Wake Forest Law Review

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By Mikhail Petrov

Today, in the published criminal case of United States v. Qazah, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the Defendants’ convictions, but vacated their sentences and remanded the case back for resentencing. The Defendants, Kamal Qazah, better known by his street name Keemo, and his uncle Nasser Alquza, were convicted for a conspiracy to receive and transport stolen cigarettes in interstate commerce as well as money laundering. Two issues were before the Fourth Circuit. The first issue was whether undercover law enforcement agents had a proper warrant. The second issue was in the calculation of the Defendants’ sentences using the Sentencing Guidelines. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the Defendants’ motion to suppress evidence but vacated the Defendants’ sentences and remanded for resentencing.

A Business Deal Too Good…

In 2010 and 2011, Qazah, in conspiracy with others, purchased thousands of cases of purportedly stolen Marlboro brand cigarettes manufactured by Phillip Morris. Qazah didn’t know that he was actually buying Marlboros from undercover law enforcement officers. Qazah made big money by selling the purportedly stolen cigarettes, on which state taxes had not been paid, to convenience stores in South Carolina. Qazah even brought his uncle, Nasser Alquza, into the business.

In November 2011, the undercover officers arranged the final controlled purchase, agreeing to deliver 1,377 cases of cigarettes to a warehouse owned by Alquza for $1.8 million. Instead of completing that transaction, however, law enforcement officers arrested Qazah and Alquza at Qazah’s house, where they also executed a search warrant and recovered, among other things, $1.3 million in cash and a notebook in which Qazah had recorded his cigarette sales to various retailers. That same day, officers executed another search warrant at Alquza’s house, recovering relevant financial records and false identification documents.

The problem arose with the warrant used by the undercover agents.  The warrant used to search Alquza’s house had an attachment, Attachment B, which was prepared in connection with Qazah’s warrant. Thus, Attachment B that the undercover agents intended to include for Alquza’s house should have specified documents relating to “Nasser ALQUZA” in paragraph one, rather than those relating to “Kamal QAZAH.” The warrant had previously been emailed to the magistrate judge, with Attachment B in its proper place. When it was presented to the judge for her signature, Attachment B was with the wrong warrant.

The Procedural History – The Deficient Warrant and The Sentencing Guidelines

Alquza had filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the search on the grounds that the warrant was incorrect. Following a hearing, the district court denied the motion to suppress, finding that the incorrect attachment was a clerical error. The district court concluded that the evidence recovered in the search was admissible under the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule recognized in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984).

With the motion to suppress denied, the presentencing report for Qazah recommended that he be held responsible for 8,112.66 cases of cigarettes, with a retail value of $24,337,980, and Alquza for 2,909.66 cases, with a retail value of $8,728,980. Based on those loss amounts, the reports applied a 22-level enhancement to Qazah’s offense level, pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1(b)(1)(L) (2012), and a 20-level enhancement to Alquza’s offense level, pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1(b)(1)(K) (2012). In coming up with the dollar amounts of the “stolen” cigarettes, the district court valued the retail price of the cigarettes at $3,000 per case, as distinct from the wholesale value of $2,126 per case.

The Deficient Warrant

Alquza first contends that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress the evidence seized from his house. The district court found that the error here was a technical one, and did not influence the warrant’s issuance, nor adversely affect its execution. Alquza contended that the warrant did not satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement.

The Fourth Circuit found that the good-faith exception, as explained by the district court, applied to the deficient warrant. In this case, the magistrate judge had seen the correct warrant on her email, even though she signed the one with Attachment B. The Leon Court held that, the exclusionary rule should not be applied to bar the government from introducing evidence obtained by officers acting in reasonable reliance on a search warrant issued by a detached and neutral magistrate, even though the warrant was ultimately found to be deficient.

