September 30, 2014 CJS: Around the Circuit

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

A quarterly case summary digest of recent federal circuit court opinions

by Megan Eng

Hurst v. Joyner, No. 13-6 (4th Cir. Jul. 2, 2014), 757 F.3d 389

Hurst, a death row inmate, appealed the district court's denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, alleging that his Sixth Amendment rights to an impartial jury and to be confronted with the witnesses against him were violated by an extraneous communication between a juror and her father during the penalty phase of his capital murder trial. Hurst based his Motion for Appropriate Relief claim on the affidavit of Juror Foster, which was provided to Hurst’s post-conviction investigator. The juror stated that she asked her father where she could look in the Bible for guidance in making a decision in the case. Her father had provided the section in the Bible where she could find “an eye for an eye.” The state court argued that the Fourth Circuit has held that “the Bible does not constitute an improper external influence in a capital case, whether read by a juror in the privacy of his home, or whether read to herself by a juror during deliberations.” Furthermore, the state alleged that Hurst did not present evidence that the juror’s father knew what case she was sitting on, and no evidence that he deliberately tried to influence her vote by directing her to a specific Bible passage. The state court subsequently denied Hurst’s claim on the merits and denied his motion for discovery, but did grant a certificate of appealability with regard to the issue of whether the juror’s extraneous contact with her father violated Hurst's Sixth Amendment rights.

Held: The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's judgment and remanded for an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the extraneous communication about the Bible verse had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the jury's verdict. “The question under AEDPA [(Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act)] is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable—a substantially higher threshold.” This Circuit has recently held that there is not only a presumption of prejudice, but a defendant is also entitled to an evidentiary hearing when the defendant presents a credible allegation of communications between a third party and a juror regarding the matter pending before the jury. Hurst is entitled to federal habeas relief if the communication had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” Although Hurst did not meet this burden with the present record, he did request an opportunity to develop his claim in an evidentiary hearing before the district court. The state court unreasonably denied Hurst’s motion for further evidentiary development, leaving this Court with an incomplete and inadequate record for review.

Danser v. Stansberry, No. 13-1828, 2014 WL 2978541 (4th Cir. July 3, 2014)

The Court considered the issue of whether the district court erred in holding that certain prison officials were not entitled to qualified immunity for injuries inflicted by an inmate on Danser, a federal prisoner serving a sentence for convictions involving the sexual abuse of a minor. On the day of the incident, Danser was placed in a recreation cage with three other inmates and left unsupervised. One of these inmates thereby assaulted Danser because of his sex-offender status, and injured him to the point where he had to be transported to a local hospital. Danser later filed a complaint alleging that the prison officials were deliberately indifferent to his safety, and that his injuries resulting from the officials’ conduct constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The prison officials filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion, holding that there were material facts in dispute as to whether defendants violated Danser’s constitutional rights.

Held: The district court erred in denying the prison officials’ motion for summary judgment asserting qualified immunity. Under the collateral order doctrine, this Court had jurisdiction to review a district court’s denial of qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage because the court’s decision involved an issue of law rather than a factual dispute. In reviewing a district court’s rejection of a defendant’s assertion of qualified immunity, this Court must first decide whether the undisputed facts show the government officials’ actions violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. If plaintiff satisfies this step, a court must then determine whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the events.

Danser’s Eighth Amendment claim requires proof of two elements to establish a deprivation of a constitutional right: 1) a prisoner must establish a serious deprivation of his rights in the form of a “serious or significant physical or emotional injury”; and 2) the plaintiff must show that the prison official allegedly violating the plaintiff’s constitutional rights had a “sufficiently culpable state of mind.” Although Plaintiff met the first element, he did not meet the second prong. The prison official must have had actual knowledge of excessive risk to plaintiff’s safety; a “showing of mere negligence” would not suffice. There was a lack of evidence showing that there were separation orders requiring Danser and the inmate that attacked him needed to be separated from each other. In addition, the supervisors could not be held liable for the actions of their subordinates in this case just because they failed to discipline the official after the incident. There was no evidence showing that there was a pattern of defects in the assignment process for the recreation cages or officers leaving the recreation area unattended. 

