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Week 11 (2020)

Week of March 23, 2020, through March 27, 2020

United States v. Johnson (Kennan 3/25/20): The Fourth Circuit held a district court’s failure to conduct an evidentiary hearing when the jurors report personal safety concerns related to cell phone photographs may be an abuse of discretion. The Court vacated and remanded the District Court for District of Maryland’s denial of defendant’s joint motion for a new trial.

Full Opinion

United States v. Wass (Wynn 3/25/20): The Fourth Circuit held that the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act’s delegation of authority to the Attorney General concerning registration requirements does not violate the nondelegation doctrine. The Court reversed and remanded the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina’s grant of defendant’s motion to dismiss the grand jury indictment.

Full Opinion

Cybernet, LLC v. David (Wilkinson 3/24/20): The Fourth Circuit held that destruction of property by police officers executing a search warrant did not rise to the level of a Fourth Amendment violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court affirmed the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina’s grant of defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Full Opinion

United States v. Williamson (Wilkinson 3/23/20): The Fourth Circuit held that when sentencing a drug distributor, a district court may include drugs set aside for an accomplice’s personal use as relevant conduct. The Court affirmed the term of imprisonment imposed by the District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia. 

Full Opinion

United States v. Gravatt (Quattlebaum 3/23/20): The Fourth Circuit held that a district court must review on the merits a defendant’s motion for resentencing under the First Step Act of 2018 when the defendant’s sentence involved a covered offense under the Act. The Court vacated and remanded the District Court for the District of South Carolina’s denial of defendant’s motion to reduce his sentence.

Full Opinion

Highlight Case

United States v. Gary (Gregory 3/25/20): The Fourth Circuit held that a defendant may not knowingly or intelligently enter a guilty plea when the defendant does not understand the essential elements of the offense. Further, if a district court accepts such a guilty plea without giving the defendant notice of an element of the offense, the court’s error is structural. The structural error warrants vacating the defendant’s guilty plea and conviction.

In January 2017, defendant was arrested after police officers found a loaded firearm and marijuana in his vehicle during a traffic stop. Defendant was charged under state law with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. In June 2017, defendant encountered police officers in a motel’s parking lot. After smelling an odor of marijuana, the officers approached defendant and another individual. Defendant consented to a search of his vehicle. During this search, the officers found a stolen firearm, marijuana, and large amounts of cash. At the time of his arrests, defendant had a prior felony conviction. Defendant was indicted in federal court and subsequently pled guilty without a plea agreement to two counts of possession of a firearm after having been convicted of a felony. During his plea colloquy, the government recited the facts of each incident and informed defendant of the elements the government would need to prove if the case went to trial. The district court accepted defendant’s guilty plea and sentenced him to 84 months imprisonment.

Defendant appealed his sentence to the Fourth Circuit on the grounds that a recent Supreme Court decision warranted vacating his plea. In Rehaif v. United States, the Supreme Court added an additional element that the government must prove for felon in possession of a firearm convictions. Specifically, the government must show not only that a defendant knew he possessed a firearm, but also that he knew he belonged to a class of persons barred from possessing a firearm.

The Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded defendant’s plea and convictions. The Court reasoned that a standalone error under Rehaif satisfies clear error review because the error is structural, which per se affects substantial rights of a defendant. The Court further reasoned that it must exercise discretion to correct the error because the error seriously affected the fairness, integrity and public reputation of the judicial proceedings.

Full Opinion

Carl Petkoff