock herself alone with the letter in the mailroom until inspectors arrived. Inspectors determined the letter was from Spencer, who was currently an inmate at the Chesapeake City Jail. Once questioned, Spencer admitted to sending the letter and explained that the powder was dried toothpaste, which he included “to enhance the effect of the letter in order to put fear into the reader” that it was poison.

On October 2, 2014, Spencer pleaded guilty to sending a threatening communication in violation of § 876(c). His probation officer prepared a pre-sentence report, which yielded an advisory Sentencing Guideline range of 37 to 46 months based on the sentencing enhancement provisions in U.S. Sentencing Guideline Manual § 2A6.1(b)(1). At the actual sentencing hearing on January 13, 2015, the district court overruled Spencer’s objections to the sentencing range based on the “very, very serious” nature of the offense and the “devastating impact” on the victim. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit determined that the district court erred in applying the sentence enhancement because Spencer’s use of harmless toothpaste did not suggest an intent to carry out the threat and/or injure the clerk.

The district court held a resentencing hearing on January 12, 2016 where no sentence enhancements were applied. In order to “afford adequate deterrence” to similarly situated offenders and provide “just punishment” to Spencer, the district court decided to upwardly depart from the advisory Guidelines sentencing range (21 to 27 months) and imposed a sentence of 45 months. This timely appeal followed, in which Spencer argued the 45-month sentence was both procedurally and substantively unreasonable.

Procedural Unreasonableness

Spencer first contended that the district court erred by failing to provide advance notice of its intention to depart from the advisory Guidelines range, in violation of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 32(h). He claimed the district court repeatedly characterized the sentence as an upward “departure,” yet never advised the parties that it was contemplating such an action. Thus, he claims he was deprived of the opportunity to challenge the increased sentence.

Because the circumstances surround threats, like the one made by Spencer, vary substantially, § 2A6.1 of the Sentencing Guidelines gives district courts latitude to depart from the Guidelines. District courts are allowed to apply other generic departures as necessary. At the resentencing hearing, the district court repeatedly stated that it would “upwardly depart” from the Guidelines. Additionally, Spencer should have realized that he would receive a longer sentence then what was originally advised by the Guidelines, based on his earlier sentence for this charge. Therefore, Spencer had every reason to believe that the court might adopt an above-Guidelines sentence.

Spencer also had ample opportunity to address the district court’s concerns about the letter’s effect upon the victim and the record does not indicate that advanced notice of the sentence deviation would have affected the parties’ presentation of the facts in any material way. Thus, the Fourth Circuit determined the 45-month was not procedurally unreasonable.

 Substantive Unreasonableness

Spencer also asserts that his 45-month sentence is substantively unreasonable because it is too long. He insisted that the severity of the sentence rested on improper sentencing factors and unfounded factual findings. According to the Fourth Circuit, the district court based its sentence on the intended effect on the victim, which was entirely proper grounds given the seriously nature of the threat accompanied by ostensible poison. The district court tailed its sentence in light of traditional sentencing factors such as deterrence and punishment. The Fourth Circuit determined the inference drawn by the district court lay within the bounds of its discretion.

However, this court has previously determined that district courts must explain the basis for their sentence. In United States v. Carter, the Fourth Circuit instructed that a district court must “justify its sentence with an individualized rationale.” But still, a balance must be struck between providing justification for a sentence and entitling district court decisions “due deference.” Since the district court in this instance based its decision on the factors of deterrence and punishment, the sentence is adequately justified and warranting due deferencTherefore, the Fourth Circuit held the 45-month sentence was not substantively unreasonably.

Disposition

Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.

By Mike Stephens

On February 2, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case United States v. Evans. The defendant, Jamal Evans, appealed his conviction and sentencing under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A) for the federal crime of carjacking. The District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina denied Evans’ motion to dismiss, ruling that carjacking qualified as a “crime of violence” under § 924(c). The Fourth Circuit affirmed Evans’ conviction, holding that carjacking required the use of violent physical force and, therefore, was considered a crime of violence.

Facts and Procedural History

In July 2013, the defendant, Jamal Evans, was riding in a car with his friend, Amani Duke. Evans told Duke to drive to a nearby parking lot to meet Evans’ cousin. However, once in the parking lot, Evans pulled out a pistol, ordered Duke out of the car, and attempted to steal Duke’s wallet. Evans then shot Duke in each leg and drove off in Duke’s car.

