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National Crime Victim Law Institute

In re Brown, 932 F.3d 162 (4th Cir. 2019)

February 06, 2020

Defendant pleaded guilty to three traffic violations relating to a collision she caused while driving under the influence of alcohol. The victim, who suffered serious injuries that required at least seven surgeries within a year of the collision, requested restitution for lost past wages as an electrician during the period of time between the collision and the sentencing hearing. In support of his restitution request, the victim submitted federal tax returns, an affidavit detailing his physical struggles, and a letter from his doctor indicating that the victim was using a walker and would require twice-weekly physical therapy for the next six months. The doctor’s note predicted that the victim would be unable to resume his regular full-time work as an electrician for a year to year and a half from the time of the injury. The victim told the court that he did not intend to pursue any civil action against defendant and that he was not requesting restitution for future medical expenses. The trial court, finding “no reason not to believe” the victim’s accounting of loss, nevertheless declined to order restitution because, inter alia, it found that the magistrate court was not “the appropriate forum to determine restitution.” The trial court advised the victim to seek restitution in a civil suit so that the victim could conduct discovery and deal with “big figures.” The victim filed a petition for a writ of mandamus before the Fourth Circuit challenging the denial of restitution. On review, the Fourth Circuit first affirmed that the victim was entitled to petition the court of appeals for a writ of mandamus under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (“CVRA”), 18 U.S.C. § 3771, as the statutory provision authorizes petitions from actions taken by magistrate judges in their role as “an arm of the district court.” The Fourth Circuit further found that the magistrate judge “failed to articulate the balancing analysis” required by the CVRA. Specifically, the court was required to: “(1) make fact findings specific to two statutory factors—‘the need to provide restitution to a victim,’ and ‘the burden on the sentencing process posed by determining complex issues of facts’—and (2) then explicitly balance these two factors.” Because the court abused its discretion in failing to state why the burden of complexity or delay in sentencing outweighed the victim’s need for restitution, the case was remanded with instructions to the magistrate judge to “conduct and explain on the record its balancing analysis in determining whether to award restitution.” To aid the magistrate court on remand, the Fourth Circuit further clarified that case law discussing the difficulty of calculating restitution for future lost earnings would have limited applicability in the context of past lost earnings. Similarly, the Fourth Circuit instructed that that the “availability of civil remedies” should not be a controlling factor in its determination and that any consideration of medical expenses not sought by the victim in restitution would be irrelevant to the determination of restitution for the past lost earnings actually sought by the victim.