Generally, when a criminal defendant receives a jail sentence, that sentence cannot be modified unless the conviction is changed or overturned. This rule promotes finality in the justice system and allows for more certainty among defendants, prosecutors, and victims. Congress has provided one exception to this rule. When a defendant is sentenced to a certain amount of time in prison, based on the sentencing guidelines at the time, and these guidelines are later changed, the defendant may petition for a reduction in sentencing if his or her sentence would be reduced under the new guidelines. A recent case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit considers such a petition and looks at when district courts are permitted to make additional factual findings in order to justify rejecting sentence reduction petitions.
As has been discussed in prior posts on this blog, police officers who stop and search individuals in their vehicles, on the street, or in their homes must have probable cause for such a search and seizure. They cannot simply stop individuals at a whim and require that they open up their property and homes to officers. Instead, they must have a legitimate basis for believing that a crime may have occurred that justifies further investigation. But what happens when an initial stop is supported by probable cause, but the search expands to other individuals, other property, or a longer period of time? These types of searches may also be unconstitutional if they are not sufficiently limited in scope and duration. A recent case before the Fourth Circuit addressed whether West Virginia police officers exceeded the appropriate scope during a routine traffic stop.
In United States v. White, West Virginia officers stopped the vehicle of Erica Tuenis after she was observed swerving across lanes while on the road. Mr. White was a passenger in the vehicle when it was stopped. When the officer approached Ms. Tuenis’ vehicle, he noticed an odor of marijuana. The officer asked Ms. Tuenis to exit the vehicle and, after talking with her, determined that she was not impaired or intoxicated. He asked her if she had been smoking marijuana, and she said no, but she did not know if her passengers had been. The officer returned to the vehicle and asked to speak with Mr. White. Mr. White denied having any marijuana in his vehicle, and the officer asked him to step out of the car briefly. After Mr. White exited the car, the officer observed a firearm tucked into the side of the passenger seat. He called for backup and arrested Mr. White. After being read his Miranda rights, Mr. White admitted that the firearm was his. He was later charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm because he had several prior burglary convictions.
Unborn children, or fetuses, often face special categorization in criminal laws. While they are living beings capable of being harmed, or even murdered, by someone else, they are also subject to the actions and circumstances of the women who host them. Efforts to criminalize violence against unborn children often require special consideration for the restrictions or unfair requirements that may be imposed on pregnant women. For instance, would a blanket prohibition on harming an unborn child include the possible prosecution of mothers who smoke while pregnant? These are the difficult questions that legislators must often confront and that the Supreme Court of Appeals for West Virginia recently considered.
In State of West Virginia v. Stephanie Elaine Louk, the Supreme Court considered a recent case against Ms. Louk for the death of her child 11 days after birth. While 37 weeks pregnant, Ms. Louk ingested methamphetamines, leading to an incident of acute respiratory distress. During the incident, emergency medical personnel believed that her child was being deprived of oxygen and performed an emergency C-section. Ms. Louk’s daughter, Olivia, was born brain dead and placed on a ventilator. She died 11 days later. After her death, the State charged Ms. Louk with child neglect, arguing that she had caused her child’s eventual death through her drug use. At trial, Ms. Louk was convicted and sentenced to three to 15 years. She appealed.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is a fundamental pillar of protection for the rights of criminal defendants and all those seeking to protect their individual freedoms. Central to the Fourth Amendment is the prohibition against unlawful searches and seizures. This means that police or other governmental officials cannot search the private property of an individual, including his or her home or car, without having probable cause to do so. Likewise, an individual cannot be seized, nor can items be seized from one’s property, without such justifications. But the question of what constitutes a reasonable basis for a search by the police is a complicated one. While police may feel that the facts available to them warrant further investigation, potential defendants will often feel that their rights have been violated without sufficient reason. A recent case in the Fourth Circuit considers which circumstances may constitute a justification for the search of a stopped vehicle.
In United States v. Palmer, Mr. Palmer was stopped by police in Virginia on suspicion of windows that were illegally tinted and an inspection sticker that was believed to be false. When the officer approached the vehicle for a license and registration, he noticed that Mr. Palmer appeared very nervous and that there were five air fresheners hanging in the car. When he called in Mr. Palmer’s information, he learned that Mr. Palmer was a suspected member of a local gang and had prior drug convictions. The officer called for a drug dog backup and had the outside of the vehicle reviewed by the dog. The dog indicated that the vehicle contained drugs, and the vehicle was then searched. Crack cocaine was discovered in the car.
In many states across the country, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, individuals convicted of certain crimes, such as drug convictions or convictions of theft and fraud, are prohibited from seeking employment at facilities such as nursing homes, hospitals, or child care facilities. Regardless of the nature of their sentence, or how much time has passed since a conviction, these individuals can find themselves permanently banned from these types of employment opportunities. However, a decision released just before the New Year by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court calls into question the constitutionality of these employment bans.
In order to search a car without a warrant or permission, a police officer usually must have probable cause to believe that there’s evidence of a crime in the vehicle. One of the questions that can come up in drug and other cases, however, is just what qualifies as a “search.” The West Virginia Supreme Court recently held that police officers can use dogs to sniff around the outside of a car for drugs without requiring probable cause.
Mr. Brock was sentenced to three to 15 years behind bars following his February 2014 conviction on two counts of drug charges related to his alleged operation of a clandestine drug laboratory. The sentence was later suspended, and Brock was ordered to serve three years of probation. The “lab” was a car that Brock was driving with a co-defendant when it was pulled over by police in Wood County the previous year.