Thus, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the magistrate did not wholly abandon her judicial role in issuing the warrant. See Leon, 468 U.S. at 923. Nor did she “merely rubber stamp the warrant.” United States v. Gary, 528 F.3d 324, 329 (4th Cir. 2008). To the contrary, the magistrate judge examined the email version of the proposed warrant, which was the correct version, before deciding to sign it, although she unwittingly signed an incorrect version. Alquza does not challenge the correct version that was considered by the judge.

Most importantly, the Fourth Circuit found that the suppression of evidence recovered in this case would have almost no deterrent effect because the officers were acting in good faith. The Supreme Court has repeatedly explained that the exclusionary rule’s “sole purpose . . . is to deter future Fourth Amendment violations” and that exclusion is appropriate only when “the deterrence benefits of suppression . . . outweigh its heavy costs.” Davis v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 2419, 2426-27 (2011). Thus, the decision of the district court on the warrant was affirmed.

District Court Erred in Applying the Sentencing Guidelines  

The Defendants appeal the decision to use the retail value of the cigarettes rather than their wholesale value in evaluating their sentencing range under the Sentencing Guidelines. In rejecting the wholesale value of the cigarettes as the appropriate measure of loss, the district court relied on U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1(b)(1) and Application Note 3(A) to conclude that it should apply the “greatest intended loss” as between the wholesale and retail value of the cigarettes, regardless of whether that value in fact represented a loss.

In the version of the Sentencing Guidelines used in sentencing the Defendants, the Application Notes explain that the “intended loss” is determined by “the pecuniary harm that was intended to result from the offense.” Thus, as the Fourth Circuit has observed before, “the general rule is that loss is determined by measuring the harm to the victim” of the offense committed. United States v. Ruhe, 191 F.3d 376, 391 (4th Cir. 1999).

The victim, of course, is determined by the nature of the offense and the impact of its violation. In this case, the Defendants were told–and they believed–that they were receiving cigarettes stolen from Philip Morris trucks in either Virginia or Tennessee.

Thus, for the purpose of determining the loss that was intended to result from the offense, the court must identify and focus on the intended victim or victims of the offense of receiving and selling stolen property. Had the cigarettes actually been stolen, the most obvious victim would have been the property’s true owner, which the Defendants believed to be Philip Morris, the cigarettes’ manufacturer. This makes Philip Morris the most obvious intended victim of the conspiracy offense. Philip Morris’ loss would have been the amount of money that it would have otherwise received for selling the purportedly stolen cigarettes, a figure that the record indicates was an average of $2,126 per case.

Still, the Fourth Circuit held that the question about the identity of the intended victim and its losses are a question of fact for the district court to resolve. However, the district court in this case appeared to conclude, without making any such inquiries, that the cigarettes’ retail market value was the appropriate measure of loss simply because the Guidelines required it to apply the “greater intended loss,” and the cigarettes’ retail value was greater than their wholesale value. Thus, the sentence is vacated and remanded back to the district court for a determination of the victim and the proper amount that is lost or taken away from the victim.

Holding of The Fourth Circuit

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to deny the motion to suppress but vacated the Defendants’ sentences and remanded back for resentencing while allowing the district court to expand its inquiry into the intended victim or victims of the relevant offenses and to recalculate the Defendants’ sentencing ranges based on its findings and conclusions about the amount of loss that they intended to result from their commission of the offense.

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By Eric Jones

On June 16, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil removal case Yanez-Marquez v. Lynch.  Maria Yanez-Marquez (Yanez) was petitioning to the Fourth Circuit for review of a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decision dismissing her appeal from an order for her removal from the United States.  The Circuit Court held that the violations of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights were not egregious, and thus denied her petition for review.

