Fourth Circuit

The Federal Docket

United States v. Spirito (4th Cir. May 2022)

The Fourth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s conviction for several fraud offenses but reversed his conviction for federal program fraud under 18 USC 666. At issue was whether Section 666 “criminalizes multiple conversions of less than $5,000, if the government must point to conversions that took place over more than one year to reach the $5,000 statutory minimum.” The Court held that Section 666 “requires each transaction used to reach the aggregate $5,000 requirement to occur within the same one-year period.”

United States v. Morehouse (4th Cir. May 2022)

The Fourth Circuit vacated a defendant’s sentence after finding that the sentencing court improperly applied the enhancement for distributing child sexual exploitation materials in exchange for valuable consideration. In doing so, the Court overruled its prior holding based on the pre-2016 Guidelines Manual and held that the enhancement only applies if there is a “two-sided exchange.”

United States v. Hope (4th Cir. March 2022)

The Fourth Circuit vacated a defendant’s sentence for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon after the district court improperly enhanced the defendant’s sentence under the ACCA. The district court did so based on finding that Hope’s prior South Carolina convictions for felony marijuana offenses were for a “controlled substance offense.” The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the South Carolina marijuana offenses did not meet the federal definition of “controlled substance offenses” because South Carolina’s definition of marijuana included hemp at the time, and hemp is not a “controlled substance offense” under federal law. Judge Thacker dissented based on his view that the error did not amount to “plain error.”

United States v. Freeman (4th Cir. January 2022), EN BANC

Sitting en banc, the Fourth Circuit held that defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing when her attorney failed to lodge meritorious objections to the PSR and in fact waived any objections at sentencing over the defendant’s concerns. The decision was notable since the Court held there was ineffective assistance and prejudice on direct appeal, without an intervening evidentiary hearing, based on the face of the record.

United States v. Antonio Simmons (4th Cir. August 2021)

The Fourth Circuit reversed convictions for several defendants convicted of RICO, VICAR, and carrying a firearm during crimes of violence. In a complex opinion, the Court held that RICO conspiracy is a divisible offense requiring the modified categorical approach to determine if the offense is a crime of violence. The Court concluded that a RICO conspiracy, even an “aggravated” one, is not a crime of violence under 924(c). The Court also reversed the defendants’ VICAR convictions where the jury instructions referred to the wrong state law. Finally, the Court reversed one of the VICAR and 924(c) counts predicated on attempted murder where the defendants only took a preparatory act, not an overt act, in driving around looking for the victim.

United States v. Precias Freeman (4th Cir. March 2021)

The Fourth Circuit vacated a drug defendant’s sentence for two reasons. First, it held that, despite there having been no hearing where sentencing counsel testified, the record was sufficient to establish that defendant received ineffective assistance when her counsel waived meritorious objections to the guidelines that would have resulted in a lower range and where he put his efforts into getting her in a drug program despite not knowing the program’s requirements for admission. The Court also held that the defendant’s 17-year sentence was substantively unreasonable where the sentencing court failed to consider her severe opioid addiction and that her sentence was significantly longer than those of similarly-situated defendants across the country.

United States v. Tremayne Drakeford (4th Cir. March 2021)

The Fourth Circuit reversed a district court’s denial of defendant’s suppression motion. The officers had conducted a stop and frisk of the defendant at a store, and found drugs, after receiving information from an informant, witnessing the defendant during two suspected drug interactions, and seeing the defendant meet another person outside the store and engage in two handshakes, which the officers believed was a hand-to-hand drug deal despite not seeing drugs or money change hands. The Court held this was not enough to establish reasonable suspicion because the information from the informant was generalized, there was little testimony regarding the informant’s reliability, the officers had not seen any drugs or found any drugs relating to the two interactions they previously witnessed the defendant in, and the two handshakes were not suspicious where the defendant was outside a store in broad daylight and otherwise not acting suspiciously. The Court warned that “the Fourth Amendment does not allow the Government to label a person as a drug dealer and then view all of their actions through that lens.”

Fourth Circuit becomes Fourth US Court of Appeals to Hold Courts Have Independent Discretion to Reduce Inmates’ Sentences

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals became the fourth appellate circuit to hold that district courts reviewing an inmate’s motion for sentence reduction under 3582(c)(1)(A) have the independent discretion to determine if there are “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting the requested reduction. The Fourth Circuit joins the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits in recognizing district courts’ broad discretion when reviewing requests for sentence reductions and compassionate release.

United States v. Justin Taylor (4th Cir. October 2020)

The Fourth Circuit held that attempted Hobbs Act robbery, like conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery, does not constitute a “crime of violence” under 924(c) because under the categorical approach an attempt to commit the offense does not invariably require use of force or threat of force.

United States v. Jovon Lovelle Medley (4th Cir. August 2020)

Applying the Rehaif analysis to a defendant who was convicted at trial for unlawful possession of a firearm as a convicted felon, the Fourth Circuit reversed the defendant’s conviction as plain error, holding that the failure to properly advise the defendant of, or charge him with, the element of knowledge of his felon status substantially affected his rights and deprived him of a defense at trial, despite the defendant running from the police, his prior 12-year prison term, and his stipulations at trial regarding his prior conviction and civil rights, .

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