A grand jury charged Evans with carjacking resulting in serious bodily injury, a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2119(2), and with using a firearm during the carjacking, a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A). Evans was also charged with additional crimes not at issue on appeal. Evans filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the carjacking statute did not qualify as a “crime of violence” within the meaning of § 924(c). The district court denied Evans’ motion, ruling that carjacking qualified as a crime of violence under § 924(c). Evans entered a guilty plea, preserving his right to appeal the district court’s ruling that carjacking qualified as a crime of violence. Evans was ultimately sentenced to serve 216 months’ imprisonment. Evans appealed the district court’s judgment regarding his conviction and sentence for carjacking under § 924(c).

Carjacking is Considered a “Crime of Violence”

The Fourth Circuit’s analysis hinged on determining whether subsection (1) of the carjacking statute qualified as a crime of violence. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that if subsection (1) was considered a crime of violence, then the aggravated offense under subsection (2) that Evans was charged with “necessarily also qualifies as a crime of violence.” The Court examined the definition of a crime of violence under § 924(c)(3) and compared that to the elements of the carjacking statute.

§ 924(c)(3) defines a crime of violence as any felony that either:

(A) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another, or

(B) that by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.

The Court determined that the use of “physical force” also required the use of “violent force,” meaning the degree of force employed must be “capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person.” Because § 924(c)(3) contemplates only crimes that have “as an element. . .use of physical force,” the Court applied the “elements-based categorical approach” described by the Supreme Court to determine whether the carjacking statute fit within this definition.

Evans argued that because carjacking could be committed “by intimidation,” the offense did not include “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of force” required under § 924(c)(3). Evans argued that “intimidation,” as it is commonly defined, could include convictions for acts not contemplated by the carjacking statute. The government responded by arguing that “intimidation” within the full statutory phrase found in the carjacking statute signifies a threat to use violent force. The government argued that, under this reading of the statute, the use of intimidation to commit carjacking is covered by § 924(c)(3).

The Fourth Circuit relied their analysis in a recent decision, United States v. McNeal, to determine whether carjacking is considered a crime of violence. In McNeal, an element of the bank robbery statute at issue required the property be taken “by force and violence, or by intimidation.” The Fourth Circuit viewed this language similar enough to the element at issue under the carjacking statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2119. The Fourth Circuit held in McNeal that “intimidation” required the threatened use of physical force and the crime of bank robbery qualified as a crime of violence under § 924(c)(3). The Court noted that their decision in McNeal relied on the holdings from the Eleventh Circuit and the Second Circuit that concluded that carjacking under § 2119 was considered a crime of violence. The Fourth Circuit concluded that taking a motor vehicle “by force and violence” required the use of violent physical force and that the act of taking a motor vehicle “by intimidation” required threatened use of force. The Court was also careful to highlight that this decision did not alter their holding in United States v. Torres-Miguel.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit ultimately held that the term “intimidation” in § 2119 includes a threat of violent force within the meaning of § 924(c)(3). Thus, Evans conviction for carjacking resulting in bodily injury under § 2119(2) is a crime of violence under 924(c)(3). Evans’ conviction and sentence under § 924(c) was affirmed.

handcuffs-1078871_960_720

By Mike Stephens

On November 7, 2016, the Fourth Circuit decided the criminal case of Dilworth v. Adams. Michael Dilworth (“Dilworth”) was being held as a pretrial detainee in a North Carolina detention facility, facing charges for failing to appear in court. While detained, Dilworth was involved in an altercation with a fellow inmate and an separate altercation with two correctional officers. Dilworth was placed in disciplinary segregation, without a hearing, following both altercations. Dilworth appealed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in defendants’ favor, arguing that the district court erred in finding Dilworth’s procedural due process rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 were not violated when Dilworth was denied a hearing. Additionally, Dilworth appealed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on his claim of excessive force, arguing the district court applied the wrong standard governing a claim of excessive force. The Fourth Circuit held that Dilworth’s due process rights were violated by not providing a hearing, and directed that judgment be entered in favor of Dilworth because the defendants concede no hearing took place. The Fourth Circuit also remanded the excessive force claim given that a subsequent Supreme Court of the United States decision clarified that an objective standard governed the claim.

