Fourth Circuit Survey

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Week of November 5, 2018 through November 9, 2018

United States v. Ketter (Motz 11/8/2018): The Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s variance from sentencing guidelines in its sentencing of a defendant, finding that the variance did not affect any substantial rights of the defendant when the judge’s reasoning for the variance was explicit in the record. The Court ruled, employing a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard, that any error in the form of a variance from sentencing guidelines was harmless, because the District Court expressly recognized that the defendant, Ketter, had “overserved his time,” and, therefore, the variance did not affect his substantial rights. Thus, the Fourth Circuit denied the appellee’s challenge and affirmed the sentence of the district court. Full Opinion.

United States v. Thomas (Harris 11/8/2018): The Fourth Circuit found that evidence found in a suspected child pornographer’s phone was admissible, under the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule, when the searching officer had “an objectively reasonable belief” that there was probable cause for the search and so relied on an issued warrant. Thus, the Court rejected the appellee’s challenge to the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress and affirmed the judgement of the District Court. Full Opinion.

United States v. Birchette (Wilkinson 11/7/2018): The Fourth Circuit held that a district court’s denial of a request for leave to interview jurors for evidence of racial animus was not in error under Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado. Defendant Birchette, convicted of several firearm- and drug-related offenses, appealed his conviction on several evidentiary grounds, including, most prominently, the district court’s denial of his request to interview the jury for evidence of racial animus, a motivating factor that could support overturning his conviction under Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado. Finding that Peña-Rodriguez did not give the defendant a right to interview the jury and finding the other evidentiary rulings to be discretionary, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Birchette’s convictions. Full Opinion.

United States v. Camara (Harris 11/6/2018): The Fourth Circuit held that a jury instruction, which informed the jury that a conviction of criminal conspiracy only requires a determination that the defendant was conspiring with anyone, known or unknown, was constitutional. Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction of defendant Camara, and rejected his appeal. Full Opinion.


Highlight Case

United States v. Thomas, No. 17-4523

Filed: November 8, 2018

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction of the defendant, challenged on appeal on the grounds that the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress constituted reversible error.

Detective Coleman arrested Defendant Thomas on charges of aggravated sexual battery, and seized a cell phone from Thomas during a lawful search incident to that arrest. After Coleman obtained a warrant to search the phone, authorities discovered sexually explicit images and videos involving children, the evidence at issue. At trial, Thomas moved to suppress that evidence, arguing that the affidavit submitted with Coleman’s warrant application was insufficient to establish probable cause for the search. The district court agreed that the affidavit was deficient, but nevertheless denied Thomas’s motion to suppress under the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule articulated in United States v. Leon.

The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court, reasoning that while the affidavit alone did not establish probable cause, additional information known to Coleman was enough to give rise to an objectively reasonable belief that there was probable cause for the search. Under the exclusionary rule, evidence obtained through unconstitutional searches, including those that were not supported by sufficient probable cause, is presumptively inadmissible. In Leon, however, the Supreme Court recognized a good faith exception to that rule, under which evidence obtained by an officer who acts in objectively reasonable reliance on a search warrant will not be suppressed, even if the warrant is later deemed invalid. The Fourth Circuit stated conclusively that in assessing an officer’s objective good faith in executing a search warrant, it may consider facts known to the officer, but inadvertently omitted from a warrant affidavit. In the case of officer Coleman, the Court found ample evidence in the record to establish that the officer’s reliance on the warrant was “objectively reasonable.”

Therefore, the Fourth Circuit did not disturb the district court’s ruling that evidence found in Thomas’s phone was admissible under Leon’s good faith exception to the exclusionary rule. Thus, the Court rejected the appellee’s challenge to the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress and affirmed the judgement of the District Court.

Full Order.

Wilson Daniel