According to evidence introduced at trial, Capt. Woodyard of the county sheriff’s department began following the car after it was observed driving up to a suspected meth house. Officers watching the house saw the car pull up and leave twice. There were two passengers in the car both times, and one person left the car to go into the house for about 15 minutes each trip. Capt. Woodyard was working undercover in plain clothes at the time. He followed the car when it left the second time, and he had an officer in a marked patrol car pull the vehicle over after Woodyard saw it repeatedly cross the center line on the road on which it was traveling.
Conspiracy is a common type of criminal charge that’s often misunderstood. When the authorities charge someone with conspiracy to commit a crime, what they are claiming is that the person agreed with one or more people to commit the crime. A recent drug case out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit gives some insight into the type of proof that prosecutors need to convict someone on a conspiracy charge.
Mr. McGee was sentenced to nearly 22 years in federal prison after being convicted of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute. He was acquitted, however, on a related charge of possessing cocaine with intent to distribute. In other words, the jury found that there was enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that McGee and another person agreed to commit the criminal act of possessing cocaine with the intent to distribute it, but not enough evidence to prove that he ever actually possessed cocaine with the intent to distribute it. The trial included evidence from a confidential police informant about a series of controlled drug transactions between McGee and the informant. McGee later appealed the conviction and sentence.
Affirming the decision, the Fourth Circuit said there was enough evidence for the jury to find that McGee was involved in the alleged conspiracy. “The evidence at trial established the existence of a drug distribution system involving McGee as cocaine supplier,” the Court explained. In order to prove the conspiracy charge, the prosecutors had to show that McGee knowingly agreed with one or persons to violate federal drug law and that he voluntarily participated in the agreement. Here, the Court said the evidence showed that McGee worked through a middle man to sell cocaine to the government informant on various occasions. Those transactions regularly happened within one day of a request from a buyer, according to the Court. As a result, it was appropriate for the jury to conclude that he had a steady supplier whom he was working with to sell the drugs.
Plea deals can be a valuable tool for a person charged with a crime. They often allow the accused to agree to admit to a lesser crime – meaning less potential time in jail – in exchange for agreeing not to contest the charge at trial. The deals typically come with a number of rules that both the defendant and the prosecutors are expected to play by, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently explained in a case out of West Virginia.
Mr. Wells was charged with various federal drug crimes following an incident in which law enforcement officers stopped his car and searched the vehicle. The cops found more than two grams of crack cocaine, according to the Court. Wells later agreed to a plea deal, under which he plead guilty to one count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He also agreed to be completely truthful with law enforcement about his involvement with drugs. In return, federal prosecutors handling the case said they wouldn’t use any information that Wells gave them to later prosecute him for other crimes or to enhance his sentencing under the plea deal.
Wells was eventually sentenced according to federal guidelines, which take into account a number of factors such as the type of offense and the defendant’s criminal history. In this case, the sentence was enhanced because of the amount of crack Wells was caught with, as well as the fact that he was found to be carrying a handgun at the time and admitted to keeping a premises for making the drugs. During a sentencing hearing, prosecutors called Mr. Williams – Wells’ alleged partner in the drug dealing ring – as a witness. Among other questions, they asked Mr. Williams if he knew that Wells said that it was Williams who had given him more than two grams of crack. Williams denied the accusation, which the prosecutors said was based on information that Wells gave law enforcement in an interview following the plea deal.
Some people who are arrested, charged, and eventually convicted of a crime may be able to avoid prison time through probation. This is a form of supervised release in which the person is allowed to live freely and go on with his or her life, as long as the person stays out of trouble and checks in regularly with a probation officer. Probation is often also a condition for folks who do some prison time but earn an early release. It’s an incredibly attractive alternative to being locked in a cell. But, as a recent West Virginia Supreme Court decision shows, your probation isn’t likely to last long if you violate the terms of the deal.
Mr. Henry was sentenced to four to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to four counts of delivery of a controlled substance in September 2009. A circuit court suspended the sentence, however, and instead ordered Henry to do five years of probation. The terms of his probation required Henry not to break the law, to stay away from people dealing in drugs, and to abstain from using or possessing drugs.
It appears that Henry didn’t follow those rules. His probation officer filed three different petitions to revoke Henry’s probation in the four-year period that followed. The first came after Henry failed a drug test, was arrested and charged with battery, and was arrested again and charged with possession of a controlled substance. The second came after he was arrested for battery again and failed to report a second controlled substance arrest. A court revoked Henry’s probation and sentenced him to prison but later softened the decision after Henry spent about two months behind bars. The court then granted Henry house arrest and probation.
As marijuana becomes decriminalized and even legalized in some jurisdictions across the country, users are coming out of the shadows and at least certain segments of society appear to be warming up to the idea of recreational use of the drug. The West Virginia judiciary and legislature are not part of those segments. As the state Supreme Court recently explained, selling marijuana remains a felony in the state and will be punished as such until lawmakers make a change.
Mr. Nutter was convicted on two felony charges of delivering marijuana – one to an undercover police officer and the other to a private individual – following a jury trial in August 2013. He was originally sentenced to five years in prison, but later had the sentence suspended and was placed on probation. He was ordered to pay nearly $3,000 in court costs, but wasn’t subjected to any other money penalties.
Nutter later appealed the decision, arguing that he should have been charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies. Nutter further argued that the state’s system of designating each crime as a misdemeanor or felony violates the West Virginia constitution, which requires that “penalties shall be proportional to the character and degree of the offense.” Nutter said that the nonviolent crimes with which he was charged shouldn’t be characterized the same way as more egregious felonies. He said that was particularly true given that marijuana use is becoming more widely accepted across the country.