News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit addresses the best evidence rule – and says a lot of other interesting stuff along the way

We read this recent 111-page opinion so you don’t have to. This post is long – though not 111-pages long – and we think it’s worth it.

In United States v. Chavez, a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit issued an epic opinion addressing what is popularly known as the best evidence rule – but which is more accurately called “the original document rule.” That rule, codified in Fed. R. Evid. 1002, provides that “[a]n original writing, recording, or photograph is required in order to prove its content unless these rules or a federal statute provides otherwise.”

Chavez holds that the prosecution may not introduce an English-language transcript purporting to translate a foreign-language audio recording without also introducing the audio recording itself. And while that is straightforward enough, Chavez goes on to call into question a lot of problematic things that prosecutors sometimes do with transcripts of our clients’ alleged calls and conversations. For appellate lawyers, it also has interesting things to say about harmless-error review. Read on for an explanation of Chavez’s holding, along with takeaways for both trial and appellate lawyers.

Background

Randolfo Chavez was indicted for distributing methamphetamine. The prosecution’s case included three conversations that Mr. Chavez allegedly had with government cooperators, including conversations during two (alleged) controlled buys. The three conversations – which were mostly, but not entirely, in Spanish –  were recorded.

At trial, the prosecution offered into evidence what purported to be transcripts of the recordings, with Spanish and English versions side-by-side. The prosecution did not offer the recordings themselves. Defense counsel objected to the transcripts based on the best evidence rule, insisting that the recordings themselves needed to be offered into evidence. The district court overruled the objection, leaving the jury to rely on the transcripts without the underlying recording.

Chavez appealed, arguing the transcripts were inadmissible under Fed. R. Evid. 1002.

The Tenth Circuit’s Holding

A divided panel agreed with Mr. Chavez and reversed his convictions.

Judge Holmes’s opinion for the Court, joined by Judge Seymour, is characteristically comprehensive. It canvasses the history, purpose, and scope of the best evidence rule, and the opinion could be a good resource for those who need to brush up on the rule and how it is applied in the Tenth Circuit.

Ultimately, the majority opinion reasons:

  1. Under Rule 1002, “evidence offered to prove the contents of an original writing, recording, or photograph is not admissible, unless the original itself is also admitted.” Maj. Op. at 30.
  2. The bar on “secondary evidence of an original’s contents unless the original is in evidence . . . is absolute,” save for certain explicitly stated exceptions. Id. at 32.
  3. The list of exceptions does not include any exception for foreign-language recordings.” Id. at 32-33.
  4. Consequently, “under the plain meaning of Rule 1002, the best-evidence rule does not permit courts to admit English-translation transcripts of foreign-language recordings when the recordings themselves are not also in evidence.” Id. at 33.
  5. The prosecution “sought to prove the contents of the recordings” when it “sought to prove the words purportedly spoken by Mr. Chavez and others,” but it failed to introduce the recordings themselves. Id. at 44.
  6. Therefore, “[t]he district court’s decision to admit the transcripts [of the recordings] . . . plainly flies in the face of the best-evidence rule and was an abuse of the court’s discretion.” Id. at 46.

Although the majority opinion’s reasoning is largely formalistic, it is informed by the concerns underlying Rule 1002. The best evidence rule requires an original to ensure reliability and to guard against the “human error or outright fraud” that secondary evidence of an available original’s contents may involve. Id. at 30-32. And in Mr. Chavez’s case, there were grave concerns about the accuracy of the Government’s transcripts. Id. at 10-18, 62-64.

For example, the side-by-side Spanish-and-English transcript lists the following as equivalent phrases:

Spanish – “Ponte las pinches pilas (unintelligible) . . . .”

English – “I’m like the boss. I’m your boss. I can get you anything you want. I got everything for the next load. It’s for us. Keep doing a good job and instead of Mckleen I’ll be hooking you up.”

“It is unclear,” the Court says, “how four Spanish words plus and ‘unintelligible’ word or phrase translate into thirty-eight intelligible words in English.” Id. at 15-16.

In another example, the transcript lists the following as Spanish-to-English equivalents:

Spanish – “Tenemos que pagarle al otro way . . .

English – “Fucking 19 grams, We have to pay the other guy. Is this your number?”

Id. at 63-64.

The Court cites numerous other inexplicable discrepancies.

The Court’s opinion goes on to reject the Government’s argument that introducing the recordings was not required. The Government had posited that the fact that the recordings were in Spanish altered the analysis because “recordings in a language that jurors do not understand is not the best evidence” of what was said. Id. at 46-47 (quotation marks omitted). Rather, said the Government “the ‘best evidence’ was the translated transcripts.” Id. at 47. The Court explained that this “evince[d] a fundamental misunderstanding of the legal import of the best-evidence rule.” Id. “Despite its somewhat misleading name, the best-evidence rule’s concern is not with the admission of the best evidence in a qualitative sense.” Id. at 48.

