4th Circuit Criminal Law News - U.S. Fourth Circuit
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The government cannot search extended cell phone location records without a warrant, the Fourth Circuit ruled last Wednesday. Cell phone service providers routinely collect and record cell site location information, creating detailed reports of where a phone was and when. Should the government wish to look at that information over an extended time frame -- a phone's location over a 221-day period, for example -- it must obtain a valid warrant, the Fourth ruled.

The ruling, which has been praised by privacy advocates and civil liberties groups, creates a split with several other circuit courts. As commentators note, the issue raised is primed to end up before the Supreme Court in short order.

Jail time is becoming ever more likely for former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who was convicted of public corruption charges last year. McDonnell's conviction stemmed from accepting $177,000 in loans, gifts, and other perks in exchange for promoting a friend's dietary supplements.

 

McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison but has remained free while he appeals the conviction. The Fourth Circuit rejected his appeal last week, bringing him one step closer to serving time.

Medieval scholars, or fans of A Confederacy of Dunces, may be familiar with the concept of the rota Fortunae, the wheel of fortune which raises men up to prosperity and rapidly back down again, over and over. Amir Bajoghli should be familiar with the concept, in experience if not in name. A dermatologist, Bajoghli allegedly made millions off healthcare benefit programs -- the wheel spins up towards fortune! -- only to be indicted for fraud -- and down again!

Fate's wheel brought him back to good fortune when a sympathetic judge allowed his motions to exclude much of the evidence against him, two days before trial. It spun back down again this week, when the Fourth Circuit ruled that those exclusions unduly restricted the government's "latitude reasonably necessary" to meet its burden of proof.

Md. AG Files Response in Adnan Syed's Petition for New Trial

After the wild success of the "Serial" podcast, Adnan Syed, convicted in 2000 of the murder of former girlfriend and fellow high school student Hae Min Lee, was granted a new appeal by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

Actually, the appeal was in progress before the podcast series began, but interviews conducted by reporters for "Serial" led to the discovery of more evidence on appeal that Syed contends his lawyer should have introduced.

4th Cir. Reverses Guilty Plea; Judge Too Involved in Negotiations

Plea agreements are supposed to be negotiations between prosecutors and the defendant, in which the parties (who have equal bargaining power, of course) come to an understanding enforceable by the court as a contract.

Normally, the court isn't supposed to get involved in plea negotiations; it's just supposed to make sure a plea is knowing and voluntary. Yesterday, though, a panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a plea agreement after finding that the district court stuck its nose a little too far into the matter.

Federal prosecutors filed their first response to an appeal by former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell on Thursday. McDonnell was convicted of 11 counts of public corruption last September, relating from his relationship with a Richmond businessman who had given him over $177,000 in loans and gifts.

McDonnell contends that his conviction is invalid, that he never promised or performed any "official acts" in exchange for gifts and that his prosecution is a threat to democracy. Prosecutors' the one-hundred some page long filing argues that the court must uphold McDonnell's conviction.

Bob McDonnell Sentenced to 2 Years in Prison

The saga of disgraced former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell came to some kind of resolution today as he was sentenced to two years in prison, less than what prosecutors wanted.

McDonnell and his wife Maureen were charged last year with public corruption for taking $177,000 in gifts while McDonnell was governor. The trial turned from a simple bribery case into a sideshow that placed the McDonnell's allegedly troubled marriage in the spotlight.

Oral Arguments in Warrantless Cell Tower Location Data Requests Case

This is an early contender for a Supreme Court case -- assuming, of course, one of the parallel cases in a burgeoning circuit split doesn't make it onto the High Court's docket first.

The facts are relatively unremarkable: Aaron Graham and Eric Jordan were convicted of robbery after prosecutors used a court order -- not a warrant -- to obtain historical cell phone tower location data tied to their phones. This same scenario has played out twice before in appeals cases -- in the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits -- with mixed results.

How is it looking for these two defendants? There was no clear indication from the oral arguments, with the judges expressing concerns over both the government's and defendants' positions.

Does Gag Order in Ex-Massey Energy CEO's Criminal Case Go Too Far?

It's extremely hard these days to get indictments against corporate officers for corporate wrongdoing, but the feds managed it in the case of Donald Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey Energy, one of the country's largest coal mining companies.

Blankenship was indicted on federal conspiracy and false statement charges for allegedly covering up mine safety violations that led to an explosion, killing 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia four years ago. Now, though, a federal court has imposed a gag order on the whole thing.

4 From the 4th: Bank Robber, False Claims Act Qui Tam Case SOL?

We quipped that the Tenth Circuit's two SCOTUS-bound cases were the most boring you'd hear all year long. Apparently, we were wrong. Meet the case that has twin issues: a "first to file" limit on related qui tam actions, as well as a six-year-statute of limitations that bars claims ... except maybe, when we're in wartime. Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter is not a case you'll want to read before operating heavy machinery.

Fortunately, the final case in the Fourth Circuit's four-pack is Whitfield v. U.S., an attempted bank robbery case that includes a botched indictment, a lady who was frightened to death, and a wee bit of statutory interpretation. The second case, folks, is fascinating.