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In a recent opinion in a Virginia drug case, the court granted the Commonwealth’s request for a new verdict. Originally, a lower court had suppressed incriminating evidence found in the defendant’s car, maintaining that the evidence should not be used because the officer’s decision to conduct the traffic stop was unjustified. The Commonwealth appealed, pointing to an agreement the defendant had signed a few months prior to the traffic stop in which he waived all rights against unreasonable searches from police officers. The court ultimately saw the agreement as valid, deciding to allow the incriminating evidence to be brought in against the defendant.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, the defendant was driving in Virginia when an officer stopped him, citing the reason for the stop as a defective brake light. After having stopped the defendant, the officer searched the vehicle and found heroin in the car. Based on this evidence, the defendant was later indicted for possession of a controlled substance.

Later, video footage revealed that the defendant’s brake light was not actually defective but that the officer just used this language as an excuse to stop the defendant when he had no legitimate reason to do so. After discovering this information, the defendant asked the court to suppress the incriminating evidence that the officer found in his vehicle, as the officer did not actually have a valid justification for the traffic stop. Because, according to the defendant, the stop should not have happened in the first place, the Commonwealth should not be able to use that evidence against him. The court granted the defendant’s request, and the heroin was not used to advance the Commonwealth’s case at trial. The defendant’s case was dismissed, and at the end of trial, he was free to go.

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In December 2018, President Trump signed the First Step Act into law with the goal of improving criminal justice outcomes, reducing the size of the prison population, and building mechanisms that would also make sure to maintain public safety. The Act represents the culmination of years of bi-partisan pressure for criminal justice reform. In practice, the Act allows certain inmates to be released from prison earlier than anticipated, depending on the nature of their offense and the Act’s published Sentencing Guidelines.

One result of the First Step Act is that it makes it easier for criminal defendants convicted of possession of crack cocaine to serve shorter sentences. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which had major implications for defendants charged with possession of cocaine – that is, while it used to be the case that people faced much longer sentences for possessing crack cocaine than for possessing the same amount of powder cocaine, today, the difference in the sentences is much smaller.

Once it is determined that a defendant’s offense is one that is covered by the First Step Act, a court is free to recalculate the defendant’s sentence. The First Step Act and the Fair Sentencing Act can allow a court to significantly reduce the amount of time a defendant must stay incarcerated.

Federal and State criminal statutes commonly include offenses that are enhanced based on their relation to other criminal conduct. Many of these enhanced offenses are made more serious by a defendant’s use of a firearm while committing or attempting to commit another offense. One federal statute, commonly known as the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), is used to make other criminal acts more serious if they are committed with a firearm. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which includes Virginia, recently decided an appeal by a defendant who was charged with a felony under the ACCA.

The defendant from the recently decided appeal was arrested after a home invasion robbery. According to the facts outlined in the judicial opinion, the armed defendant and others had broken into the home of a suspected drug dealer with the intention of stealing money and a large quantity of cocaine. The defendants did not find any drugs at the apartment, however, they did steal money and a firearm. In addition to being charged with robbery and attempted drug trafficking, the defendant was charged with another felony under the ACCA, for brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence and a drug trafficking offense. The defendant pleaded guilty to the robbery and the ACCA offense and the drug trafficking charge was dropped.

After the defendant was sentenced for his crimes, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that the definition for a “crime of violence” under the ACCA was unconstitutionally vague and reversed a conviction. As a result of the new precedent, the defendant appealed his conviction for the ACCA charge, arguing that there was no valid predicate offense to allow for the ACCA to be applied. On appeal the Fourth Circuit rejected the defendant’s arguments, finding that in his plea colloquy, the defendant admitted to brandishing a firearm while in the commission of a drug trafficking offense and that such an admission was sufficient to uphold his conviction under the ACCA.

A defendant recently appealed his Virginia conviction for possession of marijuana and various firearm offenses. The accused filed multiple motions to suppress, arguing that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the residence. On appeal, the court reviewed the evidence the defendant presented at his suppression hearing.

