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Decided: February 26, 2014 

The Fourth Circuit held that (1) the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina committed error by denying Janson Strayhorn’s motion for judgment of acquittal with regard to the charges of robbery—in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951—and brandishing a firearm in relation to the robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1); (2) that the district court did not commit error by denying Janson Strayhorn’s motion for judgment of acquittal with regard to the charges of conspiracy to commit robbery—in violation of the Hobbs Act—and using a firearm in relation to the Hobbs Act conspiracy, in violation of § 924; and (3) that the district court committed error by applying an enhanced mandatory minimum to Jimmy Strayhorn’s sentence for brandishing a firearm—in violation of § 924—without instructing the jury on the element of brandishing.  The Fourth Circuit therefore affirmed the judgment of the district court in part, reversed it in part, and vacated and remanded the cases for resentencing.

In August 2010, two robbers arrived at P & S Coins (P & S)—a North Carolina store—in a cream-colored Cadillac.  While one robber held the store’s owner at gunpoint, the other robber tied up the owner, binding his legs with duct tape and tying his hands with zip ties.  The robbers took coins and a revolver from the store.  Two months later, Jimmy Strayhorn—who had been detained as a suspect for unrelated crimes—made several phone calls to Thania Woodcock (Woodcock), his girlfriend.  The police monitored his calls and discovered that, to obtain money for bond, Jimmy Strayhorn had asked Janson Strayhorn—his brother—to rob a Butner, North Carolina store called All American Coins and Collectibles (All American Coins).  Jimmy Strayhorn’s calls were forwarded to the Butner police.  From Jimmy Strayhorn’s phone conversations, the Butner police knew that the robbers would probably drive a Cadillac belonging to Woodcock.  In late October 2010, a Butner police officer saw a Cadillac drive slowly past All American Coins; after observing certain suspicious behavior, Butner called in the license plate of the car and confirmed that he was following the “targeted Cadillac.”  He then stopped the Cadillac and searched it with another officer.  The officers found that, inter alia, Janson Strayhorn drove the car and the Cadillac was registered to Woodcock.  The officers also discovered two revolvers in the car—one of which was the revolver stolen from P & S.  The officers arrested Janson Strayhorn.  After obtaining a search warrant, the officers search Woodcock’s house, finding a coin taken from P & S; black zip ties, like those used to tie up the owner of P & S; and ammunition.  While Jimmy Strayhorn resided at Woodcock’s house—at least occasionally—Janson Strayhorn did not.

With regard to the P & S robbery, Janson and Jimmy Strayhorn (collectively, the defendants) were each charged with robbery under the Hobbs Act (Count 1) and using a firearm by brandishing it, in violation of § 924 (Count 2).  With regard to the incidents related to All American Coins, the defendants were each charged with conspiracy to commit robbery (Count 3)—again under the Hobbs Act—and using a firearm in relation to this conspiracy (Count 4).  At trial, the owner of P & S identified Jimmy Strayhorn as one of the people who had robbed the store; however, the owner failed to identify Janson Strayhorn.  Furthermore, though a fingerprint expert testified that the duct tape used to bind the owner had a partial fingerprint belonging to Janson Strayhorn on it, the expert “could not determine when that fingerprint had been imprinted on the tape and [testified] that such a print could remain on the tape for as long as a year.”  The jury found the defendants guilty on all counts.  The district court denied the defendants’ motions for a judgment of acquittal, the defendants appealed.  On appeal, Janson Strayhorn challenged the sufficiency of the evidence used to support his convictions, and Jimmy Strayhorn challenged his sentence for the § 924 offense charged in Count 2.

The Fourth Circuit noted that Janson Strayhorn’s convictions on Count 1 and Count 2 were based primarily on the duct-tape fingerprint—and that duct tape is an easily movable object.  Regarding challenges to convictions supported by fingerprints on easily moveable objects, the Fourth Circuit stated that “in the absence of evidence regarding when the fingerprints were made, the government must marshal sufficient additional incriminating evidence so as to allow a rational juror to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”  The Fourth Circuit then noted that, while Janson Strayhorn was in possession of a stolen gun, “the gun was no longer recently stolen by the time Butner police stopped [him]”; furthermore, the gun was “small light, and easily transferable,” and the presence of the gun in the Cadillac could be explained by Jimmy Strayhorn’s participation in the P & S robbery, combined with Janson Strayhorn’s use Woodcock’s car to case All American Coins.  The Fourth Circuit also rejected the Government’s assertion that the conspiracy to rob All American Coins indicated Janson Strayhorn’s guilt with regard to the P & S robbery, terming this assertion “an impermissible propensity argument.”  Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit found that the use of the Cadillac in both incidents and the presence of the zip ties in Woodcock’s house were not probative of Janson Strayhorn’s guilt with regard to the P & S robbery.  However, the Fourth Circuit found that substantial evidence supported Janson Strayhorn’s convictions on Count 3 and Count 4, as the transcripts of Jimmy Strayhorn’s phone calls indicated that Janson Strayhorn agreed to rob All American Coins, the transcript of a phone conversation between Janson Strayhorn and Woodcock after his arrest indicated his involvement with the conspiracy, and Janson Strayhorn took certain steps in furtherance of the conspiracy.  With regard to Jimmy Strayhorn’s sentence as to Count 2, the Fourth Circuit noted that, per Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151, facts that increase the mandatory minimum sentence are “elements” and have to be submitted to the jury.  The Fourth Circuit found that, while the jury instructions “reflected that brandishing was one method of ‘using’ the firearm,” the district court did not inform the jury that brandishing was an element of the offense—therefore making Jimmy Strayhorn’s enhanced mandatory minimum sentence impermissible under Alleyne.

Full Opinion

– Stephen Sutherland