Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In-Store Movement During Roberry Supports Abduction Enhancement

US v. Osborne: Although the court sets out the facts in great detail, the short version is that Osborne robbed a Walgreen's pharmacy in Virginia. He was driven there, and presumably away, by a co-defendant, McCrae, which whom he discussed the robbery beforehand. During the robbery, Osborne brandished a knife as a means to get the pharmacist and technician to provide him with pills and to accompany him to the front door as he escaped. Both Osborne and McCrae were charged with conspiracy to rob a pharmacy, robbery of a pharmacy, and possession of OxyContin with intent to distribute. Osborne pleaded guilty to the robbery and possession charge, but went to trial on the conspiracy charge and was convicted (as was McCrae on all three counts). He was sentenced to 151 months, the top of the advisory Guideline range.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed both his conviction and sentence. Regarding the conviction for conspiracy, Osborne argued that while the evidence was sufficient to support his role in the robbery and possession, it wasn't sufficient to prove that he conspired with McCrae. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, noting evidence of their cooperation before and after the robbery (some of it provided by Osborne's son, who overheard the preparations). As to sentencing, first Osborne argued that his Guideline should not have been enhanced for abducting the pharmacist and technician because he did not take them out of the Walgreens - in other words, to "another location." The court rejected that argument (partly relying on previous unpublished Fourth Circuit authority) and concluded that moving the pair from one part of the store to another met the definition. Second, the court rejected Osborne's argument that a prior conviction for shoplifting should not have been included in his criminal history score.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Office Experience Can Aid in Production of Reasonable Suspicion

US v. McCoy: McCoy & his girlfriend pulled into the parking lot of a grocery store in Loudon County, Virginia, that was under the surveillance of Loconti, an experienced narcotics officer. Loconti knew that a majority of drug deals in Loudon County took place in those kinds of parking lots. A tow truck pulled into the lot near McCoy. The driver of the truck and McCoy exchanged words and eventually drove down the street about 1/4 mile to another grocery store parking lot. Loconti followed. In the new lot, McCoy got out of his car, got in the truck for a few minutes, got out, and returned to his car. Loconti was convinced that a drug deal had just taken place. As McCoy walked back to his car, Loconti approached him and signaled the truck to stop. Instead, it sped away.

Loconti approached McCoy and, eventually, placed him in handcuffs. A pat-down search of McCoy produced nothing, but McCoy's girlfriend helpfully responded to Loconti's query admitting that McCoy had participated in a drug deal. A search of the car produced marijuana and cash, which McCoy admitted were his and that he had crack cocaine concealed in his hindquarters. That evidence was supplemented by a search of McCoy's home several months later. McCoy filed a motion to suppress that evidence after being charged with drug and firearms charges. The district court granted the motion, holding that when Loconti seized McCoy, he lacked reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal conduct was afoot.

The Government appalled and the Fourth Circuit reversed, 2-1. The court held that the district court improperly focused on what the officer didn't know about what was going on, rather than the totality of the information he did have. Particularly important to the court was Loconti's previous experience with drug deals occurring in grocery story parking lots. The myriad of potentially innocent behaviors that Loconti observed were sufficient, with his experience, to support reasonable suspicion. However, the court was quick to note that "[t]his is not to say that a wealth of experience will overcome a complete absence of articulable facts." District Judge Wilson concurred, emphasizing the importance of the fact that the truck sped away when Loconti went to intercept McCoy. Judge Gregory dissented, arguing that the majority's "holding renders law enforcement - not the courts - the sole arbiter of what qualifies as reasonable suspicion."

