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Articles Posted in Virginia Case Law

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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Recently, a Virginia appellate court affirmed convictions against a defendant who had been found guilty of credit card fraud and embezzlement. The court found that the guilty verdict was appropriate, even though the defendant argued in her appeal that there was not sufficient evidence to support a finding of guilt. In the opinion, the court wrote that the evidence was not lacking and that it provided enough details to support convictions for seven counts of credit card fraud and four counts of embezzlement.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant worked as a caretaker for a woman who suffered from physical incapacities and memory loss. The defendant came to the woman’s home several times a week starting in 2015 and assisted with housecleaning, grocery shopping, and other errands. Eventually, it came to Adult Protective Service’s attention that the woman’s two credit cards were consistently showing much higher balances than they had shown before the defendant was hired. One credit card, for example, that had a balance of approximately $3,000 in 2014, had increased to a $46,000 balance by the end of 2017. The extra charges revolved around purchases that the woman herself had no memory of making: there were charges, for example, for car repairs, jewelry, children’s clothing, lingerie, alcohol, and tattoos. At trial, the woman insisted she had not made the extra purchases shown on her credit cards.

Prosecutors eagerly rely on the testimony of jailhouse informants, who are people who spent time in jail with a defendant and allegedly spoke with them about the crimes they are charged with. The testimony of an informant who was housed with a defendant while they were in jail can be persuasive to a jury, as defendants often confess to criminal conduct to others in jail shortly after they are arrested.

Persons who are charged with crimes are often reluctant to testify against others who they met in jail, and prosecutors sometimes offer incentives to jailhouse informants to get them to testify on the state’s behalf. These incentives, such as shortened sentences or dropped charges, can sometimes cause jailhouse informants to testify dishonestly and tell prosecutors “what they want to hear” in order to benefit the informant themself. Because of this, defendants and defense attorneys are likely to challenge the testimony of jailhouse informants however they can.

The Virginia Court of Appeals recently ruled that the testimony of a jailhouse informant in a defendant’s robbery case was permissible, even though the prosecutor didn’t tell the defense attorney that he would be testifying until the day of trial. The defendant in the recently decided case was charged with armed robbery after he allegedly robbed a convenience store. In addition to the workers at the convenience store during the robbery, the prosecution sought to call a witness who met the defendant in jail after his arrest. Although this jailhouse informant witness was listed as a possible witness in the state’s disclosures, the prosecutor told defense counsel that the informant would not testify unless the defendant himself testified in his own defense. The defendant chose not to testify, but the prosecutor reneged on his word and called the informant to testify about conversations he had with the defendant while they were housed together. The defendant was ultimately convicted of several charges at trial and was given a substantial sentence as a result.

Recently, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Virginia gun case discussing whether a detective’s warrantless search of a phone violated the defendant’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Ultimately, the court concluded that the search was legal and that the motion to suppress was rightfully denied by the lower court. The case illustrates when evidence obtained from a detective’s warrantless search can still be used in the trial.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, while attempting to retrieve his phone from inside the restaurant, the defendant approached a waitress in a very hostile manner. A private security guard stepped in front of the defendant, and the defendant eventually urged his friend to grab a gun from the car. The security guard drew his own weapon and asked the individual to drop his firearm. The individual put down the gun. Defendant then picked up the firearm and began firing his gun. The security guard fired back and struck the vehicle, prompting the defendant and his friend to drive away. The defendant did not return.

A detective later recovered a cell phone at the restaurant and without a search warrant, the detective went into the phone settings to find the phone’s identification serial numbers. The detective did not search any other part of the phone. Using the serial number, the security guard was able to find the name and photograph of the defendant. The defendant had an additional cell phone, which the detective used to track the defendant’s location and arrest him.

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Recently a state appellate court issued a decision in a defendant’s appeal regarding statements he made to police prior to his arrest in a Virginia assault case. The case arose when police questioned the defendant about his involvement in a shooting while he was receiving treatment for a gunshot wound at a hospital. Hospital staff contacted police after admitting the man for a gunshot wound. Initially, detectives were unsure whether the defendant was a victim or a perpetrator. There were four detectives and a security guard present while two detectives questioned the defendant about his involvement. During questioning, the defendant’s family member arrived and remained in the room.