 

The Execution of the Search Warrant

In June of 2008, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were granted a search warrant for 402 Harbor Drive, Annapolis, Maryland, because it was suspected that the landlord was harboring illegal aliens.  The warrant was to be executed between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., and described the residence as a “single-family home.”  The warrant was broad and authorized agents to seize “illegal aliens, travel documents, financial records, and photographs of harbored aliens.”  At approximately 5:00 a.m. on June 30, ICE agents knocked on the door of the residence and entered to begin the search.  According to Yanez, the agents burst into the bedroom where she and her partner were sleeping, and pointed guns at them while demanding that they “don’t move” in both English and Spanish.  Upon being informed that Yanez was pregnant, the agents called a female agent to assist and reassure her.  Yanez was never handcuffed or led outside of the dwelling, but was questioned for 5-10 minutes about her identity.  As a result of the search, the agents arrested Yanez’s partner, and had her sign several forms indicating that Yanez had been illegally present in the United States since April of 2007.  The agents also seized Yanez’s pay stubs, tax returns, and photo albums as they left at 9:15 a.m.  The ICE contested Yanez’s statements regarding the timing of the search as well as the force used during the search.

 

The Removal Proceedings

Yanez was issued a notice to appear before an Immigration Judge (IJ) for removal proceedings.  On February 10, 2010, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) filed a submission of intended evidence, including the forms Yanez signed during the search, the warrant itself, and the affidavit supporting the warrant.  Yanez filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that during the search, the agents “egregiously violated” her Fourth Amendment rights.  The IJ found that, accepting Yanez’s claims as true, her rights had not been “egregiously violated.”  Although the execution of a search warrant prior to the time it was granted would constitute a violation of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights, the IJ reasoned that being early by a single hour “does not amount to conduct that ‘shocks the conscience,’” and thus was not an egregious violation.  As to the force used, the IJ found that Yanez had made no showing of excessive force, noting that agents executing a search warrant are reasonably cautious about dangerous situations.  The IJ found that the agents had acted reasonably, had not brandished their guns for longer than necessary to assure their safety, and had gotten a female agent to aid and comfort Yanez as soon as was reasonable.  For these reasons, the IJ denied the motion to suppress the evidence.  On December 13, 2010, the IJ found that the DHS had satisfied their burden, and ordered that Yanez be removed from the United States and returned to El Salvador.

On appeal to the BIA, the BIA held that the exclusionary rule, which operates to exclude evidence obtained in violation of the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, does not apply in civil removal proceedings unless the violations were egregious.  The BIA then, relying on the reasoning of the IJ, held that the violations had not been egregious, and thus affirmed the IJ’s order.

 

The Applicability of the Fourth Amendment in Civil Removal Cases in the Fourth Circuit

Initially, the Fourth Circuit noted that the question of the applicability of the Fourth Amendment exclusionary principle was a matter of first impression for the Circuit.  The Court began by analyzing the Supreme Court of the United States’ ruling in INS v. Lopez-Mendoza, 468 U.S. 1032 (1984).  In Lopez-Mendoza, the Supreme Court held that the ordinary Fourth Amendment exclusion, which barred all evidence obtained through any violation of the Fourth Amendment, was inapplicable to civil removal proceedings because the costs of exclusionary principle, including dramatically increased complexity to the streamlined process of removal, outweighed the benefits of the exclusionary principle.  Additionally, because civil removal proceedings are not criminal and do not punish but merely prevent continued illegal activity, the Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment protections were not as critical.  Four Justices in Lopez-Mendoza vigorously dissented, and the majority opinion opined in dicta that “egregious violations” and “widespread” violations by officers may nevertheless render the exclusionary principle applicable in some instances.

In this case, the Fourth Circuit held that the exclusionary principle must apply to all egregious violations of the Fourth Amendment because “[t]o hold otherwise would give no effect to the language used by the Supreme Court in Lopez–Mendoza expressing concern over fundamentally unfair methods of obtaining evidence.”  The Circuit Court further held that refusing to apply the exclusion “would ignore the fact that eight justices in Lopez–Mendoza seem to have agreed that the exclusionary rule applies in removal proceedings in some form.”  Thus, in the Fourth Circuit, an petitioner in a civil removal case must show not only that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated, but also that those violations were “egregious.”