Accordingly, the majority opinion squarely holds that courts must admit the original audio of a recording in a foreign language if it is to admit a translated transcript of such a recording.

Or does it…?

Judge Hartz’s Dissent

Judge Hartz dissented, maintaining that “[t]he sin of the trial judge was to use his common sense.” Dissenting Op. at 1. The dissent maintains that (for reasons explored below) trial courts can still admit translated transcripts without also admitting the foreign-language recording itself, based on the dissent’s theory, notwithstanding the majority opinion. Id. at 6.

Judge Hartz’s merits analysis proceeds as follows:

  1. Rule 1002 requires that the original of a writing, recording, or photograph be admitted “‘unless these rules or a federal statute provides otherwise.” Id. at 9.
  2. Rule 703 allows for the admission of expert opinion testimony without the information underlying the expert opinion testimony also being admitted. Id. at 7.
  3. Consequently, expert testimony opinion addressing the contents of a writing, recording, or photograph need not be accompanied by the original of the writing, recording, or photograph, because “Rule 703 provides otherwise.” Id. at 9.
  4. A translation of a foreign-language recording is tantamount to expert opinion testimony. Id. at 6-7.
  5. Therefore, a transcript translating a foreign-language recording may be admitted even if the recording itself is not admitted. Id. at 9-10.

Although Judge Hartz acknowledges that there may be good reasons for admitting the recording itself in a particular case, id. at 18, he maintains that trial courts should have the discretion to exclude a foreign-language recording under Rule 402 or Rule 403 on the ground that it is irrelevant; would waste time; or would confuse or mislead the jury, id. at 10.

Why does Judge Hartz think that trial courts can follow this path despite the majority’s holding? The reason is that the majority opinion, in a footnote spanning three pages, explicitly declines to “engage with the merits of the Dissent’s arguments” on the ground that the Government never argued for anything like the dissent’s theory for admitting the transcripts without the recordings. Maj. Op. at 50-52 n.17. Therefore, Judge Hartz maintains, “trial courts in this circuit . . . are free to adopt [his rationale] if they find it persuasive.” Dissenting Op. at 6. Based on the majority opinion’s holding that exceptions to Rule 1002 are strictly limited, it is questionable whether a future panel of the Tenth Circuit would agree with Judge Hartz that his approach remains viable.

TAKEAWAYS

For Trial Lawyers: Challenging Problematic Transcripts and Other Nuggets

More than the Chavez’s holding regarding the best evidence rule, it’s criticisms of the transcripts the prosecution used in this case are likely to have broad applicability for trial lawyers dealing with such transcripts – even when the prosecution introduces the original.

The majority opinion deems the following aspects of the prosecution’s transcripts “problematic and potentially misleading.” Maj. Op. at 56-59, 61-64 (emphasis added).

  • That the transcripts purported to identify Mr. Chavez as a participant in the conversations, improperly treating Mr. Chavez’s participation “as an established (even stipulated) fact.”
  • That the transcripts identified themselves as transcripts of “controlled buys” of methamphetamine, which was improper “editorial commentary . . . not subject to cross-examination.”
  • That the transcripts purported to attribute incriminating statements to Mr. Chavez.
  • That the transcripts “offer[ed] no indication of who created them, when or how the respective transcribers did so, how much time elapsed between the making of each successive statement within the three transcripts, and whether these exhibits reflect a complete transcription of the underlying recordings,” all of which “make their integrity and soundness questionable.”

The Court was sharply critical of these features of the transcripts, and this section of the opinion provides strong grounds for precluding prosecutors from introducing transcripts with such features under Rule 403, under the hearsay rule, under the Confrontation Clause, or for lack of foundation.

Judge Hartz’s dissent suggests another trial-practice tactic. In a point not addressed by the majority opinion, and for reasons we won’t go into here, Judge Hartz argues at length that it is improper for trial judges to declare in front of a jury that a witness is qualified to give expert testimony. Dissenting Op. at 31-35. He provides extensive persuasive authority for the point. And he states that, although the Tenth Circuit “has not prohibited trial judges from declaring in open court that a witness is an expert,” “perhaps we should.” Id. at 35.

Even if telling the jury that a witness is an expert would not be reversible error, Judge Hartz’s opinion is a good resource for arguments that a trial court should refrain from doing so as a matter of discretion.