Exigent Circumstances Don't Save Warrantless Search of Home

US v. Mowatt: Mowatt was at his apartment when police came and knocked on the door. The police were sent there after receiving complaints about loud music and the odor of marijuana. After they knocked, the officers heard someone moving around inside. The music was turned down and they could hear the sound of an aerosol being sprayed. Mowatt talked the officers, but refused to open the door. After being reported ordered to do so, Mowatt cracked the door, but refused to let the officers inside and asked if they had a warrant. Officers were concerned that Mowatt might have a weapon in his hand, as it was shielded from view. They then forced their way into the apartment and wrestled Mowatt to the floor. He wasn't holding anything in his hand. A quick check of the apartment uncovered a gun. By that time, Mowatt struggled with the officer(s) restraining him, which ended when he was thrown against the refrigerator, which conveniently opened. Inside, officers saw several hundred pink pills. They were later seized (pursuant to a search warrant) and determined to be ecstasy. The search also uncovered more guns, body armor, and $20,000 in cash.

After being indicted for drug and firearms offenses, Mowatt moved to suppress the evidence against him, arguing that the officers engaged in an unlawful warrantless search when they barged into his home. The district court denied the motion, holding that the officers had probable cause to arrest Mowatt for marijuana possession and that a warrant wasn't required because they arrived at the apartment to "resolve a noise complaint" rather than search for drugs. Mowatt went to trial, was convicted on all counts, and was sentenced to 197 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit unanimously reversed. First, the court rejected the Government's argument that forcing Mowatt to open his door and thus being able to see inside was not a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Second, the court held that even if the officers had probable cause when the door was opened, they lacked a warrant and there were no exigent circumstances to justify proceeding without one. Third, the court held that the search warrant eventually obtained (after the forced entry, struggle with Mowatt, etc.) was tainted by the illegal entry. Mowatt's convictions were reversed and his case returned to the district court for further proceedings.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Findings Needed to Support 3A1.4 Terrorism Enhancement

US v. Chandia: Chandia was charged with conspiracy and a substantive count of providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy and substantive count of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. The charges arose from Chandia's ties to a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), with whom he attended a training camp in Pakistan. He also provided assistance to an LET member who came to the United States to secure equipment and support for LET. After a jury trial, Chandia was convicted on all counts except the substantive count of providing material support to terrorists. At sentencing, the district court applied the terrorism enhancement under USSG 3A1.4, jumping Chandia's advisory Guideline range from 63-78 months to 360 months to life. The district court imposed the statutory maximum sentence of 180 months in prison.

On appeal, Chandia challenged both his convictions and sentence. The Fourth Circuit rejected the arguments Chandia raised with regards to his conviction. First, the court concluded the affidavits submitted to obtain warrants to search Chandia's home and car were sufficient to support probable cause and that Chandia was not entitled to a Franks hearing on the issue of inaccuracies/omissions from those affidavits (using a plain error standard because Chandia did not specifically request a Franks hearing in the district court). Second, the court rejected several constitutional arguments against the statutes under which Chandia was convicted, relying on the prior resolution of those issues in US v. Hammoud, 381 F.3d 316 (4th Cir. 2004). Third, the court rejected Chandia's argument that the counts on which he was convicted were duplicitous and violated due process. Finally, the court rejected Chandia's argument that the district court erred by allowing the Government to play for the jury excepts of a CD-ROM video glorifying the 9-11 attacks that was found in Chandia's home. Even if it was error (which the court doesn't say), the error would be harmless given the limited roll of the excerpts at trial.

While sustaining Chandia's convictions, the court did vacate his 180-month sentence. The court concluded that, although the district court utilized the Guideline range provided by the 3A1.4 terrorism enhancement, it failed to make specific findings supporting the enhancement. The court rejected the idea that the mere fact that Chandia was convicted of one material support count justified the enhancement. In a footnote, the court noted that it was not resolving the issue of the proper burden of proof for 3A1.4 enhancements (preponderance of the evidence v. clear and convincing evidence), leaving the issue open for a case "where we are presented to relevant findings."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Notice of Variance Must Prompt Parties to Make Arguments

US v. Fancher: Fancher was investigated by police after reports that he had sexually molested a nine-year-old girl. During the investigation, authorities uncovered numerous images of child pornography in Fancher's home. Fancher pleaded guilty to one count of possession of child porn. Due to a previous conviction for sexual abuse of a minor, Fancher's statutory sentence was between 15 and 40 years in prison.