 

The Standard for “Egregiousness” of a Fourth Amendment Violation

The Lopez-Mendoza Court stated “egregious violations of Fourth Amendment or other liberties that might transgress notions of fundamental fairness and undermine the probative value of the evidence obtained” might be reason to apply the exclusion. Despite the use of “and” by the Supreme Court, the Fourth Circuit held that a petitioner can succeed if she can show either (1) egregious violation or (2) a violation that undermines the probative value of the evidence.  To hold otherwise, the Circuit explained, would dramatically reduce the application of the rule because nearly all evidence obtained through egregious violations is physical evidence, which has the same probative value regardless of the manner of acquisition.  Examples given by the Circuit of egregious violations included “a stop based on Hispanic appearance alone,” “repeatedly ignor[ing a] detainee’s request for counsel,” and “a nighttime warrantless entry into the aliens’ residence.”

The Fourth Circuit rejected the Ninth Circuit’s standard for egregiousness, which focuses on the “bad faith” of the agents, and embraced the “totality of the circumstances” test used by the Second, Third, and Eighth Circuits.

 

Yanez’s Alleged Fourth Amendment Violations

Yanez’s first allegation of egregious violation of her Fourth Amendment rights was that the warrant listed her residence as a “single-family home,” when it was in fact a multi-unit dwelling.  The Fourth Circuit explained that the warrant is sufficiently tailored when an agent executing it can “reasonably ascertain and identify the intended place to be searched.”  In holding that the warrant used to search Yanez’s home was adequate, the Circuit emphasized that the premises had been under ICE surveillance and agents had no reason to believe multiple families dwelled there, it was a small single-story home, and the premises had just one mailbox.  Thus, because the outward appearance is reasonably identified by a description of a “single-family home,” the Fourth Circuit rejected Yanez’s first argument.

Yanez next argued that, upon entry, the agents should have known it was a multi-family dwelling because “the bedroom door was locked,” which transforms it into a separate dwelling.  However, because it is not unusual for a bedroom door to be locked and there was no other indication in the home that it was a multi-unit dwelling, the Circuit held that the ICE agents had not made any mistake in proceeding with the warrant, and even if they had, it was an innocent and reasonable mistake.

Yanez’s final argument was that entering the home at 5:00 a.m. constituted a “nighttime search,” which fell outside of the warrant and implicates higher scrutiny because of the heightened intrusion.  The Fourth Circuit agreed that because a daytime search is defined as between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., the search of Yanez’s residence was by definition a nighttime search.  The Fourth Circuit went on to hold that nighttime execution of a daytime warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, absent consent or exigent circumstances.  Thus, because there was no consent given by either Yanez or the judge who issued the warrant, nor were there any additional facts which may have constituted exigent circumstances justifying a nighttime search, the Fourth Circuit held that the ICE had violated Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights by executing the search.  However, when considering the totality of the circumstances, the Circuit held that this violation was not egregious.

Facts to support a finding of egregiousness included the fact that it was a nighttime search and the fact that the search was of Yanez’s home, where her privacy interests are strong.  Supporting the non-egregiousness of the search included the fact that no ICE agents threatened, coerced, or physically abused Yanez, nor did they offer or promise her anything in exchange for cooperation.  Additionally, Yanez was not handcuffed, nor was she removed from the home.  Furthermore, there was no evidence of diminished capacity, the questioning was not particularly lengthy, and there is no evidence that the agents were motivated by racial considerations.  Finally, the Circuit explained that presence of a valid search warrant for the premises reduces the harm of the intrusion, and the agents executing the warrant did not use force beyond that necessary to secure their safety.  The Fourth Circuit thus held that the nighttime search, while a violation, was nevertheless not an egregious violation of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment Rights.

 

The Fourth Circuit Denied Yanez’s Petition for Review

Because the alleged violations of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights were all either not violations at all or not egregious, the Fourth Circuit denied Yanez’s petition for review of the IJ’s order for her removal from the United States.