For Appellate Lawyers: Rebutting Harmless-error Arguments  

Several aspects of the majority’s harmless-error analysis (it finds the error not harmless) should be useful in other appeals:

  • The majority emphatically distinguishes harmless-error analysis from sufficiency-of-the-evidence analysis and emphasizes that the credibility of witnesses is up for grabs when harmless error, rather than sufficiency, is at issue. Maj. Op. at 69-71.
  • It analyzes prejudice by assuming that neither the transcripts nor the underlying recordings would have been admitted, rather than assuming that both the transcripts and the underlying recordings would have been admitted. Id. at 65.
  • It posits that, in assessing harmless error, it is appropriate to think about “the evidence that [the prosecution] did not produce” – in this case, evidence like photographs of Mr. Chavez participating in the controlled buys. Id. at 66-69.
  • It says that a prosecution case is “not strong” when it rests primarily on the testimony of government cooperators who expected benefits. Id. at 66, 69-70.

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit reverses imposition of terrorism sentencing enhancement-U.S.S.G. § 3A1.4

In United States v. Ansberry, the Tenth Circuit, in a case of first impression, reversed the imposition of the terrorism sentencing enhancement—U.S.S.G. § 3A1.4—that added a whopping 12 levels to the defendant’s offense level and boosted his criminal history category from I to VI.

The background facts

              In 1971, David Ansberry, then 19 years old, moved to Nederland, Colorado and fell in with a group of “hippies.”  One of the group members, Guy Goughnor, got rowdy in a bar one night and was escorted out by Town Marshal Renner Forbes.  Mr. Goughnor was never again seen alive and his body was later found in a remote canyon.  He had been shot in the head.  The Boulder County Sherriff’s Department suspected Forbes but was unable to build a case and never brought charges.  But 25 years later, Forbes confessed and was convicted of manslaughter.  He was sentenced to probation.

              By then, Mr. Ansberry had long since moved on from Nederland. But in 2016 he returned to avenge his friend’s death.  At around 5 am one morning, Mr. Ansberry placed a would-be homemade bomb – consisting of (among other things) a light bulb, a cell phone, and an explosive powder called HMTD – outside the police department.  The bomb was supposed to go off when Mr. Ansberry called the phone, but it didn’t work.  After trying unsuccessfully to detonate the device, Mr. Ansberry skipped town, leaving the defective bomb in front of the police department.  Officers found it hours later.  Using a robot, they swung it around and dropped it on the pavement, but the bomb wouldn’t go off.  They finally got it to detonate by firing a steel slug at it.   

The federal prosecution and the sentencing objections

              The government charged Mr. Ansberry with one count of using or attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against a person or property.  Mr. Ansberry pleaded guilty without a plea agreement.  He admitted only to attempting to use a destructive device against property, not a person, when he attempted to set off the bomb early in the morning.

              Mr. Ansberry raised numerous objections at sentencing. Among other things, counsel objected to a three-level, official-victim enhancement (U.S.S.G. § 3A1.2) and also to a terrorism enhancement (U.S.S.G. § 3A1.4).  Together, these two enhancements dramatically increased his guidelines range from 41-51 months, to 324-405 months. The district court overruled the objections and sentenced Mr. Ansberry to 324 months—or 27 years—imprisonment.

The appeal

Mr. Ansberry appealed, and the Tenth Circuit vacated the sentence.  Judge McHugh, writing for a panel that included Circuit Judges Lucero and Eid, found the district court made two reversible mistakes.

              First, the Tenth Circuit held the official-victim enhancement should not have been applied. The district court had applied the enhancement on the theory that Mr. Ansberry had victimized the officers who discovered the defective bomb hours after he had tried to detonate it. But although leaving the bomb for others to find may have constituted relevant conduct within the meaning of the guidelines, the official-victim enhancement – unlike nearly all others – requires that an official be victimized by the conduct comprising the “offense of conviction,” that is, the conduct that satisfies the elements of the offense.  And here, Mr. Ansberry had pleaded guilty only to attempting to damage property, which occurred only during the several minutes he tried unsuccessfully to set off the bomb.

              Second, the Tenth Circuit found that the district court erred in imposing the terrorism enhancement that so drastically increased Mr. Ansberry’s guideline range. The district court had found that the enhancement applied because Mr. Ansberry’s offense was, in the words of the guideline, “calculated to retaliate against government conduct.”  Counsel below had argued that, whatever Mr. Ansberry thought he was doing, he wasn’t retaliating against government conduct because Town Marshal Forbes had not been acting as a government official when he murdered Mr. Ansberry’s friend.  The district court refused to make a finding one way or another on this because, in her view, all that mattered was Mr. Ansberry’s subjective belief that he was retaliating against government conduct.  Mr. Ansberry argued that this was wrong – that the enhancement could only be applied if the conduct Mr. Ansberry was retaliating against was objectively governmental in nature.  Again, the circuit agreed.

Takeaways

  1. Preserve, preserve, preserve! Mr. Ansberry’s lawyers meticulously raised and preserved each of the challenges to his guidelines calculations.  Thanks to this careful lawyering, Mr. Ansberry didn’t face the hurdle of overcoming the plain-error standard on appeal.  Even if the district court isn’t persuaded by your arguments, the Tenth Circuit may be.
  2. Pay attention to the plain language of the guidelines.  Ultimately, both successful arguments came down to the plain language of the guidelines—what is the “offense of conviction,” and what does it mean to “retaliate against government conduct”? Especially when you are dealing with less-common guideline provisions, consider whether the plain language really applies to your client’s case.

