U.S. Fourth Circuit - FindLaw

U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog


Will this be the basis of David Simon's next big hit?

James Owens was set free in 2008, after serving two decades in prison. This week, the Fourth Circuit reinstated his lawsuit over the false conviction, which he says was obtained via the police department and state's attorneys' withholding of exculpatory evidence.

Now, the detectives on the case, who served as inspiration for characters in Simon's first big hit (NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street") as well as his most critically acclaimed masterpiece (HBO's "The Wire"), will be defendants in his lawsuit, along with the Baltimore Police Department and the prosecutor.

Happy Friday! We know, you're not in the mood to read dense case law right now -- you want something lighter. In fact, you're reading this blog for just that purpose.

We've got your back. Here are three quick, local updates from Fourth Circuit cases, including oral arguments in a prison contraband smuggling sentence appeal, an interesting note on amici in the Supreme Court's UPS pregnancy discrimination case (originally out of the Fourth Circuit), and a federal judge in West Virginia's decision to stay out of the gay marriage controversy until the Supreme Court steps in.

There's that old joke, right? The "you know what they do to guys like that in prison" truism.

Well, David Karl Danser, who was convicted of sexually abusing his 9-year-old daughter, then taking photographs and sharing them with others, was put in the SHU (Special Housing Unit, aka protective custody) at a minimum security prison. SHU inmates are given the choice of outdoor recreation in 10-by-10-foot cages, usually with another inmate or two. Inmates are screened against separation orders, which are based on past conflict and probability of a violent encounter.

There were no red flags between Danser and his attacker. Yet, he ended up in the hospital with broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, punctured lungs, and a few other assorted injuries after a guard broke protocol and left him and the other inmates unattended. Sounds suspicious, right? But fortunately for the prison staff, qualified immunity applies.

Set your clocks folks: An appeal of a denied injunction that would block all or most of North Carolina's new voting laws, including voter ID provisions and restricted early voting times, is set for September 25, less than two weeks from now, reports NC Policy Watch.

The appeal comes from a district court judge's denial of the plaintiffs' request to block House Bill 589 (the "monster voting bill"). Judge Thomas D. Schroeder, in a 125-page decision, held that the plaintiffs were unable to show a substantial likelihood of success and irreparable harm, largely because fewer people vote in mid-term elections.

Crucially, Judge Schroeder didn't dismiss the case altogether, which means the challenge can go forward regardless of the Fourth Circuit's ruling -- this dispute only applies to blocking the laws from applying to this year's November election.

After days of deliberation, the verdict is in: Both Gov. Bob McDonnell and wife Maureen McDonnell have been found guilty of multiple charges.

What were the charges? Each faced 14 in total. The couple faced 13 charges in common, including wire fraud, conspiracy, and false statements, while each faced a single separate charge -- false statements for Bob McDonnell and obstruction for Maureen McDonnell, reports Washington's WAMU Radio.

Out of the 14 counts each, Bob was found guilty of 11 counts, while Maureen was convicted on nine counts.

Dianne Russell owned $501 for an unpaid hospital debt. The hospital sicced Absolute Debt Collection Services on her. They sent a threatening letter. She paid the hospital directly. ADC continued to bug her, even after she told them about her payment to the hospital.

She, predictably, sued under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, as well as state law. ADC argued that the FDCPA didn't apply, as she never disputed the debt under 1692g.

The problem is, 1692g (debt validation) is an optional tool for debtors, not a prerequisite to protection against abusive debt collection practices.

The circus that is the McDonnell Corruption Trial continued on Monday, this time with former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on the stand facing intense cross-examination by both the government and his co-defendant wife's counsel.

After Bob McDonnell spent days last week testifying as his own star witness, telling jurors that he couldn't have conspired with his wife because their marriage was estranged, that his wife was on medication for her frequent emotional outbursts, and that she was the one who sought out gifts from Jonnie Williams without his knowledge, the cross-examination, which could last for days, commenced.

One thing was clear after the first day of cross-examination: Bob McDonnell, the former prosecutor and state attorney general, was ready. "I've been preparing every day since you indicted me," he testified on the stand.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in United States v. Jones that GPS tracking of a suspect's car amounted to a search under the Fourth Amendment. Before that decision, however, the law was unclear at best (and may have even supported the notion that GPS tracking wasn't a search). That's the point of today's Fourth Circuit, Fourth Amendment opinion: The exclusionary rule won't bar evidence obtained through a search that was performed by an officer who was relying on binding precedent.

Binding? Sort of. There was a lot of case law stating that these weren't searches, all of which pointed to a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case that dealt with beepers -- the predecessor to the modern GPS tracker. Judge Stephanie Thacker, in dissent, argued that the precedent wasn't binding, and that officers shouldn't rush to use emerging technology without first seeking legal guidance.

There may not be another court to turn to for relief, but two-time Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen still won't back down in a fight to force him to turn over his confidential sources for his 2006 book, "State of War," which contained confidential CIA secrets regarding Iran's nuclear program.

The Fourth Circuit ruled against Risen last year, holding that Branzburg v. Hayes controlled and that there was no reporter's privilege that would keep a reporter off the stand during grand jury proceedings. It was a terrible outcome for press freedom, but as we noted before, it was a precedent required by precedent: The Supreme Court stated in Branzburg it could not "seriously entertain the notion that the First Amendment protects a newsman's agreement to conceal the criminal conduct of his source, or evidence thereof ..."

Only the Supreme Court could have changed that precedent, and it declined to take the case earlier this year. Legally, the battle ended there, but Risen, and his supporters, are still not backing down.

The big news of the week in the Mid-Atlantic region is that the Fourth Circuit has declined to issue a stay pending appeal in Bostic, the same-sex marriage case out of Virginia. For those who were comatose over the past few weeks, a three-judge panel ruled against the state's ban on gay marriages.

The county clerks who are defending the law have filed an appeal with the Supreme Court and want the panel's decision put on hold pending that appeal. Even Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who declined to defend the law, asked for a stay, as even a brief period of legalized gay marriage, as we saw in Utah, leads to confusion regarding the status of those marriages and the extension of benefits to same-sex spouses.