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Week 21 (2018)

Week of May 21, 2018 through May 25, 2018

Guevara-Solorzano v. Sessions (Brinkema 5/24/2018): The Fourth Circuit held that an alien’s Tennessee conviction for unlawful possession of marijuana with intent to manufacture, deliver, or sell constitutes both an aggravated felony and a crime involving moral turpitude such that the court did not have jurisdiction under the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”), 8 U.S.C. § 1252(a)(2)(C), to review a removal order. In finding that it lacked jurisdiction to grant the alien relief from the removal order, the court determined it was unable to review underlying justifications for removal from the Board of Immigration Appeals outside of constitutional or procedural issues. Additionally, because the court decided that the alien’s prior conviction amounted to an aggravated felony, it was unable to consider granting relief per a jurisdiction-stripping provision of the INA, 8 U.S.C. § 240A(a). Full Opinion

Rockville Cars, LLC v. City of Rockville, Maryland (Conrad 5/24/2018): Considering a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for denial of due process during a building permit appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that interest in property fails to vest ab initio when obtained through a material misrepresentation or in violation of zoning ordinances. In holding that no property interest attached after a material misrepresentation in a zoning application, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court of Maryland’s (Messitte, J.) dismissal of a § 1983 claim which alleged that the City of Rockville denied the appellant’s due process rights by initiating subsequent alterations in building requirements. Full Opinion

No v. Gorman (Duncan 5/24/2018): The Fourth Circuit held that the Eastern District of Virginia’s Local Bankruptcy Rule 3070-1(C), permitting the Bankruptcy Court to dismiss a case without a hearing upon certification of nonpayment, conflicted with the plain language hearing requirement of 11 U.S.C. § 1307. In so holding, the court reversed the dismissal of the appellant’s Chapter 13 plan and remanded for a hearing in compliance with § 1307. Full Opinion

Highlight Case

United States v. Harris, No. 16-4398

Decided: May 21, 2018

The Fourth Circuit upheld a twenty-year sentence for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, holding that the District Court of South Carolina (Houck, J.) (1) properly considered and dismissed mitigating factors, (2) properly considered and declined to apply a sentencing reduction for acceptance of responsibility, and (3) properly treated a prior North Carolina conviction for second-degree kidnapping as a crime of violence. However, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded for the limited purpose of allowing the defendant to file his sentencing memorandum under seal.

The appellant and defendant, Cristopher Harrris, was a member of a marijuana distribution ring, and in 2011 was arrested with at least eighty-nine marijuana plants in his possession, although the government claimed Harris was in possession of more than one hundred plants. Harris subsequently pleaded guilty to one count of knowingly or intentionally manufacturing marijuana. Before sentencing, Harris fled to Thailand, married a Thai national, and fathered a child with his new wife. Upon Harris’ re-arrest and extradition to the United States, the district court sentenced him to twenty years in prison, determining him to be a career offender, although noting the nationwide trend towards marijuana legalization.

Harris’ conviction was vacated two years later under the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (200), holding that facts which increase sentencing beyond statutory maximums must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt, as the number of marijuana plants was a material sentencing factor not submitted to a jury. Harris subsequently negotiated a new plea and entered an appeal to the Fourth Circuit after the district court again sentenced him to twenty years in prison. Harris challenged his sentence on four grounds.

First, Harris argued that he did not receive full, individualized consideration to which he was constitutionally entitled. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, noting that the district court judge listened to and expressly addressed Harris’ arguments for mitigation and claims that he had become rehabilitated. The Fourth Circuit also highlighted and concurred with the district court’s consideration of nationwide trends towards decriminalization of marijuana offenses. Second, Harris claimed that he should have received a sentence reduction for accepting responsibility for his crime. Noting procedural standards which afford deference to the sentencing judge in this circumstance, the Fourth Circuit furthermore concurred with the district court’s finding that Harris’ flight to Thailand and protracted criminal history could support a conclusion that his efforts towards rehabilitation were unpersuasive and insignificant. Third, Harris disputed the district court’s finding that kidnapping was a crime of violence under North Carolina law. Although second-degree kidnapping does not require injury as an element for conviction in North Carolina, the court held that because the commentary to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines clearly enumerated kidnapping in general as a crime of violence, second-degree kidnapping fell under the broader federal definition of a crime of violence as well. Fourth, Harris argued that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. Pointing to the Supreme Court’s holding in Hutto v. Davis, 454 U.S. 370, 370 (1982), in which a sentence of forty years for possession of nine ounces of marijuana and drug paraphernalia was not grossly disproportionate so as to offend the Eighth Amendment, the Fourth Circuit held that the career offender enhancement as applied to Harris was not facially or in the instant case grossly disproportionate, especially given Harris’ prior conviction for a violent felony.

Finally, the Fourth Circuit considered Harris’ argument that the district court erred in refusing to seal Harris’ sentencing memorandum, which contained private details about his wife and child. Recognizing prior binding decisions privileging privacy interests of family members and minors other than the defendant, the Fourth Circuit agreed with Harris that the district court should have allowed redaction or filing under seal. The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded to allow Harris to file a redacted version of his sentencing memorandum.

Full Opinion

Will Neinast