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit reaffirms that restitution must be based on the offense of conviction, not relevant conduct.

The Mandatory Victim Restitution Act authorizes restitution only for the loss caused by the specific conduct that is the basis of the offense of conviction.  United States v. Mendenhall, 945 F.3d 1264 (10th Cir. 2019).

Restitution can be an afterthought at sentencing.  The parties are, understandably, far more concerned with incarceration.  However, appropriately limiting restitution is important because a large restitution order can follow a client for 20 years and make it difficult for them to get back on their feet, and stay there.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3613.

As the Tenth Circuit has recognized, “The most important thing at sentencing is determining whether the defendant will be incarcerated and, if so, for how long. Other matters, such as restitution and conditions of supervised release, are, appropriately, of secondary concern. But they are not inconsequential and deserve focused attention.” United States v. Martinez-Torres, 795 F.3d 1233, 1234 (10th Cir. 2015)

Recently, in United States v. Mendenhall, the Tenth Circuit reiterated a fundamental aspect of restitution under the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act (MVRA): a district court can order restitution only to a victim of an offense of conviction, and “only for loss caused by the specific conduct that is the basis of the offense of conviction.”  Mendenhall, 945 F.3d at 1267.

In Mendenhall, an indictment charged the defendant with unlawful possession of three specific stolen firearms, each identified by serial number.  The firearms were stolen from a pawnshop during a burglary in which a total of 62 firearms were stolen, and substantial evidence implicated Mendenhall in the burglary.  Only a dozen or so firearms, including the three identified in the indictment, were recovered and returned to the pawnshop.

The district court ordered Mendenhall to pay the pawnshop restitution in the amount of $33,763.23 for “the loss of firearms not recovered, wages for employees to conduct inventory, loss of revenue for closing of business . . . and cleanup/repairs.”  Id. at 1266.  Mendenhall did not object to the restitution order.  On plain error, the Tenth Circuit reversed.

The Tenth Circuit explained that “[d]istrict courts lack inherent powers to order restitution.”  Id.  They may only do so as authorized by statute, and the MVRA authorizes restitution only to “a person directly and proximately harmed as a result of the commission of an offense.”  Id. (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 3663A(a)(2)).  Moreover, the Supreme Court has interpreted this language as limiting restitution “only for losses caused by the conduct underlying the offense of conviction.”  Id. at 1267 (quoting Hughey v. United States, 495 U.S. 411, 416 (1990)).  Based on these limitations, Mendenhall did not owe any restitution at all.

The elements of Mr. Mendenhall’s offense of conviction were: (1) knowing possession of the firearms; (2) interstate commerce; and (3) knowing or having reasonable cause to believe the firearms were stolen.  “None of these elements caused the losses cited as the basis for the restitution order” because the “three firearms listed in the indictment were recovered and returned.”  Id. at 1268.  That Mendehall did not object to the PSR’s assertion that he was involved in the burglary was irrelevant: “Restitution must be based on the offense of conviction, not relevant conduct.”  Id. (quoting United States v. Frith, 461 F.3d 914, 916 (7th Cir. 2006)).

Finally, the Tenth Circuit panel was reluctant to find that the fourth prong of the plain error test was met—that is, whether the error “seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings”—calling it “not an easy question in a case like this one where everybody knows that Mendenhall stole the firearms and pocketed the cash from the theft.”  Id. at 1270.  However, it acknowledged that a restitution order that exceeds the amount authorized by statute “amounts to an illegal sentence,” just as a term of imprisonment above the stat max does.  Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit was bound by precedent to conclude that all four prongs of plain error were met, and it reversed the order of restitution.

Takeaways

  • Restitution can be very burdensome for our clients.
  • Because restitution is a secondary concern for everyone—the defense, the government, probation, and the court—the orders often contain errors.
  • Restitution can be ordered only for loss caused by the specific conduct that is the basis of the offense of conviction. In other words, restitution must be based on the offense of conviction, not relevant conduct.
    • Caveat: in a plea agreement, a defendant can agree to restitution beyond what is otherwise authorized by statute.
  • An excessive restitution order is an illegal sentence

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Reverses First Degree Murder Conviction (and reaffirms important principles of appellate law along the way)

The Tenth Circuit reversed appellant Brian Tony’s first-degree murder conviction this week and remanded the case for a new trial.  Not only is this an amazing defense victory with an incredible remedy (kudos to AFPD Josh Lee in Denver), but the relatively short appellate decision is packed with important information, particularly for appellate lawyers. This decision also should send a clear message to trial courts: take extra care before excluding defense evidence.