For the foregoing reasons, the Fourth Circuit vacated the lower court’s order and remanded the case with instructions that the court enter judgment in favor of the prison officials.

United States v. Modanlo, No. 12-4378 (4th Cir. Aug. 7, 2014), 762 F.3d 403

Modanlo was accused of facilitating the 2005 launch and maintenance of an Iranian communications satellite by a state-owned Russian conglomerate, in violation of the Iran Trade Embargo. Twenty days after trial began, Modanlo filed a notice of appeal of the court’s written order denying his motion to dismiss one of the eleven charges against him as barred by collateral estoppel. Sixteen days later, he filed a second notice of appeal challenging the denial of his motion to sever the same charge. Modanlo argued that the notices of appeal divested the court of jurisdiction to adjudicate his case, such that his convictions and sentence was a legal nullity.

Held: The district court was correct in permitting the trial to continue and result in a verdict. Modanlo’s premature appeals must thereby be dismissed. Jeopardy had already attached when the jury was sworn in, and the notices of appeal filed during the pendency of the trial were ineffective to provide appellate jurisdiction. In addition, “[t]hese midtrial appeals of the district court’s collateral estoppel ruling should never have been an option.” Courts must decide every pretrial motion unless there is good cause to defer a ruling and the court must not defer a determination if doing so would adversely affect a party’s right to appeal. The right to a pretrial ruling is therefore extinguished after trial has begun. Modanlo will have to wait until his final-judgment appeal to address the district court’s collateral estoppel ruling.

United States v. Stephens, No. 12-4625, 2014 WL 4069336 (4th Cir. Aug. 19, 2014)

Defendant, a convicted felon, was being investigated for possible drug and firearms crimes as a result of information provided by a confidential informant. Despite not having a warrant, the police installed a battery-powered GPS device under the rear bumper of Defendant’s vehicle so that officers could detain him and search him while he was at work, where he was known to carry a firearm. Officers eventually tracked Defendant down and conducted a canine search of his vehicle, where they found a loaded pistol. A federal grand jury indicted him for illegal firearm possession by a convicted felon and the state charges were dismissed. While the case was pending in the lower court, the Supreme Court held in United States v. Jones that “installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search’” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. 132 S.Ct. 945, 949 (2012). This holding runs contrary to previous Maryland case law that held that warrantless GPS usage was permissible under the Fourth Amendment. Stephens thereby moved to suppress the firearm and other evidence seized. The district court denied the motion, stating that the exclusionary rule did not apply to his case because the officer used the GPS in good faith. Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea, which reserved his right to appeal the suppression order.

Held: The officer’s use of the GPS to locate and follow Defendant on the date in question was an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. However, the Court did not find a basis to set aside the order denying Defendant’s suppression motion and affirmed his conviction. The general good-faith inquiry requires a determination of a whether a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that a search was illegal in light of all the circumstances. The officer’s use of the GPS in this case was objectively reasonable. In addition, the Supreme Court has found the exclusionary rule to be inapplicable in a range of cases involving Fourth Amendment violations in order to deter future Fourth Amendment violations.

