The Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion today in United States v. Donnell reversing a sentencing determination that treated a Maryland conviction for second-degree assault as a violent felony based on facts set forth in a statement of probable cause not expressly incorporated into the statement of charges. The opinion was unanimous. Judge Davis authored the opinion, which was joined in by Judges King and Keenan.
The panel that issued this opinion is the same panel that heard oral argument in the U.S.S. Nicholas piracy case. That was the second case argued that morning; Donnell was the first. I recall from the argument that federal public defender arguing on behalf of Donnell, Paresh S. Patel, was a particularly effective oral advocate.
One of the key issues in the appeal is whether a statement of charges incorporated a statement of probable cause. That deceptively simple formulation of the issue masks some unclarity in Fourth Circuit precedent about what constitutes incorporation, some of which is addressed in the Donnell opinion. The difficulty facing the Donnell court, it appears, is that prior panels had finessed (or neglected) an important distinction in describing the manner in which statements of probable cause are or are not incorporated into a statement of charges under Maryland law. To see how the Donnell opinion resolves the issue, read the whole thing and decide what you think.