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Media Alerts - United States v. Naughton a.k.a. Jerms Black -- Fourth Circuit
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September 28, 2015
  United States v. Naughton a.k.a. Jerms Black -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: When "Keeping It Real" Goes Wrong: Fourth Circuit Upholds Warrantless Search of Aspiring Rap Artist's Apartment Because Officers Reasonably Believed Apartment Was Abandoned

Areas of Law: Criminal Law; Criminal Procedure; Search and Seizure; Sentencing

Issues Presented: (1) Whether the district court erred in upholding a warrantless search of an apparently vacant apartment after the landlord told police officers it was abandoned and other factors indicated to police officers that the occupant had abandoned the apartment; (2) whether the district court erred in instructing the jury that conspiracy to commit sex trafficking qualifies as a crime of violence.

Brief Summary: In a unanimous decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that a warrantless search may take place when the attendant circumstances lead police officers to believe a leased apartment has been abandoned, despite the fact that tenancy had not formally expired at the time of the search. The court also found that a prior search violated the Fourth Amendment, but did not justify reversal because the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Finally, the court found that conspiracy to commit sex trafficking is not categorically a crime of violence, therefore, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking cannot be the predicate crime for a 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) conviction.

Extended Summary: In September 2010, police responded to a New York apartment based upon an anonymous 911 call stating that a woman was being held against her will by a man with a firearm. After not receiving an answer by knocking on the door, several officers climbed the fire escape to enter the apartment through a window. The officers did not find anyone in the apartment, but they seized a handgun that was in plain view. It was later established that the searched apartment was leased by Mr. Naughton. Hereinafter, this search will be referred to as the "September search."

Nine months later, on June 2, 2011, two Assistant United States Attorneys from Maryland, a detective from the Montgomery County (Maryland) Police Department, and a detective from the New York City Police Department went to the same apartment to obtain a photograph of the building as part of an investigation. The exterior door was locked, but after ringing several buzzers a woman dressed in a bathrobe answered. She identified herself as the landlord. The officers did not ask the woman to verify that she owned the building.

After further questioning, the woman informed the officers that the apartment was vacant, that Mr. Naughton had been evicted, that he had not returned to the apartment for a couple of weeks, that the locks had been changed, and that a cleaning service was scheduled to clean the apartment the next day. The woman did not have the new keys to open the locked door. She unsuccessfully attempted to obtain them from her sister and co-landlord.

Although the apartment door was locked, two officers climbed the fire escape and entered the apartment through a window at the landlord's suggestion. They observed that the apartment was dirty and in disarray. The officers seized numerous items including condoms and women's clothing. Hereinafter, this search will be referred to as the "June search."

After further investigation, Mr. Naughton was indicted on various sex trafficking charges. He was also charged with brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. Before trial, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland denied Mr. Naughton's motion to suppress the firearm and ammunition seized during the September search, and the items seized during the June search. A jury convicted Mr. Naughton of most of the charges, and the district court sentenced him to 36 years' incarceration, including an 84-month consecutive sentence for brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. Mr. Naughton appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, arguing the district court erred in (1) denying his motion to suppress the gun evidence, because the warrantless searches of his home were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and (2) instructing the jury that sex trafficking is a crime of violence.

Turning first to the June search, the court held that the objective evidence available to the officers at the time of the search indicated Mr. Naughton had abandoned any privacy interest in the apartment, despite the fact that his tenancy had not been formally terminated. According to the court, a warrantless search withstands Fourth Amendment scrutiny if the facts available to the responding officers indicate that the property was abandoned. The court found it immaterial that Mr. Naughton had not formally been evicted from the apartment. Instead, the court explained that the totality of the circumstances, including the landlord's presence and reliability, and the rundown condition of the apartment, made the officer's conclusion that Mr. Naughton had abandoned his tenancy reasonable. This reasonable belief permitted the officers to enter the apartment without a warrant or consent. On this basis, the court affirmed the district court's refusal to suppress evidence seized from the June search.

Next, the court examined Mr. Naughton's appeal from the district court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained during the September search. The court assumed, without deciding, that this search violated Mr. Naughton's Fourth Amendment rights, but further concluded that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The court examined the entire record and concluded that the unconstitutional search did not contribute to Naughton's convictions because of the overwhelming evidence detailing his use of firearms during the sex trafficking enterprise. Several victims of the enterprise testified that Mr. Naughton would use firearms to intimidate them. Further, the government introduced a video and numerous photographs depicting Mr. Naughton brandishing firearms, and an audio recording in which Mr. Naughton referred to his firearms in relation to his sex trafficking enterprise. In light of this evidence, the court affirmed the district court's denial of the suppression motion related to evidence seized from the September search.

Finally, the court addressed Mr. Naughton's challenge to his conviction for brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). In a straightforward application of United States v. Fuertes, No. 13-4755, the court found that the conviction could not stand because conspiracy to commit sex trafficking is not necessarily a crime of violence.

The lower court was not permitted to look at the conduct underlying Mr. Naughton's predicate conviction, but instead must look to whether the predicate offense is categorically a crime of violence. The court explained that the crime of sex trafficking can be committed by means other than physical force, and because any number of non-violent means could be employed, the offense does not involve a substantial risk that a defendant would use physical force. Therefore, the court held 1) that conspiracy to commit sex trafficking is not categorically a crime of violence, 2) that the district court committed plain error when it so convicted Mr. Naughton, and 3) that the error affected Mr. Naughton's substantial rights because he received an 84 month additional sentence, the court vacated the conviction and remanded for re-sentencing.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges King, Keenan, and Davis

Argument Date: 5/13/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 10/2/2015

Docket Number: 13-4816

Decided: Affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded. Unpublished opinion.

Case Alert Author: Travis Bullock, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Meghan Suzanne Skelton, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellant. Sujit Raman, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: James Wyda, Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant. Rod J. Rosenstein, United States Attorney, Mark W. Crooks, Paul Budlow, Assistant United States Attorneys, James D. Houghton, Student Law Clerk, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Keenan

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor:
Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 09/28/2015 02:24 PM     4th Circuit  

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