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Media Alerts - United States v. White -- Fourth Circuit
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November 7, 2016
  United States v. White -- Fourth Circuit
Fourth Circuit Vacates Sentence After Supreme Court's Landmark Decision in Johnson v. United States

Areas of Law: Criminal Law; Constitutional Law; Civil Procedure; ACCA; Sentencing

Issues Presented: Whether the district court erred in denying a defendant's motion to suppress evidence when an officer extended a traffic stop after noticing the smell of marijuana while conducting the traffic stop. Whether the district court erred in classifying appellant as a career criminal after the Supreme Court invalidated the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA").

Brief Summary: In a published opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the District Court did not err in denying a motion to suppress evidence because the arresting officer had reasonable suspicion to initiate and extend a traffic stop. However, the Court of Appeals held the District Court did err in sentencing appellant to enhanced punishment as a career criminal under the ACCA after the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States.

Extended Summary:
On July 9, 2013, Corporal Justin Doughty of the Charleston Police Department was on patrol in Charleston, West Virginia, when he observed a car veer out of its lane. Corporal Doughty pulled over the car to determine whether the driver was impaired. When Corporal Doughty approached the vehicle, he smelled an odor of burned marijuana emanating from the car. Corporal Doughty asked the driver to step out of the car and asked her several questions to determine whether she was impaired and why there was a marijuana odor. Then Corporal Doughty ordered the passengers out of the car to question them about the marijuana odor. During questioning, Corporal Doughty saw a firearm tucked in the side passenger seat where one of the passengers, Desmond Ra'Keesh White, had been sitting. Corporal Doughty placed White under arrest and called for back-up. White admitted the firearm belonged to him.

White was indicted in the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia for being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922 (g)(1). White filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained from the traffic stop. The District Court denied the motion after finding reasonable suspicion supported the initial traffic stop because Corporal Doughty witnessed the car veer out of its lane. Additionally, the odor of marijuana provided reasonable suspicion for the extension of the traffic stop and probable cause to search the car where the firearm was recovered. After the denial of the motion, White entered a conditional plea. The agreement allowed White to plead guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm while retaining his right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. During sentencing, White was classified as an armed career criminal under the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA") based on his prior West Virginia state robbery conviction and three prior West Virginia state burglary convictions. White did not object to his classification as a career criminal. The District Court found that White was subject to the ACCA sentence enhancement and sentenced White to the mandatory minimum of 15 years imprisonment. White appealed his sentence and challenged the district court's denial of his motion to suppress.

The Fourth Circuit held that the district court properly denied the motion to suppress, but vacated White's sentence as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States.

As to the sentencing issue, White argued that his West Virginia burglary convictions were no longer violent felonies after the Supreme Court invalidated the residual clause of the ACCA. The government contended that White could not challenge his sentence because he had abandoned his claim. The government also maintained on the merits that the West Virginia burglaries qualified as violent felonies under the ACCA's enumerated burglary definition.

Resolving the preservation issue first, the court held that White had not abandoned the right to challenging his sentence by failing to include the claim in his initial brief to the court. As the Fourth Circuit explained, "when an intervening decision of [the] court or the Supreme Court affects precedent relevant to a case pending on direct appeal, an appellant may timely raise a new argument, case theory, or claim based on that decision while his appeal is pending without triggering the abandonment rule." White did not abandon his claim because he did not have the opportunity to bring it up before the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States, which was issued during the pendency of White's appeal.

The court then turned to consider whether White's prior burglary convictions qualified as violent felonies despite the invalidation of the residual clause of the ACCA. Reviewing the lower court's decision for plain error, the Fourth Circuit found that White needed to show: (1) there was an error; (2) the error was plain; and (3) the error affected substantial rights. In determining whether an error occurred, the Fourth Circuit turned to the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States. In that case, the Supreme Court held the residual clause of the ACCA is unconstitutionally vague and violates the due process clause. After invalidation of the residual clause, White's prior West Virginia burglary convictions did not qualify as predicate violent felonies under the ACCA. To be considered violent felonies, the West Virginia burglary convictions therefore needed to match the definition of burglary in the ACCA.

The court used the categorical approach to interpret the ACCA and found the West Virginia definition of burglary needed to be the same or narrower than the ACCA-enumerated generic burglary definition to qualify under the definition of burglary in the ACCA. The court found the West Virginia definition of burglary was broader than the generic ACCA definition of burglary, so the burglary convictions did not meet the ACCA definition of burglary. Consequently, White's burglary convictions were not violent felonies under the ACCA and White should not have been considered a career criminal under the ACCA. This error in determining whether White was a career criminal was plain error because the established law clearly determined there was an error. Additionally, the court found this error affected White's substantial rights because he would have received a maximum of 10 years in prison instead of a minimum of 15 years in prison had he been correctly sentenced. The Fourth Circuit vacated White's sentence and remanding the case to the district court for re-sentencing without the enhancement.

To read the full opinion, click here.

* * * * *

In a second case, United States v. Harper, appellant challenged the district court's application of the ACCA based on a finding that his February 1997 offenses constituted multiple ACCA predicate crimes. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's finding, reasoning that the defendant's offenses occurred at different times and in at least three different locations. Notably, the appellant there also argued that the ACCA's requirement that predicates be "committed on occasions different than one another" was unconstitutionally vague under Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015). The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, holding that, unlike the ACCA's residual clause in Johnson, the ACCA requirement at issue had a workable standard and thus was not questionable.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Judges Agee, Wynn, and Schroeder

Argument Date: 03/24/2016

Date of Issued Opinion:
09/09/2016

Docket Number:
15-4096

Decided: Affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Lauren Harrison, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law
Counsel: ARGUED: Jonathan D. Byrne, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant. Jennifer Rada Herrald, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Christian M. Capece, Federal Public Defender, Lex A. Coleman, Assistant Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant. R. Booth Goodwin II, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee.
Author of Opinion: Judge Wynn

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 11/07/2016 04:13 PM     4th Circuit  

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