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U.S. v. MCFADDEN, NO. 13-4349

Decided: May 19, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

In July 2011, law enforcement in Virginia began investigating the distribution of synthetic stimulants commonly known as “bath salts.” The investigation eventually led them to Lois McDaniel who agreed to assist law enforcement in gathering evidence against her supplier, Stephen McFadden. After multiple recorded telephone conversations and interception of packages, McFadden was arrested in February 2012. McFadden was convicted of several counts of conspiring to distribute controlled substance analogues and distributing controlled substance analogues. McFadden appealed to the Fourth Circuit and then to the Supreme Court, which vacated the original opinion of the Fourth Circuit on this case on the grounds that the jury instructions given at trial improperly omitted elements relating to McFadden’s state of mind. The Supreme Court then remanded this case back to the Fourth Circuit to consider whether the error in jury instruction was harmless.

The Fourth Circuit examined the instructions and found that the erroneous jury instructions constituted harmless error with respect to McFadden’s convictions under Counts One, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine of the superseding indictment. The Fourth Circuit found that the error was not harmless as to Counts Two, Three and Four however. The Fourth Circuit determined that an erroneously omitted jury instruction may be deemed harmless error if the omitted element is supported by overwhelming evidence admitted at trial. First, the Fourth Circuit held that the evidence was sufficient to permit, but not so overwhelmingly to compel, the jury to find that McFadden knew that federal law regulated the bath salts as controlled substances. Therefore, the government did not meet this showing. Accordingly, the government did not meet its burden of establishing harmless error with respect to Counts Two, Three and Four. The Fourth Circuit then found that the government did meet its burden of establishing harmless error as to Counts Five through Nine due to the recorded conversations. The Fourth Circuit thus vacated and remanded Counts Two, Three and Four for further proceedings in the district court. The Fourth Circuit also remanded the convictions on Count One, and Counts Five through Nine, to the district court for resentencing.

Accordingly, the judgment of the district court is affirmed in part, vacated in part, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Michael W. Rabb