Prior to sentencing, the probation officer calculated Fancher's Guideline range to be 180-210 months. The PSR mentioned "mitigating" factors and also that "[g]iven the defendant's criminal history and the ages [of] and relationship to his victims[,] the Court may which to consider a sentence pursuant to [3553(a)] to meet the objectives of sentencing." After the PSR was completed, the probation officer was contacted by the mother of a 16-year-old girl to whom Fancher had been writing letters while incarcerated proclaiming his love for her and requesting (among other things) that she send him pictures. At sentencing, Fancher argued for a 180-month sentence, while the Government sought a 210-month sentence. Concluding that Fancher was beyond rehabilitation, the district court imposed the maximum sentence of 480 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated Fancher's sentence. Applying US v. Spring, 305 F.3d 276 (4th Cir. 2002), the court held that while the language in the PSR was sufficient to meet the notice requirements of Rule 32(h), it was not adequate to prompt the parties to present arguments about the propriety of a variance. In Spring's words, the PSR "informed counsel that it needed to prepare arguments on this issue, but not that they needed to present them." Applying harmless error review (Fancher objected to the lack of notice after sentence was imposed) and concluding that, based on post-sentencing proffers made by counsel, that the district court's concerns would have been addressed (if not alleviated), the court held that the error was not harmless. Fancher's case was remanded for resentencing.

Nice work by the FPD office in the Northern District of WV on the win!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Successive Habeas Rule Clarified

US v. Blackstock: Blackstock was convicted in 1993 and filed a request seeking discovery from the Government in 2001. The district court, without notifying Blackstock, treated that filing as a petition under 28 USC 2255, because it mentioned that Blackstock's conviction was no longer valid under Apprendi. The district court denied the motion. In 2005, Blackstock filed a motion to set aside the district court's order, along with a 2255 petition. The district court denied both, holding that the 2255 petition was a "second or successive" petition and therefore prohibited under the AEDPA.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed, agreeing with Blackstock that the court's prior decision in US v. Emmanuel, 288 F.3d 644 (4th Cir. 2002), was not consistent with the Supreme Court's later decision in US v. Castro, 540 U.S. 375 (2003). Castro makes notice mandatory in cases like Blackstock's, whereas Emmanuel contained an exception to the notice rule that the district court had applied.

Anonymous Tip Not Sufficiently Corroborated to Support Stop

US v. Reaves: Reaves was stopped in his car on the basis of an anonymous tip that a drug deal had taken place. At the time of the stop, Reaves admitted that he had a gun and was subsequently charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He moved to suppress the gun, arguing that the tip wasn't sufficiently corroborated to provide a basis for the stop of his car. The tip was phoned in to 911 by a person who resolutely refused to provide her name. She claimed to have witnessed what she thought was a drug deal and that one of the folks involved had a gun. The gun belonged to a person driving a "plum-colored" Mercedes, which the tipster proceeded to follow and provide updates as to the its location to the 911 dispatcher (who relayed the info to the officer who eventually made the stop). The tip was the sole basis for the stop. The district court denied the motion and Reaves was convicted after a jury trial.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed. Applying the Supreme Court's decision in Florida v. J.L (as filtered through the Fourth's decision in Perkins), the court easily concluded that the anonymous tip was not sufficiently corroborated to provide a basis for the stop, rejecting several Government arguments to the contrary. First, the court rejected the Government's argument that the caller provided "predictive" details of Reaves's route, correctly noting that "predicting" involves some time of projection into the future, not merely the passing on of information gleaned from following someone. Second, the court rejected the Government's argument that the tip gained reliability from the caller's staying on the line with the dispatcher, even though she wanted to remain anonymous. Finally, the court concluded that the fact that the caller was providing a "nearly contemporaneous" report of criminal activity was not sufficient to support the stop.

Congrats to the FPD office in Baltimore on the victory!