FACTS: Mr. Tony’s defense at trial was that he acted in self-defense or at least without premeditation.  It was a plausible defense because the killing occurred during a knock-down, drag-out fight.  In support of this defense, Mr. Tony wanted to put on evidence that the decedent was high on methamphetamine at the time of the killing.  His theory of relevance was straightforward: meth makes people behave erratically- they can become crazy and violent- which supported the notion that the decedent was the first aggressor.  The trial judge, however, excluded the methamphetamine evidence on the ground that the defense had not proffered a proper, non-propensity purpose under Federal Rule 404(b).

HOLDING: The judge erred in excluding the defense evidence because defense counsel had proffered a proper purpose. But there are lots of other interesting points of law involving appellate procedure that the Tenth Circuit discusses in reaching its holding.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Use this case if you are looking for law on the scope of permissible affirmance on alternative grounds

The government asked the court of appeals to affirm the conviction on the alternative ground that the meth evidence wasn’t relevant without expert testimony that (1) the decedent was actually high at the time of the fight and (2) meth makes people violent.  The defense responded with a legal argument: because any decision on evidentiary relevance is committed to the district court’s (not the appellate court’s) discretion, the Tenth Circuit could affirm on that ground only if it would be an abuse of the district court’s discretion to rule for the defense on the relevance issue.  This principle has long existed in the Tenth Circuit’s case law, but it was buried by dozens of cases that ignored it and affirmed evidentiary rulings on alternative grounds with no discussion of the discretionary nature of the decision.  This principle is now revived.

Use this case if you are looking to police the government’s burden of proof on harmless error

The government argued that excluding the meth evidence was harmless because the evidence at trial overwhelmingly established Mr. Tony had not acted in self-defense. On this point, the court first clarified that the government bears the burden of demonstrating that a preserved, non-constitutional error is harmless.  While the government had argued that the error was harmless with respect to self-defense, it had not argued that it was harmless with respect to the lack of premeditation.  The government’s failure to make this argument operated as a waiver.  This too is an important point of law – that the government waives harmless error by not arguing it.

Use this case if you are looking for law on why a new trial is the appropriate remedy for evidentiary error

The government argued that instead of remanding for a new trial, the circuit should have remanded the case to the district court to make findings on whether it would have excluded the meth evidence under Rule 403 as substantially more prejudicial than probative.  The court said no for two reasons.  The first was the trial had happened two years earlier, which would make it hard for the district court to put itself back in the position of making pretrial rulings.  The second reason was that remanding for findings would give the district court, eager to avoid a retrial, “an overwhelming temptation to rationalize the exclusion of the meth evidence under Rule 403.”  Op. at 11.  This is another principle that existed but was moribund in the circuit’s case law until this case reaffirmed it.

Preserve This! SCOTUS to decide whether crime that can be committed recklessly can qualify as a “violent felony” under ACCA

Today, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Walker v United States, out of the Sixth Circuit, to decide whether a criminal offense that can be committed with a mens rea of recklessness can qualify as a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. 924(e).

As the petition for certiorari explains, there is a deep and widely recognized conflict in the courts of appeals over that question.

The Tenth Circuit takes the view, like the Sixth Circuit, that offenses that can be committed recklessly can nevertheless qualify as violent felonies under ACCA’s force clause. See, e.g., United States v Hammons (for purposes of determining whether an offense constitutes a valid ACCA predicate, “it makes no difference whether the person applying the force had the specific intention of causing harm or instead merely acted recklessly”).

Make sure to preserve this issue!

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit holds special condition of supervised release banning internet use, unless preapproved by probation, is greater deprivation of liberty than necessary under 18 U.S.C.§ 3583(d)

Individuals convicted of child pornography offenses in the District of Colorado have typically been subject to a special condition of supervised release aimed at controlling their internet use; it states: “The defendant’s use of computers and Internet access devices must be limited to those the defendant requests to use, and which the probation officer authorizes.” This condition essentially prevents individuals on supervised release from using any computer or “Internet access device” by default, unless and until their probation officer gives them permission to do so—and there’s nothing to say that probation ever has to give them permission.

This week, in United States v. Blair, the Tenth Circuit, over a dissent by Judge Baldock, held this condition is a greater deprivation of liberty than reasonably necessary under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d) because “it allows the probation office to completely ban the defendant’s use of the internet by failing to place any restraints on a probation officer’s ability to restrict a defendant’s Internet access.” 2019 WL 379368, at *1.  Notably, the majority reached its decision, notwithstanding arguably aggravating factors about Mr. Blair’s offense, which were highlighted by the dissent.