Dissent: Although Davis provides a specific and narrow set of circumstances in which the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applies (when officers conduct a search in objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent specifically authorizing their conduct), the Davis court did not answer “the markedly different question whether the exclusionary rule applies when the law governing the constitutionality of a particular search is unsettled.” At the time that the warrantless search was conducted in this case, there was no binding appellate precedent in this circuit that specifically authorized the police officers to the warrantless use of a GPS device to track a suspect’s vehicle or to the nonconsensual installation of a tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle. Furthermore, the officers did not have an objectively reasonable belief that their conduct was lawful. Similarly situated officers were obtaining warrants since 2005 for GPS searches. The officers in this case did not seek advice from any legal authority as to the constitutionality of such a search and there were no exigent circumstances that prevented him from obtaining this information. Therefore, law enforcement officers acted with reckless disregard for Defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Owens v. Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, No. 12-2173 (4th Cir. Sept. 24, 2014), 2014 WL 4723803

Owens brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the Baltimore City State’s Attorney's Office, an assistant State’s Attorney (“ASA”), the Baltimore City Police Department, and several Baltimore City police officers, alleging that defendants intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence during his underlying criminal trial in 1988 for rape and murder. The district court dismissed the complaint on statute-of-limitations grounds. In the alternative, the court held that the defendants had sovereign immunity or qualified immunity, and the cause of action against the Baltimore City Police Department (“BCPD”) failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. Owens appealed the dismissal of his complaint for failure to state a claim.

The police officers never informed defense counsel that Owens’s friend, Thompson, had offered several accounts of what happened on the day of the incident, all of which different significantly from the version of events told to the ASA, as well as from the physical evidence. Defense counsel thus did not question the witness about the four inconsistent versions of the story nor about Thompson’s pubic hair found on the victim. Owens was subsequently convicted of burglary and felony murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. After several unsuccessful state-court petitions for post-conviction relief, at state court granted Owen’s request for post-conviction DNA testing in 2006. The results showed that Owens’s DNA did not match the blood and semen evidence found at the scene of the crime. Owens’s petition to reopen his Post-Conviction Proceeding was granted in 2007 and in 2008, the State’s Attorney entered a nolle prosequi, dropping the charges against him.

Held: The district court erred in dismissing Owens’s claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Court first considered whether all of Owens’s claims are time-barred. Section 1983 does not contain a statute of limitations, so to determine timely filing courts use the statute of limitations from the most analogous state-law cause of action, which in this case is a personal-injury suit. Maryland law provides plaintiffs three years to file a personal-injury action. The start date of the § 1983 claim was determined by the start date of the common-law tort most analogous to his claims- malicious prosecution. In this case, it was the date that the noelle prosequi was entered. Therefore, the statute of limitations did not bar Owens’s cause of action.

To make a claim that the Officers violated his constitutional rights by suppressing exculpatory evidence, Owens must allege and prove, that (1) the evidence at issue was favorable to him; (2) the Officers suppressed the evidence in bad faith; and (3) prejudice ensued. Owens’s allegations clearly stated a plausible § 1983 claim. The Officers withheld evidence that was favorable to Owens and that would have helped him discredit Thompson’s testimony. In addition, the Officers exhibited bad faith when they “chose not to disclose” the various revisions to Thomason’s statement. Lastly, Thompson’s statement was material in that “the case would not have gone forward” without him, according to the ASA.

With regard to qualified immunity, a city violates § 1983 if municipal policymakers fail “to put a stop to or correct a widespread pattern of unconstitutional conduct.”  Owens alleged that by failing to correct its officers' pervasive suppression of evidence, the BCPD injured him, committing an independent act that renders it liable under § 1983. A plaintiff must specify a “persistent and widespread practice[ ] of municipal officials,” the “duration and frequency” of which indicate that policymakers (1) had actual or constructive knowledge of the conduct, and (2) failed to correct it due to their “deliberate indifference.” In support of his claim, Owens alleged that “[r]eported and unreported cases from the period of time before and during the events complained of” establish that the BCPD had a custom, policy, or practice of knowingly and repeatedly suppressing exculpatory evidence in criminal prosecutions. He further alleged that “a number of motions were filed and granted during this time period that demonstrate that [the BCPD] maintained a custom, policy, or practice to allow this type of behavior either directly or ... by condoning it, and/or knowingly turning a blind eye to it.” The Court held that Owens pled sufficient factual arguments to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal.

Megan Eng is a Spring 2014 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law.


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