Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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In 2010, Lancaster was sentenced to 180 months’ imprisonment for conspiracy to traffic in crack cocaine and cocaine powder. In 2020 he sought a sentence reduction under the First Step Act of 2018, 132 Stat. 5194, to the sentence that would have been imposed, had the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 been in effect at the time of his offense. The district court denied Lancaster’s motion, concluding on the merits that it would have imposed the same sentence on him had the Fair Sentencing Act been in effect. The court did not recalculate Lancaster’s Guidelines range and apparently did not consider the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors in light of current circumstances. Lancaster argued that he no longer qualifies as a career offender for purposes of sentencing.The Fourth Circuit vacated. Additional analysis was required. Lancaster was convicted under 21 U.S.C. 846, a statute for which sentences were modified by the Fair Sentencing Act, and is eligible for discretionary relief under the First Step Act, which made the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. The court was, therefore, required to consider that Lancaster no longer could be sentenced as a career offender and consider section 3553's factors. View "United States v. Lancaster" on Justia Law

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About a year after High was released from state prison, where he had served 20 years for murder, he began trafficking in illegal drugs. In 2017-2018, he distributed at least 168 grams of crack cocaine, 6.61 grams of marijuana, and 10,325 grams of cocaine powder. He pleaded guilty to distributing crack cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime and was sentenced to 84 months’ imprisonment, which represented a downward departure under U.S.S.G. 5K1.1 of over 60 months based on "substantial assistance." In May 2020, 16 months after his sentencing, High (age 42) sought compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A). He cited as “extraordinary and compelling reasons” the Covid-19 pandemic confronting the prison system and argued that he is not a danger to the community. High had been diagnosed with cardiovascular conditions. The government noted the absence of any infection at the institution where he was confined.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. The district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to reduce High’s term of imprisonment by approximately two-thirds, based on its consideration of the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors. The court was aware of the arguments, considered the relevant sentencing factors, and had an “intuitive reason” for adhering to what was already a below-Guidelines sentence; its explanation for denying High’s motion for compassionate release was adequate. View "United States v. High" on Justia Law

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Officer Richardson stopped a car driven by Davis because he believed that the vehicle’s windows were tinted too dark. Davis had a history of felony drug charges and convictions. Other officers arrived. About three minutes into the stop, while Richardson talked with the other officers, Davis drove off without his license or proof of insurance, which were in Richardson’s possession. The officers gave chase. Davis raced through a residential neighborhood until he reached a dead-end, drove between houses and into someone’s backyard, got out of his vehicle carrying a backpack, ran into a swamp, and got stuck. Richardson drew his service weapon and ordered Davis to come out.Davis returned to dry land, dropping the backpack, and lying down on his stomach. Richardson patted Davis down and found a large amount of cash. Richardson handcuffed Davis, placed him under arrest, then unzipped the backpack and discovered large amounts of cash and plastic bags containing what appeared to be cocaine. A search of Davis’s vehicle revealed a digital scale and bundles of cash. The officers also received a report that Davis tossed a firearm out of his car window, then recovered a handgun from Davis’s path through the residential area. The district court denied Davis’s motion to suppress.The Fourth Circuit vacated. Incident to an arrest, a vehicle may be searched without a warrant if it was reasonable for the police to believe that the arrestee “could have accessed his car at the time of the search.” The court extended that holding to the search of the backpack. Davis was handcuffed and lying on his stomach during the search. View "United States v. Davis" on Justia Law

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Arlington filed suit against opioid manufacturers, distributers, and pharmacies, including the ESI Defendants, in state court for causing, or contributing to, the opioid epidemic in Arlington County. The ESI Defendants removed to federal court pursuant to the federal officer removal statute, claiming that their operation of the TRICARE Mail Order Pharmacy (TMOP) as a subcontractor to a contract between their corporate affiliate and the Department of Defense (DOD) satisfied each of the statute's requirements. The district court granted Arlington's motion to remand back to state court.The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the ESI defendants satisfied the requirements of the federal officer removal statute. The court concluded that the ESI Defendants met their burden of showing that they were "acting under" DOD in operating the TMOP in accordance with the DOD contract. Although the district court did not address the other two requirements of the federal officer removal statute—possession of a colorable federal defense and a causal relationship between the government-directed conduct and the plaintiffs' claims—the court found that judicial economy favors resolution of those questions without a time-consuming and costly remand. On the merits, the court concluded that the ESI Defendants also satisfied these two requirements. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "The County Board of Arlington County v. Express Scripts Pharmacy, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against his former employer, the City of Newport News, alleging that it failed to accommodate his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Plaintiff alleged that the City concluded that he could not perform the essential functions of his job as a detective and then offered him the options of either retiring early or accepting reassignment to a civilian position he did not want. Plaintiff reluctantly retired.The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the City, concluding that it is generally inappropriate for an employer to unilaterally reassign a disabled employee to a position the employee does not want when another reasonable accommodation exists that would allow the disabled employee to remain in their current, preferred position. The court clarified that it did not hold that an employer can never reassign an employee when there exists a reasonable accommodation that will keep the employee in their current and preferred position. This broad question was not before the court. Nor should this opinion be read in any way to restrict the ability of employers and employees to agree to a voluntary transfer. Rather, the court simply reiterated that reassignment is strongly disfavored when an employee can still do their current job with the assistance of a reasonable accommodation, and that reassignment should therefore be held "in reserve for unusual circumstances." View "Wirtes v. City of Newport News" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, the owner of a chain of pharmacies in Maryland and nearby states, was the subject of a Medicaid fraud prosecution. After the district court dismissed the charges against plaintiff, he filed suit seeking compensatory and punitive damages from multiple defendants. At issue on appeal are two of the district court's preliminary rulings.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the federal constitutional claims, concluding that these claims would extend the Bivens remedy into a new context, and that special factors counsel against an extension to cover intertwined allegations of wrongdoing by prosecutors and criminal investigators in plaintiff's prosecution. However, the court reversed the district court's determination that the state-law claims can move forward against Prosecutor Pascale. Rather, the court found that absolute prosecutorial immunity bars the claims against her. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part and reversed in part, remanding for further proceedings. View "Annappareddy v. Pascale" on Justia Law