The Tenth Circuit held: “the special condition would prohibit [Mr. Blair’s] use of a computer for benign activities, such as writing a novel or checking the weather, without first obtaining permission from his probation officer.” Id. at *6. Moreover, the condition gives the probation office “unfettered discretion” to decide when to lift the ban—without anything to “suggest[] that the probation office [would] allow Blair any reasonable use of the internet.” Id. at *6-7.  The Tenth Circuit vacated the special condition and remanded to the district court with instructions to “amend the special condition of supervised release to bring it into compliance with the demands of [18 U.S.C.] sections 3553 and 3583.”

So how is the district court supposed to bring this special condition into compliance with the sentencing and supervised released statutes?  The Tenth Circuit has some ideas.

The probation officer is “limited to imposing only those restrictions that are reasonably calculated to prevent the defendant from using a computer or the Internet to access, store, produce, or send child pornography in any form; to provide necessary restrictions to facilitate a defendant’s correctional treatment so that he may be rehabilitated; and to protect the public from any further crimes of the defendant.” Id. at *8-9. The Court further indicated that a district court would have to find “extraordinary circumstances” existed in order to justify a “blanket or total ban” on internet usage, which nobody had argued applied in Mr. Blair’s case. Id. at *9 n.6.

Takeaways

  •  No categorical internet/computer bans. The district court cannot ban defendants—including those convicted of possessing child pornography—from using the internet or computers, absent extraordinary facts not present in the typical case. Nor can a district court order a condition that allows probation to impose such a ban. Rather, any restriction on internet or computer use has to be tailored to preventing further child pornography crimes or facilitating the defendant’s rehabilitation.
  • Challenge overbroad conditions of supervised release at sentencing.
    • The law is on our side to assert this challenge at sentencing.  As the Tenth Circuit explains in Blair: “Although district courts have broad discretion to prescribe conditions on supervised release…that discretion is limited by 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d) and 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).”
    • The government’s argument that it’s better to wait until defendant is actually on supervision didn’t go anywhere with the court of appeals.  The Tenth Circuit rejects out of hand the government’s suggestion “that the proper time for [a defendant] to raise his desire to use computers and the Internet for harmless purposes is down the road when he meets with his probation officer and discovers how the probation office intends to enforce the condition.” Id. at *8. After all, the prohibition on overbroad conditions contained in 18 U.S.C. § 3583 “directly govern[s] the district court’s obligations in imposing the supervised release conditions” at sentencing. Id.
    •  Another reminder that preservation matters.  Trial counsel objected to the internet-use ban in the district court, clearing the path for a meaningful victory in the court of appeals.
  • Overly restrictive conditions matter because violating them could result in  more prison time. As the Tenth Circuit acknowledges in a footnote, people have gone to prison for violating overbroad conditions of supervised release in seemingly innocuous ways—such as by checking their email or logging into Facebook. see id. at *8 n.5. By paying attention to these issues at sentencing, you may be able to save your client some jail time down the road.
  •  Don’t be scared away by an appellate waiver – make sure it bars your issue before assuming otherwise.  Mr. Blair signed a plea agreement with an appeal waiver, but it was unenforceable here, allowing the appeal to proceed.  As the Tenth Circuit noted, the government conceded that “this appeal falls outside the scope of the waiver” because Blair received a sentence based on an offense level higher than that anticipated by the agreement.

 

News You Can Use: SCOTUS refrains (for now) from reviving nondelegation doctrine in Gundy v. United States

By Perrin Tourangeau

Perrin is a summer intern at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming.  She is a rising second-year law student at the University of Virginia School of Law.  She was born and raised in Denver, and hopes to return to Colorado after finishing law school to pursue a career in public defense.

 In  Gundy v United States, a plurality of the Supreme Court narrowly dodged a nondelegation conflict presented by a challenge to the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor concluded that a SORNA provision which gives the Attorney General the authority “to specify the applicability” of SORNA’s registration requirements to sex offenders who were convicted before its enactment (pre-Act offenders) was a “distinctly small-bore” legislative delegation and, thus, “easily passes [constitutional] muster.” Gundy v. United States, –S. Ct.–, 9, 2019 WL 2527473 (2019); see 34 U.S.C. § 20913(d).

The nondelegation doctrine prohibits Congress from transferring its legislative power to another federal branch. Id. at 2. However, Congress can “confer substantial discretion on executive agencies to implement and enforce the laws, so long as it “supplie[s] an intelligible principle to guide the delegee’s use of discretion.” Id. at 4. While the provision in question does not explicitly impose a limitation on the Attorney General’s discretion regarding the application of SORNA to pre-Act offenders, based on the statute’s declaration of purpose, definition of “sex offender,” and legislative history, the plurality interpreted it to confine “the Attorney General’s discretion … only to considering and addressing feasibility issues” of applying the statute to pre-Act offenders, rather than allowing the Attorney General to decide whether or not to apply the statute to pre-Act offenders in general. Id.at 4-7. Therefore, the Court held that, because SORNA requires “the Attorney general [to] apply SORNA’s registration requirements as soon as feasible to offenders convicted before the enactment,” the statute provides an intelligible principle limiting the Attorney General’s authority and, thus, does not violate the nondelegation doctrine. Id. at 2.