Facts and Procedural History

While awaiting trial for failure to appear in court, Dilworth was involved in an altercation with a fellow inmate on May 11, 2013. The responding officer filed a disciplinary report, stating he had disciplined Dilworth by placing him in segregation for 45 days. This decision was approved by the commander. On May 21, Dilworth filed a written appeal demanding a hearing which was later dismissed after being reviewed by another correctional officer. Dilworth was released from segregation on June 20 without ever being granted a hearing.

Not long after being released from segregation, Dilworth was involved in an altercation with two officers, Officer Cookson and Officer Trott. The parties dispute how the altercation was started. Yet again, a disciplinary report was filed stating Dilworth had been placed in segregation for 45 days. The decision was again approved by the watch commander. Again, Dilworth filed a written appeal demanding a hearing and review of video evidence regarding the altercation. The appeal was again dismissed. Dilworth served the full 45 day sentence in segregation. Dilworth sued several correctional officers, claiming his due process rights were violated by failing to provide hearings and also claiming the officers in the second altercation used excessive force.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on both claims. The district court reasoned that Dilworth’s due process rights were not violated because Dilworth was given notice of the charges and the opportunity to file a written appeal. Additionally, the district court applied a subjective standard on the excessive force claim, holding that Dilworth had to show that Cookson and Trott used force “maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” The court held that no reasonable jury could find the officers had a “sufficiently culpable state of mind.” Dilworth appealed.

Due Process Claim

The Fourth Circuit held that Dilworth’s due process rights were violated by not granting a hearing. Given the fact that no hearing took place, the Court directed that judgment be entered in Dilworth’s favor.

Due process claims require two inquiries: (1) whether placing Dilworth in disciplinary segregation “implicated a liberty interest triggering procedural due process requirements;” and (2) if yes, whether the procedures provided to Dilworth satisfied those liberty interests.

In the first inquiry, the Court, agreeing with the district court, found that a pretrial detainee had a liberty interest in freedom from “punishment” while detained and awaiting trial. Defendants argued that only punishments that impose “atypical and significant hardship” on prisoners violated a liberty interest. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, stating that the “atypical and significant hardship” standard did not apply when deciding procedural due process claims of pretrial detainees. The court held that that the Bell v. Wolfish standard of procedural due process claims grant pretrial detainees a liberty interest in freedom from “punishment.” The Court also held that placing Dilworth in segregation was a “punishment” because there was a “expressed intent to punish” given Dilworth was confined to his cell for 23 hours each day and denied all personal contact except with attorneys or members of the clergy. Thus, the Fourth Circuit answered the first inquiry of the due process claim in the affirmative.

In the second inquiry, the Court held that the detention facility failed to meet the “procedural minimums that pertain even in the prison setting.” In Wolff v. McDonnell, the Supreme Court of the United States held that an inmate must be provided a hearing, a written notice of the alleged violation 24 hours before the hearing, and a written statement, after the hearing, detailing the reasons for the disciplinary action. The Court made note of the fact that the detention facility published these requirements within its own policy regarding inmate discipline. The defendants conceded that these requirements were not provided to Dilworth and no factual dispute existed regarding the process Dilworth received. While an inmate may not be provided the same process as a defendant in a trial, such as the right to counsel, the minimum requires a hearing where the inmate may call some witnesses. The Court was also careful to note that “administrative segregation,” or segregation for a temporary amount of time following an altercation, was allowed, provided that the inmate is later given a hearing. Yet, the Fourth Circuit held that Dilworth was not provided a hearing and that the segregation amounted to a punishment and Dilworth’s procedural due process rights were violated as a matter of law. Thus, the Court remanded to resolve Dilworth’s damages claim.