According to the record, police officers discovered the defendant’s location and attempted to serve outstanding arrest warrants. The home belonged to the mother of the defendant’s minor daughter; the defendant did not own or rent the home. When the defendant did not open the door for law enforcement, the officers entered the residence. The officers did not find the accused, but after detecting the smell of marijuana, they searched the residence and found him hiding near a shed.

The defendant argued that because he did not live at the home, the officers could not “enter and search the home of a third party” under a warrant for the defendant. The Commonwealth argued that they believed the accused lived at the home with the mother of his child. In the alternative, the Commonwealth argued that the defendant could not assert the “vicarious Fourth Amendment” rights of a third party.

Last month, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Virginia drug case involving a defendant’s motion to suppress drugs that were recovered by police under the driver’s seat of a car he occupied. The defendant claimed that the officers’ search of the car violated his constitutional rights. However, the court disagreed, affirming his conviction.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, officers received a call for a “disorderly situation” involving two males and one female. The caller told the 911 operator that one of the people had a gun.

When officers arrived on the scene, they saw two vehicles, parked facing one another. Officers parked on the street, and walked towards the vehicle. As they approached the white car, they saw the defendant in the driver’s seat. When he looked up, he immediately lunged towards the floorboard for a few seconds before getting out of the vehicle.

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A state appellate court recently issued an opinion in a defendant’s appeal of his Virginia drug conviction. The case involved the “collective knowledge” doctrine, as it applies to searches and seizures under the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

According to the court’s opinion, a confidential informant (CI), concerned with her daughter’s involvement with drugs, began communicating with a police investigator. The investigator testified that the CI stated that she shared a vehicle with her daughter that they agreed no one else could operate. The CI purchased a GPS tracking device and would contact the investigator to notify him of the car’s location.

On one occasion, the woman contacted the investigator and told him that the tracker showed the vehicle was at a motel; however, her daughter was in jail. The investigator was off-duty but went to the location to conduct surveillance. Upon reaching the location, he noticed that the woman’s car was empty, but two people were sitting in the SUV next to the vehicle. One of the individuals was the person the CI’s daughter was involved in drug transactions with, and the other was the defendant. The investigator contacted police dispatchers and told them to send an officer to address suspicious activity occurring in the vehicle. When police arrived, they discovered drugs.

Recently, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Virginia drug crime case discussing whether the arresting officer legally stopped the defendant’s vehicle. Ultimately, the court concluded that the stop was illegal, and ordered the suppression of all evidence recovered as a result. The case illustrates when an officer’s mistake can result in the suppression of evidence.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was driving in the right-hand lane on Route 360. As he approached an intersection, the defendant changed lanes into the center lane. In doing so, he crossed a single, solid-white line indicating the beginning of the intersection. There were two other cars on the road at the time, but neither was directly behind the defendant.

A police officer was traveling about 100 feet behind the defendant, when he observed the defendant’s lane change. Believing that the Virginia law prohibits a driver from crossing a solid-white line when changing lanes, the officer pulled the defendant over. The officer recovered drugs as a result of the traffic stop.

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Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Virginia drug possession case discussing whether the evidence presented proved that the defendant knew the drugs were in the center console of the vehicle he was driving. Ultimately, the court found that there was insufficient evidence to establish constructive possession, reversing the defendant’s conviction. The case presents a good example of the concept of constructive possession.

According to the court’s opinion, police officers pulled over the defendant for speeding. When the officer approached the car, he smelled marijuana and noticed that the defendant was nervous and sweating. The officers searched the car, finding a small baggie of marijuana in the center console. Also in the center console was a piece of crumpled up notebook paper with a single Oxycodone pill inside. There was no evidence presented regarding who owned the car, how long the defendant had been using the car, or where the marijuana was found in relation to the oxycodone.

At trial, the defendant convicted of possession of marijuana and oxycodone. The defendant appealed his conviction for possession of oxycodone, arguing that there was no evidence suggesting that the pill was his or that he knew about the pill’s presence.

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