Week Twenty-Nine

Week of July 17, 2017 through July 21, 2017

United States v. German de Jesus Ventura (King 7/18/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in maintaining the same length of the criminal defendant’s overall prison sentence of 420 months for several charges related to prostitution after one of the defendant’s offenses had been vacated. The court concluded that the district court did not act vindictively because the defendant’s overall sentence was not increased and the district court had wide discretion during sentencing to determine what evidence to consider and was permitted to review the overall sentence de novo. The court affirmed the district court’s sentence of the criminal defendant. Full Opinion

United States v. Lamar Burns-Johnson (Keenan 7/18/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that North Carolina’s offense of armed robbery qualifies as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). In defining a violent felony, the ACCA previously included a residual clause, but this clause was struck down as unconstitutionally vague, so the defendant here argued that armed robbery no longer met the definition of a violent felony. However, the Fourth Circuit determined that armed robbery still “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force,” thereby affirming the district court’s ruling that armed robbery qualifies as a violent felony. Full Opinion

Murray Energy Corporation v. EPA (Floyd 7/18/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that a federal court’s authority does not extend to review of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) management of the employment impact of the Clean Air Act’s (“CAA”) administration and enforcement. While the CAA imposed a continuous duty on the EPA to evaluate the employment impact of the CAA’s administration and enforcement, the CAA left the EPA with considerable discretion in managing its duty. The court found that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case because the CAA only authorized suits where an Administrator failed to perform a non-discretionary duty. Consequently, the court vacated the district court’s judgment, which formerly found that the EPA failed in its management of the employment impacts of the CAA’s administration and enforcement. Full Opinion

Richard Sibert v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. (Niemeyer 7/17/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that a military servicemember who obtained a mortgage obligation while serving in the Navy and then reenlisted later in the Army was not exempt from foreclosure. The court found that the plaintiff did not meet the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act’s (SCRA) requirement for exemption from foreclosure, notably that the mortgage obligation must originate “before the period of the servicemember’s military service.” The plaintiff contended that the mortgage obligation originated before the period of his military service in the Army and that a court order was required under the SCRA before any foreclosure.  Because a court order was not obtained, the plaintiff asserted that the foreclosure was invalid.  However, the court determined that the SCRA was only intended to grant protections to obligations when a military member was not in military service, so it held that a court order was not required and that the foreclosure was valid, thereby affirming the district court. Full Opinion


Highlight Case

United States v. German de Jesus Ventura, No. 15-4808

Decided: July 18, 2017

The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in maintaining the same length of the criminal defendant’s overall prison sentence of 420 months for several charges related to prostitution after one of the defendant’s offenses had been vacated. The court concluded that the district court did not act vindictively because the defendant’s overall sentence was not increased and the district court had wide discretion during sentencing to determine what evidence to consider and was permitted to review the overall sentence de novo. The court affirmed the district court’s sentence of the criminal defendant.

The defendant appealed the district court’s decision, and as a result of this first appeal, the court vacated a conviction for one of the defendant’s offenses which accounted for 60 months of his overall sentence. When the defendant was resentenced, the district court increased the sentence for another offense so that the defendant was still sentenced to a total of 420 months in prison. The defendant argued that the lower court contravened the mandate rule and that the defendant was entitled to a 60-month reduction of his sentence, but the court determined that the mandate rule was not violated. The mandate rule bars a lower court from considering questions that a mandate has settled.  However, the court noted that a lower court may consider a resentencing issue de novo on remand. Under the “sentencing package doctrine,” when a court of appeals vacates a sentence, that sentence becomes void and may be completely revisited by a district court on remand. Because sentences in a multicount indictment very likely are part of an overall plan, the court asserted that a district court should be free to review the overall plan.

The defendant then argued that the district court acted vindictively in sentencing him to 420 months, but the Fourth Circuit determined that the district court was not acting vindictively because the overall sentence was not increased. The defendant contended that, when viewing the sentence using a count-by-count approach, the district court increased his sentence from 360 months to 420 months. The defendant contended that this increased sentence was an act of vindictiveness, which was forbidden. However, the Fourth Circuit uses the aggregate package approach rather than a count-by-count approach. Under this approach, the overall sentence was not increased, so the Fourth Circuit determined that the district court was not acting vindictively. The defendant then argued that the new sentence is unreasonable because the court considered facts related to the vacated offense and the defendant’s conduct when he was incarcerated. The defendant asserted that the district court “treaded on ground reserved for a jury.” However, even if certain facts were not determined by a jury, a district court may still use those facts in determining a sentence. Therefore, the district court did not act improperly when it used facts related to the vacated offense.

The defendant also argued that the district court improperly relied upon the defendant’s conduct while he was incarcerated. The defendant received five disciplinary actions while incarcerated, and one was for threatening a prison officer. However, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court had “wide discretion” in considering evidence and that it did not act unreasonably.

Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s sentence of the criminal defendant.

Full Opinion

Jonathan D. Todd

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