Excessive Force Claim

The Fourth Circuit remanded Dilworth’s excessive force claim so that the district court could apply the proper standard set out in the intervening Supreme Court decision, Kingsley v. Hendrickson. In Kingsley, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a pretrial detainee’s excessive force claim should be governed by an objective standard. A pretrial detainee has to show that the force “purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable.” Both parties agreed that the district court had not applied the Kingsley standard to Dilworth’s claim. Therefore, the Court remanded so that the district court could apply the proper standard. The Fourth Circuit also recommended that the district court should view the video that may show evidence regarding this claim, citing to a decision that held a grant of summary judgment on an excessive force claim premature when the trial court did not view video evidence of the altercation.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in defendant’s father on Dilworth’s due process claim and ordered that judgment be entered for Dilworth. The Court remanded this claim so the district court could resolve the damages claim. The Court also vacated the district court’s decision regarding Dilworth’s excessive force claim and remanded it for further proceedings.

qtq80-qCx3wT

By Sophia Blair

On November 10, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case, United States v. Williams. Earnest Lee Williams Jr. (“Williams”) was charged with attempting to enter a bank with the intent to commit a felony and larceny in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a). Williams pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced under U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1, pursuant to its robbery guidelines. Williams appealed his sentence, arguing that the district court erroneously applied the robbery guideline under U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1 instead of the burglary guideline under U.S.S.G. § 2B2.1. The Fourth Circuit agreed with Williams, vacated his sentence, and remanded to the district court for resentencing under the burglary guideline.

Facts and Procedural History

In January 2014, Williams approached a Southern Bank building (“Bank”) in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Williams was unarmed and, as he later admitted to police, simply planned on telling the bank tellers to place the Bank’s money in his bag. Williams entered the exterior doors of the Bank into an anteroom. Before he could enter the interior doors into the Bank, a teller who thought she recognized Williams from a previous robbery locked all of the doors. The teller asked Williams through an intercom whether he had an account and he said he did, though he had left his bank card in his car. The teller unlocked the exterior doors and told Williams to use the drive-through window. Williams went back to his car and drove off. The police were called and they quickly apprehended Williams. After being read his rights, Williams admitted to the police that he was in need of money as well as his plan to rob the Bank.

In August 2014, a federal grand jury indicted Williams for violating 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a). Williams pleaded guilty to the charge. § 2113(a) is covered by four Sentencing Guideline section including U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1 (Robbery) and § 2B2.1 (Burglary). The probation officer calculated Williams’ imprisonment range at 37–46 months according to the robbery guideline.

Williams objected to the application of the robbery guideline for sentencing because he pled guilty to an indictment for burglary without reference to force or violence. Specifically, Williams was charged with “attempting to enter a bank . . . with the intent to commit in such bank a felony affecting such bank . . . .” Given the lack of force or violence, the burglary guideline was more applicable, and would yield an imprisonment range of 10–16 months.

The probation officer contended that the robbery guideline was more applicable because it contained a sentencing enhancement for targeting a financial institution, while the burglary guideline did not. The district court agreed with the probation officer that the robbery guideline would apply, and sentenced Williams to a term of 38 months. Williams appealed.

Improper Application of Robbery Guideline

The Fourth Circuit agreed with Williams that the burglary guideline should apply. When a conviction falls under the express terms of multiple guidelines, the sentencing court must apply the most applicable one. Relying on United States v. Boulware, the Fourth Circuit held that the most applicable guideline is determined by comparing the guideline texts with the charged misconduct. The court should not compare the guidelines to the statute or the actual conduct because they may implicate several guidelines or include factors of indicted offenses instead of elements.

18 U.S.C.  § 2113(a)

2113(a) may be violated either by robbery or burglary. Bank robbery involves attempting to take from a bank by force, intimidation, or extortion, while burglary simply involves entering a bank with the intent to commit a crime. Because there was no element of force in the indictment, the Fourth Circuit held that Williams should have been sentenced under the burglary guidelines.

Disposition

Because there was no element of force in the indictment to which Williams pled, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the case for resentencing under the burglary guideline § 2B2.1.

By Ali Fenno

On October 25, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case of Dingle v. Stevenson. In Dingle, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the Supreme Court’s holding in Roper v. Simmons, which invalidated the use of capital punishment against juvenile offenders, should apply retroactively to undo a guilty plea made by Ronald Donald Dingle (“Dingle”). After examining the scope of the holding in Roper and the nature of plea bargains, the Fourth Circuit held that Roper cannot apply retroactively to undo a guilty plea and affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Dingle’s petition.

Lower Courts Repeatedly Dismiss Dingle’s Petitions

In 1993 the state of South Carolina (the “State”) charged Dingle with murder, assault and battery with intent to kill, first degree burglary, kidnapping, pointing a firearm, two counts of possession of a weapon during a violent crime, and two counts of possession of a sawed-off shotgun. Because the State intended to pursue the death penalty, Dingle plead guilty in exchange for life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.