Additionally, hospital staff continued to provide medical treatment and collect identification and insurance information from the defendant. Following the questioning, the detective went to another hospital to interview two shooting victims who were believed to be involved in the incident. At that point, they discovered that the defendant was the perpetrator. After the defendant was discharged from the hospital, detectives escorted him to the police department, advised him of his Miranda rights, and arrested him. On appeal, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the statements he made to the detectives at the hospital. He argued that his statements were made in the absence of a Miranda warning.

Under Virginia law, police must advise anyone accused in a criminal case of their Miranda rights before conducting a police interrogation. However, Miranda warnings are unnecessary when the interviewee’s freedom has not been restricted in a way that amounts to being “in custody.” There are various factors that courts use to determine whether a suspect was in custody. These factors include, how the person was summoned to the police, the neutrality of the surroundings, the number of officers present, the degree of physical restraint, the duration and character of the interrogation, and the extent to which the interviewee believed the police found them culpable.

Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Virginia reckless driving case, reversing the defendant’s conviction based on a lack of evidence. The court based its decision on the fact that the evidence presented failed to show that the defendant acted recklessly when he struck a motorcycle from behind at nearly 50 miles per hour.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was driving a car on a clear day when he struck a motorcycle from behind. The motorcyclist was stopped, waiting to make a left-hand turn into his home. A truck driver coming from the opposite direction as the defendant witnessed the accident. He explained that the defendant’s car did not appear to slow down or swerve before it hit the motorcyclist.

The motorcyclist died as a result of the injuries he sustained in the accident, and the defendant was charged with reckless driving. A jury convicted the defendant, who appealed his conviction. On appeal, the defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence to prove that he was reckless.

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Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Virginia assault case discussing whether there was sufficient evidence to sustain the defendant’s convictions. Ultimately, the court rejected the defendant’s arguments, affirming her convictions.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, a police officer received a call from the defendant’s home. Upon arriving, the officer parked in the driveway. As he got out of the car, the officer could hear screaming. Moments later, the officer noticed several people standing on the porch, with the defendant in the doorway.

A man on the porch addressed the officer, explaining that he had lived at the home and wanted to get inside to get his belongings. The defendant began shouting that the man had “put his hands on her.” The officer walked up the porch and began to talk to the man. The defendant continued to yell and argue with the man. When the officer told her to stop yelling, she tried to shut the door. The officer put his foot in the threshold to prevent the door from closing.

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Earlier this month, the state’s high court issued a written opinion in a Virginia homicide case involving the defendant’s challenge to the manner in which the police obtained the evidence that resulted in his conviction for murder. Ultimately, the court concluded that the police officers’ actions in entering the defendant’s home were reasonable, based on the “emergency aid” exception to the Fourth Amendment.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, a man received a text from his brother, the defendant, explaining that he had recently been struggling and that he was about to join their deceased mother. The defendant’s brother tried to get ahold hold of the defendant with little success, and eventually called the police to the defendant’s home.

The defendant’s brother explained his concern and showed the police the text message his brother had sent him. Police approached the defendant’s door and knocked. The defendant answered, but shortly after, police began to hear a “gargling sound mixed with some coughing and moaning, like pain.” Police asked to enter, but there was no response.

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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.

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Virginia homicide case discussing whether a hit-and-run car accident could be the basis for a homicide conviction under state law. Ultimately, the court concluded that while not every hit-and-run accident can be the basis for a homicide conviction, neither are hit-and-run accidents categorically prohibited as a basis for such a charge. Thus, the court determined that whether a hit-and-run accident can serve as the basis for a felony-murder charge depends on the specific facts of each case.

Virginia’s felony-murder statute allows for someone to be convicted if they kill another person during the commission of a felony. The classic example of a felony-murder is when someone is accidentally killed during a bank robbery. Say, for example, the defendant’s gun accidentally discharges, or a co-defendant brings along a firearm to the surprise of the defendant. In either case, the defendant could be charged with felony-murder. However, because “malice” is a required element in a Virginia homicide conviction, the underlying felony must either be a violent crime, or a non-violent crime that was performed in a violent manner. The question here was whether a hit-and-run accident could meet such a definition.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was involved in a hit-and-run accident. The victim of the accident was someone the defendant knew, and had previously been involved in a relationship with. Evidently, a few days before the fatal accident, the defendant had struck the victim with her vehicle while he was riding a bicycle; however, both the defendant and the victim denied that was the case.

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