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Week 9 (2020)

Week of March 6, 2020 through January 8, 2020

Campbell v. McCarthy (King 3/5/2020): The Fourth Circuit held that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to review the defendant’s employment discrimination claims because pursuant to the Supreme Court’s holding in Department of the Navy v. Egan, “a claim that an adverse employment decision violated a plaintiff’s statutory rights is unreviewable when it ‘necessarily depends upon a review of’ an agency’s security clearance decision.” Below, the district court dismissed the defendant’s Whistleblower claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies but awarded summary judgment to the Army on the Title VII and Age claims. However, the Court vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded for dismissal of the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Egan. Full Opinion

United States v. Moore (Wilkinson 3/4/2020): The Fourth Circuit held that a traffic checkpoint on a county road did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the primary purpose of the checkpoint was to check licenses, automobile registrations, and compliance with motor vehicle laws, and because the checkpoint was reasonable and advanced a significant public interest in road safety. The Court rejected the defendant’s claim that the checkpoint was unlawful merely because the officers did not have a written policy governing operation of the checkpoint. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s denial of the defendant’s suppression motion. Full Opinion

United States v. Jordan (Harris 3/03/2020): First, the Fourth Circuit held that a detective who had reason to believe the defendant was working with armed drug dealers and who was also confronted by the defendant’s brother that pulled up during the traffic stop did not unreasonably prolong the defendant’s detention by waiting eleven minutes for backup to arrive. Second, the Court held that the district court did not commit plain error in admitting evidence relating to a recorded phone call between the defendant and an informant who did not testify at trial because the Fourth Circuit had yet to speak directly on the legal issue of whether an informant who was told to “call…his supplier” was engaging in assertive conduct that would fall within the scope of the Confrontation Clause.  Third, the Court held that the district court did not err in merging the defendant’s two § 924(c) firearms convictions for sentencing purposes because “there is no requirement that multiple and consecutive § 924(c) sentences rest on the use of different firearms or distinct uses of the same firearm.” Finally, the Court held that § 403 of the First Step Act does not apply retroactively because Congress explicitly decided to apply more lenient terms to some pre-Act offenders but not all and because “a sentence is ‘imposed’ when the district court announces it, not when appeals are exhausted.” Accordingly, the Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction and his sentence because the district court did not err in any of its rulings below and because the Court found § 403 of the First Step Act does not apply retroactively.  Full Opinion

Moore v. Stirling (Richardson 3/03/2020): The Fourth Circuit held that new evidence in the form of trial counsel’s purported notes, a declaration from an expert witness with experience in forensics and crime-scene reconstruction who was not contacted before trial, and a declaration from a crime-scene expert whom counsel decided against calling at trial did not fundamentally alter the heart of defendant’s ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims rejected by the state court below. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the defendant’s petition for habeas relief. Full Opinion

Fidrych v. Marriott Int’l, Inc. (Traxler 3/02/2020): First, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court’s order directing that judgment by default be entered against the defendant was not a final judgment of default because the order recognized that the plaintiffs were not seeking a sum certain and did not award any damages. Therefore, because the default judgment was not final, the Court could not set it aside. Second, the Court held that the defendant had insufficient contacts with South Carolina for the state to exercise general jurisdiction because despite having a Certificate of Authority to conduct business in the state, the defendant did not own any of the hotels located in the state and the defendant’s operations in the state were very limited in scope and represented a tiny fraction of the defendant’s overall operations. Third, the Court held that South Carolina could not exercise specific jurisdiction over the defendant because the defendant’s business activity in South Carolina had nothing to do with plaintiff’s claim which arose from an injury in a defendant-affiliated hotel in a foreign country. Fourth, the Court held that sanctions may be imposed even if the court lacks jurisdiction to enter a judgment on the merits against the sanctioned party because “a court’s power to resolve collateral issue extends beyond its power to resolve the underlying case.” Fifth, the Court held that there was insufficient information to review the district court’s decision not to award sanctions because the district court’s analysis of the sanctions issue was “quite abbreviated.” The Court further held that “while a district court need not explain its analysis [for sanctions] in great detail, it must provide an explanation sufficient to reveal the basis for its ruling” so that the court has a sufficient basis to review the district court’s decision. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision to set aside the defendant’s default and also affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction. However, the Court vacated the district court’s denial of sanctions against the defendant for failing to timely answer the complaint and remanded that issue for reconsideration below.

Full Opinion

United States v. Torres-Reyes (Richardson 3/02/2020): The Fourth Circuit held that the district court failed to make a record indicating it addressed the defendant’s non-frivolous arguments for a variance from the sentencing guidelines because the district court “did not describe the circumstances or characteristics present that, in its opinion, would outweigh the circumstances that the defendant argued justified a variance. Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s order and remanded the case for resentencing, but the Court did not express any view as to the merit of the defendant’s arguments for a variance or an appropriate length of sentence. Full Opinion

Highlight Case

United States v. Jones, No. 18-4448

Decided: March 3, 2020

The Fourth Circuit held that a warrant that authorized officers to search “any safes or locked boxes that could aid in the hiding of illegal narcotics” was not overbroad and did not have to be limited in geographic scope because the presence of one lit marijuana cigarette in the kitchen did not negate the fair probability that other evidence of the crime of marijuana possession might be found in the house. Therefore, the Court affirmed the district court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress.

Officers in this case were investigating a complaint at the defendant’s residence and smelled a strong odor of marijuana emanating from inside when the defendant opened the door. The officers arrested the defendant and performed a sweep of the house to make sure no one else was inside. During the sweep they spotted a still-lit marijuana cigarette inside an open trash can in the kitchen. Based on the smell of marijuana and the lit marijuana cigarette, officers applied for and obtained a warrant to search the house that authorized them to search any safes or locked boxes that could aid in the hiding of unlawful drugs. Officers then searched the home and found a handgun in a safe in the defendant’s closet; marijuana, crack cocaine, and items commonly used to package and weigh drugs were also found in the house.

The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that “because the officers located a ‘smoldering marijuana joint’ in the kitchen trash can, they lacked probable cause to believe that there was any other marijuana in the house,” and therefore the warrant should have been limited to search and seize the marijuana cigarette on the trash can. The Court reasoned that the defendant’s understanding of the warrant requirement was “too cramped” because the scope of a warrant complies with the Fourth Amendment as long as there is a “fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime” will be found in the area designated by the warrant.

In this case, the Court said that “common sense indicates that it was fairly likely that the marijuana [the defendant] was smoking was not the only marijuana in the house,” and common sense also indicated that such contraband is also often stored out of sight. The Court distinguished this case from cases the defendant relied on because in those cases, there was only probable cause to conclude that a specific item of evidence or contraband would be found. In this case, evidence showed that the defendant had been using a small amount of marijuana in one room of his house, therefore it was reasonable to conclude that more marijuana or other evidence of possession of was fairly likely to be found elsewhere in the home.

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress.

Full Opinion

William S. Anderson