When it was later discovered that the consecutive nature of Dingle’s sentences precluded parole, an integral part of the plea bargain, Dingle filed an application for post-conviction relief (“PCR”). The PCR court vacated his sentences and remanded for sentencing consistent with the intent of the plea agreement or for a new trial.

Several years later, a hearing still had not been held, so Dingle filed a motion for a speedy trial. The hearing was then held on July 28, 2005, and Dingle contended that his guilty plea should be withdrawn. He argued that the benefit of his plea bargain, avoiding the death penalty, was removed by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Roper, which held that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment for the death penalty to be used against juvenile offenders. The Court of General Sessions disagreed, rejecting Dingle’s request for a new trial and holding that pleas should be evaluated based on the law that existed in 1995. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed this decision, finding that Roper did not remove the benefit of the plea bargain.

Dingle again filed an application for PCR in 2009, arguing that Roper retroactively applied to his case and, as such, his guilty plea was involuntary because it was made to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. However, the PCR court found that Dingle’s claim was barred by res judicata. Dingle’s subsequent appeal and third petition were unsuccessful.

Dingle also filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2554 in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. He raised four claims of error, but the district court dismissed the claims without prejudice.

On September 13, 2013, Dingle filed the instant § 2554 petition. The petition contested Dingle’s conviction on six grounds, but the district court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation to deny the petition in its entirety.

Issues on Appeal

The Fourth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability to determine the single issue of whether Roper may be applied retroactively to invalidate Dingle’s guilty plea. Dingle argued that the holding in Roper invalidated his guilty plea because (1) it was a substantive rule so applied retroactively to his case, and (2) if it would be improper for the state to seek the death penalty against him now, then it was also improper in 1995. Thus, his plea was invalid because it was attempt to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. However, the Fourth Circuit disagreed, concluding that (1) plea bargains are outside the scope of the Roper holding, and (2) the nature of plea bargains support upholding their validity.

Plea Bargains Are Outside the Scope of Roper

The Fourth Circuit first concluded that the holding in Roper was never intended to apply to plea bargains. Although the court conceded that Roper was indeed a substantive rule that could be applied retroactively, it found that the scope of the rule was limited to the actual sentence delivered in a case. Because Dingle did not actually receive the death penalty, attempting to apply the holding in Roper to his own case was “compar[ing] apples and oranges.” The court further noted that the Supreme Court had never before allowed “a substantive rule to stretch beyond the proscribed sentence to reopen guilty pleas with a different sentence.”

Future Legal Developments Cannot Invalidate Plea Bargains

The Fourth Circuit next concluded that the holding in Roper could not invalidate Dingle’s guilty plea because plea bargains are “a bet on the future,” whereby defendants accept both the benefits of a lighter sentence and the risks of losing out on future favorable legal developments. A defendant’s remorse at missing out on those favorable legal developments is not enough to rescind an entire bargain.

The court found support for this contention in Brady v. United States, where the Supreme Court held that a defendant who entered into a plea agreement to avoid capital punishment could not later withdraw his plea agreement when subsequent legal developments made him ineligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court suggested that defendants who are offered plea bargains must weigh the benefits and risks of such bargains, and the fact that they did not anticipate certain legal developments could not “impugn the truth or reliability of [their] plea.” Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit concluded that when Dingle entered his guilty plea, he accepted the trade-off between present benefits and future risks that is “emblematic” of plea bargains, and his inability to anticipate the favorable outcome in Roper could not invalidate his plea.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit concluded that (1) Roper, even applied retroactively, could not invalidate Dingle’s plea, and (2) precedent and policy argued against setting aside Dingle’s plea bargain. Accordingly, it affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Dingle’s petition and held that Roper could not be applied retroactively to invalidate Dingle’s guilty plea.

By: Kristina Wilson

On Friday, October 21, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case United States v. Wharton. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s conviction of the defendant for conspiracy, making a false statement, theft, and embezzlement, all in connection with her unlawful receipt of government benefits. On appeal, the defendant argued that the affidavit upon which the search warrant was based was materially false and thus violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision that there was no Fourth Amendment violation because the affidavit’s omitted facts were not material.