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Petitioner filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. 2254, seeking relief from his convictions in Maryland state court for attempted first degree murder, first degree assault, use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence, and second degree assault. Petitioner's conviction stemmed from domestic abuse incidents involving his ex-wife where he ultimately shot her.Petitioner claims that he is entitled to habeas relief because (1) he did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his right to a jury trial, in violation of Patton v. United States, 281 U.S. 276 (1930); (2) the prosecution suppressed material evidence, in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963); and (3) he received ineffective assistance from his legal counsel, in violation of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The district court granted relief in part on the Patton and Brady claims, dismissing the Strickland claims without prejudice.The Fourth Circuit held that the district court's decision to grant petitioner habeas relief runs contrary to the deference that federal courts are required to afford state court adjudications of federal constitutional claims. In regard to the Patton claim, the court concluded that the state court's adjudication of petitioner's challenge to his waiver was not unreasonable under the standards of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The court explained that petitioner failed to make a plain showing that his waiver was not knowing and voluntary.In regard to the Brady claims, the court concluded that petitioner was not entitled to relief in regard to his paid informant claim, more lenient treatment claim, claims arising out of the government witness and the ex-wife's affidavit, as well as petitioner's claim regarding the alleged confession of other deaths. Finally, because the district court declined to consider petitioner's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland, and dismissed them without prejudice, the court also vacated this judgment. Accordingly, the court vacated and remanded for further proceedings. View "Horner v. Nines" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2241. Petitioner claims that, pursuant to United States v. Wheeler, 886 F.3d 415 (4th Cir. 2018), the district court was permitted to address the merits of his petition.The court declined to hold that the explanation in Mathis v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2243 (2016), about how to determine whether parts of a statute are "elements or means" changed this circuit's substantive law applying the modified categorical approach to South Carolina third degree burglary. The court explained that, to the extent petitioner contends Mathis changed settled substantive Supreme Court law, Mathis itself made clear that it was not changing, but rather clarifying, the law. To the extent petitioner contends Mathis changed settled Fourth Circuit law, the court rejected such contentions. Furthermore, petitioner's arguments relying on three other circuit cases failed because these cases do not utilize a test like Wheeler. Therefore, petitioner cannot satisfy prong two of the Wheeler test. View "Ham v. Breckon" on Justia Law

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After the DEA terminated Darek and Lisa Kitlinski's employment based on their refusal to participate in an internal investigation into their own allegations of misconduct by the DEA, the Kitlinskis alleged that the DEA terminated Darek in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), and that the DEA terminated Lisa in retaliation for her support of Darek’s USERRA claims against the DEA. The Kitlinskis also claim that the DEA retaliated against them for their prior protected activity in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the DEA, concluding that the Kitlinskis offer no evidence that Darek's military service or his prior USERRA-protected activity was a motivating factor in his termination. Furthermore, even assuming that Armstrong v. Index Journal Co., 647 F.2d 441, 448 (4th Cir. 1981), applies here, the court has little difficulty concluding that the DEA's interest in ensuring its employees' full participation in internal investigations outweighs any interest Lisa had in promoting USERRA's nondiscriminatory purpose. The court also concluded that no reasonable factfinder could conclude that the DEA terminated the Kitlinskis' employment in retaliation for engaging in protected activity. The court explained that the Kitlinskis offer no evidence showing that the DEA terminated their employment for any reason other than their conduct during the OPR investigation. The court rejected the Kitlinskis' remaining claims. View "Kitlinski v. Department of Justice" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's Title IX claim against the Visitors of Virginia State University and his Fourteenth Amendment claims against a university administrator. Plaintiff's claims arose from an altercation with a former girlfriend in a VSU dormitory.The court adopted the Seventh Circuit's approach, which closely tracks the text of Title IX, asking merely "do the alleged facts, if true, raise a plausible inference that the university discriminated against [the student] on the basis of sex?" By adopting this approach, the court merely emphasized that the text of Title IX prohibits all discrimination on the basis of sex. The court clarified that inherent in this approach is a requirement that a Title IX plaintiff adequately plead causation—that is, a causal link between the student’s sex and the university’s challenged disciplinary proceeding. The court concluded that plaintiff's Title IX claim was properly dismissed where there is no plausible inference that plaintiff's gender was the but-for cause of his treatment under VSU's disciplinary proceedings. Likewise, plaintiff's equal protection claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983 fails for largely the same reasons. In regard to plaintiff's due process claim under section 1983, the court concluded that the administrator is entitled to qualified immunity because there was no clearly established right to continued enrollment in higher education. View "Sheppard v. Visitors of Virginia State University" on Justia Law