The plurality expressed its hesitation to use the nondelegation doctrine to invalidate the provision, stating that “if SORNA’s delegation is unconstitutional, then most of the Government is unconstitutional,” and highlighting Congress’s need to delegate authority “under broad general directives.” Id. at 9 (quoting Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 372 (1989)). As noted on SCOTUS Blog, “[t]he lineup in Gundy shows that there are four justices … who are still willing to use the tools of statutory interpretation to fend off the nondelegation problem.” Mila Sohoni, Opinion analysis: Court refuses to resurrect nondelegation doctrine, SCOTUSBlog (June 20, 2019).

Justice Alito concurred in the judgment only, stating that “[i]f a majority of this Court were willing to reconsider the approach we have taken for the past 84 years, I would support that effort. But because a majority is not willing to do that, it would be freakish to single out the provision at issue here for special treatment.” Id. at 10 (Alito, J., concurring in the judgment).

Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas and the Chief Justice, dissented, taking issue with both the plurality’s interpretation of SORNA and its nondelegation analysis. Id. (Gorsuch, J., dissenting). Looking to contradictory representations about the provision’s meaning made by the government in previous cases and the lack of an explicit standard limiting the delegation in the statute’s text, the dissent concluded that SORNA’s delegation impermissibly authorizes “the nation’s chief law enforcement officer to write the criminal laws he is charged with enforcing” and provides no meaningful standard by which to limit that delegation. Id. at 22-23. Justice Gorsuch stated that in a previous case, “the government told this Court that SORNA supplies no standards regulating the Attorney General’s treatment of pre-Act offenders. This Court agreed, and everyone proceeded with eyes open about the potential constitutional consequences; in fact, the dissent expressly warned that adopting such a broad construction … would yield the separation-of-powers challenge we face today.” Id. at 25. Although Justice Gorsuch described the plurality’s feasibility standard as “imaginary,” he noted that even were it explicitly written into the section at issue, it is too ambiguous to actually cabin the executive’s exercise of the statutory delegation. Id. at 23.

The dissent proposes a more potent (or, as the dissent suggests, more constitutionally faithful) version of the nondelegation doctrine. Justice Gorsuch characterizes the intelligible principle doctrine as “another way to describe the traditional rule that Congress may leave the executive the responsibility to find facts and fill up details.” Id. at 17. According to the dissent, three kinds of statutory delegations “are constitutionally permissible: (1) legislation in which Congress makes the important policy decisions but leaves it to the executive to ‘fill up the details’; (2) legislation in which Congress prescribes the rule but leaves it to the executive to conduct fact-finding when the rule is applied; and (3) legislation that allows the executive broad discretionary power concerning matters that also fall within a zone of executive power.” Sohoni, supra. To the dissent, the nondelegation doctrine is a vital constitutional protection because it aids in the preservation of individual liberties, promotes legislative deliberation, provides stability, predictability, and fair notice to individuals, and increases political accountability. Gundy, –S. Ct. at 14(Gorsuch, J., dissenting).

Responding to the plurality’s concerns about the nondelegation doctrine’s potential to destabilize the entire modern executive branch, Justice Gorsuch argued that enforcing the doctrine does not “spell doom for what some call the ‘administrative state.’” Id. at 22. He frames the doctrine as merely a “procedural protection” and, thus, noted that it “does not prohibit any particular policy outcome, [nor does it] dictate any conclusion about the proper size and scope of government. Id. This construction of the doctrine hardly leaves Congress without tools to achieve its legislative objectives: according to Justice Gorsuch, Congress permissibly “may … authorize executive branch officials to fill in even a large number of details, to find facts that trigger the generally applicable rule of conduct specified in a statute, or to exercise non-legislative powers.” Id.

Justice Kavanaugh did not participate in the decision.