Facts and Procedural History

After the death of the defendant’s daughter in 2002, the defendant took her two granddaughters into her home. She began receiving Social Security survivors’ benefits on her granddaughters’ behalf. In 2012, the Government discovered that the defendant’s granddaughters had not lived with the defendant since 2009 and were not receiving their benefits. The Government then launched an investigation into the defendant’s use of the Social Security funds.

Following the investigation, a grand jury indicted the defendant on two counts of theft of government property in violation of 18 USC § 641 and 42 USC § 1381a(a)(3) on January 31, 2013. The grand jury issued a sealed superseding indictment on June 26, 2013, which was unsealed on July 10, 2013. The indictment charged both the defendant and her husband with conspiracy to embezzle, embezzlement, and making false statements. While the indictment remained sealed, on July 1, 2013, a special agent from the Social Security Administrator’s office executed an affidavit in which he asserted that the defendant and her husband lived together in the defendant’s home. The magistrate issued a search warrant based on the agent’s affidavit, and the Social Security Administrator’s office searched the defendant’s home, discovering a number of documents relevant to the criminal charges.

Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress all evidence uncovered in the search of her home. The District Court denied her motion to suppress for all evidence except that which was obtained from her second-floor bedroom. Ultimately, the District Court convicted the defendant and her husband for conspiracy to embezzle money in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371, making false statements in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1383a(a)(2), and embezzlement in violation of 18 USC § 641.

The Information Was Recklessly Omitted but Not Material

The defendant asserted that special agent’s affidavit was materially false in violation of the Fourth Amendment because it omitted the fact that she and her husband did not live together.

In the affidavit, the special agent asserted that the defendant and her husband lived together on the basis of interviews he conducted with the defendant, her husband, and their children. Both the defendant and her husband stated that they had been married continuously for 43 years and lived together in the defendant’s home. The special agent also discovered that the defendant’s husband’s electricity account provided power to the entire home, not just his basement living space. Additionally, the special agent discovered that Dish Network provided cable television to the entire home with the defendant and her husband both listed as authorized users.

The District Court held that the defendant and her husband did live separately in that the defendant’s husband only occupied the common areas of the home upon invitation and kept the door to his basement living area locked. However, the omission was not material and did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

The Omission Did Not Violate the Fourth Amendment

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit applied a de novo standard of review to the denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress.

According to the Fourth Circuit, the District Court properly addressed the defendant’s claim as a Franks v. Delaware question. Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978). Although a Franks analysis usually begins with the threshold question of whether a district court improperly denied an evidentiary hearing, the Fourth Circuit eschewed that preliminary question because the District Court granted the defendant an evidentiary hearing before denying the motion to suppress.

When a defendant asserts that an affiant has omitted material facts in the affidavit, the defendant must prove that the affiant intentionally or recklessly made a materially false statement or omitted material information.

While Franks requires proof of both intentionality and materiality, only materiality was at issue on appeal. An omission is material if it is necessary to the magistrate’s finding of probable cause to support the warrant. When evaluating materiality, a court inserts the omitted facts and then determines whether the corrected affidavit supports probable cause. If it does, there is no Franks violation.

In recent cases United States v. Lull, 824 F.3d 109 (4th Cir. 2016) and United States v. Tate, 524 F.3d 449 (4th Cir. 2008), the Fourth Circuit reversed the defendants’ convictions after concluding that the omitted information in question undermined the entire foundation of the affidavits. In Lull, an officer omitted facts that undermined the reliability of a confidential informant who supplied many of the facts in the affidavit. In Tate, an officer omitted the fact that much of the evidence supporting his affidavit originated from a questionable search of the defendant’s trash. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that if the trash search was illegal, that evidence would have to be suppressed. Without the trash search evidence, the officer’s warrant lacked probable cause.

In contrast, the fact that the defendant and her husband did not live together did not change the fair probability that evidence relating to the defendant’s crimes would be discovered in the common areas of the house. The magistrate was reasonable in concluding that the defendant and her husband lived together because they stated that they lived together, and they shared utilities and cable services, creating a reasonable inference that both individuals used those services throughout the home. Finally, the omitted fact did not call into question the inherent reliability or validity of the affidavit supporting the warrant, unlike in Lull and Tate.

Disposition

Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s conviction of the plaintiff on all counts.