Monday, February 01, 2021

SC Carjacking Is Violent Felony Under ACCA

 US v Croft: Croft pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in 2010. He was sentenced to 188 months under the Armed Career Criminal Act. One of the prior predicate offenses relied upon by the district court was a 2003 conviction in South Carolina for carjacking. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Johnson, Croft filed a 2255 motion arguing that he no longer qualified for sentencing under ACCA because his prior carjacking conviction was not a violent felony. The district court disagreed and denied his motion.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court noted that the South Carolina offense requires that the defendant act “by force and violence or by intimidation.” The issue, therefore, was what “intimidation” meant and whether it encompassed something beyond the threat of violent force. Although the South Carolina courts have not directly defined intimidation, the court held that it did not include such thing as threatening a victim with economic ruin and was restricted to threats of violence against that person. As a result, it met the definition of violent felony under ACCA.

No Franks Hearing Over Informant Credibility Issues

US v. Haas: Haas had several liaisons with a woman named "Sarah" via the website Backpage. During one of these, he told Sarah that he was interested in "younger women" and then later asked if she was interested in "what he was talking about last time." Sarah said she was, but, unbeknownst to Haas, she was working with law enforcement. Haas then showed her "probably like 1500" child pornography images on his laptop. As part of the ensuing investigation, the FBI got pictures of Haas and his home and verified his phone number. After further communication with Haas, during which he responded positively to Sarah's story that she had a friend in Baltimore who had children she would bring to Haas to create child pornography, Haas agreed to meet Sarah and give her $100 to give to her friend. 

On her way to the meeting, Sarah was pulled over for traffic violations by local police, whom she gave a false name (she did manage to get the $100 from Haas). A week later, she told the FBI agent working with her about the traffic stop, her using a false name, and her wish to "resolve the false-identity issue." The agent reached out to local police and Sarah was eventually arrested and charged with lying to police. Later, Sarah made a pair of recorded phone calls with Haas in which he discussed the plan with the friend from Baltimore. The agent obtained two search warrants - one for Haas' home and vehicle, one for his work truck and the laptop found in it - and did not mention in either application Sarah's arrest or lying to police. Myers unsuccessfully sought to suppress the fruits of both searches, seeking a Franks hearing based on the omissions from the warrant applications, and ultimately received a life sentence.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed Haas' conviction, but did vacate his sentence. On the Franks issue, the court held that Haas had not made a sufficient showing to warrant a hearing. Particularly with regard to the omission from the warrant application of Sarah's false statements, the court distinguished this case from its holding in Lull, noting that the informant's lie in that case was to the agent seeking the warrant, not other officers, that there was no evidence Sarah provided false information to the agent in this case, and that her misconduct did not lead the FBI to stop using her as an informant. The court also noted that nothing about Sarah's "unrelated criminal history so undermined her credibility" that it implicated the agent in omitting that information from the warrant application. As to Haas’ sentence, the court concluded that the district court had improperly applied a two-level enhancement because the offense involved a minor under 12 years of age. There was no actual minor involved, and the USSG 2G2.1(b)(1) only allows for fictitious minors to trigger the enhancement if the part is played by a “law enforcement” officer – otherwise, the enhancement only applies when an actual minor is involved. Since Sarah was not a law enforcement officer, the enhancement did not apply in this case.

Probable Cause to Arrest Where Multiple Passengers Disclaim Drugs In Car

 US v. Myers: Myers was the only passenger in a vehicle that was stopped for speeding and due to an overly aggressive window tint. In truth, the car (and Myers) was followed because an officer surveilling a bus stop that was a known locus for drug trafficking saw him get into the car and, based on the car’s travel thereafter, suspected he was involved with drugs. A search of the car uncovered drugs, a firearm, and cell phones. The driver admitted that the gun and phones were his, but both he and Myers disclaimed ownership of the drugs. Both were arrested and Myers was eventually convicted of drug conspiracy and sentenced to 75 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Myers argued that his arrest violated the Fourth Amendment because the officer lacked probable cause. The court relied on the Supreme Court's decision in Pringle, where the court held that when the occupants of a vehicle disclaim ownership in contraband found in the vehicle an officer can conclude that they are working in concert and has probable cause to arrest any (or all) of them. The court rejected Myers' attempt to distinguish Pringle on the grounds that the driver in this case claimed ownership of some of the things in the car and, therefore, it was more likely that the drugs belonged to him, rather than Myers.