Takeaways

  • SORNA applies to pre-Act offenders. This much is obvious: those convicted of a qualifying sex offense before SORNA’s enactment (pre-Act offenders) must comply with SORNA’s registration requirements as dictated by the Attorney General pursuant to 34 U.S.C. § 20913(d) and 75 Fed. Reg. 81850. Those pre-Act offenders who knowingly fail to register under the Act may be imprisoned for up to ten years. 18 U.S.C. § 2250(a).
  • Be on the lookout for potential challenges to legislative delegations in criminal statutes. Four justices explicitly indicated in Gundy that they are “willing to reconsider the nondelegation doctrine from the ground up,” and Justice Kavanaugh could provide a fifth vote to revitalize the doctrine in future cases. Sohoni, supra. The Gundy dissent is particularly concerned with statutory delegations that combine “lawmaking and law enforcement responsibilities … in the same hands” as well as those that give the executive branch the power to “make all the important policy decisions” without providing a meaningful standard “court[s] might later use to judge whether [the executive] exceeded the bounds of the authority,” like the ambiguous feasibility standard that the majority read into34 U.S.C. § 20913(d). Gundy, –S. Ct. at 23 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting). However, some commentators doubt the potency of this potential revival of the nondelegation doctrine, arguing that the “intelligible principle” doctrine is too “mushy” to be applied consistently by the Court, Rick Hills, Gundy, Constitutional Coalitions, and the Credible Commitment Problem of the Constitutional Doctrine, PrawfsBlawg (June 22, 2019), and that if the Court was unwilling to invalidate a “low-stakes” statute like that in Gundy, it is highly unlikely to invalidate future laws as the stakes increase. Adrian Vermeule, Never Jam Today, Notice & Comment (June 20, 2019).
  • Preserve, preserve, preserve. Given Justice Alito’s concurrence and the fact that Justice Kavanaugh did not participate in the Gundy decision, lawyers should continue to preserve the nondelegation argument regarding U.S.C. § 20913(d) in SORNA cases involving pre-Act offenders. The Gundy concurrence and dissent suggest that future challenges to this provision might be worthwhile, and we may even see rehearing requests pr more certiorari petitions because Justice Kavanaugh did not weigh in on the decision.

 

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Aragon – a Narrow Drug Quantity Ruling That Raises Broad Questions

In United States v. Aragon, 922 F.3d 1102 (10th Cir. 2019), the Tenth Circuit issued an interesting but fact-specific holding that the district court clearly erred in determining the applicable drug quantity. At the same time, the opinions in Aragon raised without resolving fundamental questions about the role of the court and counsel in sentencing proceedings.  Read on about the opinion, and be sure to check out the takeaways at the bottom of the post.

 I.           The Drug Quantity Issue

Leonard Aragon pleaded guilty to possessing with intent to distribute controlled substances. The charges were based on two controlled buys in which Mr. Aragon sold a total of 71.9 grams of heroin to a confidential informant. The drug quantity issue arose from additional suspected drugs recovered from Mr. Aragon’s car at the time of his later arrest. The district court found that the suspected drugs amounted to 11 additional grams of heroin and 28.5 grams of methamphetamine. The district court’s findings increased Mr. Aragon’s offense level by 4 and produced a higher guidelines range.

On appeal, Mr. Aragon maintained that the district court clearly erred by determining that the suspected heroin weighed 11 grams and that the suspected methamphetamine weighed 28.5 grams. The record revealed only the “packaged weights” of the suspected drugs, not the “net weights” of the drugs themselves. The district court had attempted to derive the net weights by “deducting half a gram for the packaging” of each package. Slip op. at 7. It was this move that Mr. Aragon attacked as clearly erroneous. Mr. Aragon pointed out there was no evidence about the weight of the packaging and posited that the available photographs made it “impossible to tell” how much of the packaged weight was attributable to the packaging itself. Id. at 14.

 The Tenth Circuit agreed. The Court characterized “the district court’s half-a-gram figure” as “guesswork” and ruled that drug quantity findings cannot be sustained on such a basis. Id. The Tenth Circuit went on to reject a harmless-error defense interposed by the Government. The Government argued that Mr. Aragon’s offense level would have remained the same “even if the packaging of the heroin and methamphetamine found in his car weighed 11 grams each.” Id. at 15. The Tenth Circuit, however, took note of cases in which the weight attributed to drug packaging “was dramatic,” including a prior Tenth Circuit case in which the packaged weight of heroin was 28.2 grams but the net weight was only 3.8 grams. Id. Given that the photographs in the case were ambiguous, the Tenth Circuit found itself unable to conclude that the district court’s error did not affect Mr. Aragon’s offense level. Id. at 16.

The Tenth Circuit vacated Mr. Aragon’s sentence and remanded for resentencing. Id. at 19.

 II.          The Roles of District Courts and Counsel at Sentencing

 Although the Tenth Circuit vacated Mr. Aragon’s sentence on narrow grounds, both the Court’s opinion and a concurrence by Judge Holmes broached broader issues.

 A.          What are the limits on a district court’s authority to act sua sponte at sentencing?

Before ruling in favor of Mr. Aragon on the drug quantity issue, the Tenth Circuit addressed and rejected Mr. Aragon’s argument that the district court had abused its discretion by acting sua sponte at sentencing.

 This issue arose because it was the sentencing judge, not the Government, who elicited the evidence regarding what was found in Mr. Aragon’s car. The parties had signed a plea agreement stating that the appropriate guidelines range was one that did not add levels based on what was found in Mr. Aragon’s car. Id. at 2-4. The Government had agreed with that calculation because, unlike the heroin from the controlled buys, the suspected drugs found in Mr. Aragon’s car were neither field tested nor sent to a laboratory for formal testing. Id. at 6. No such testing was pursued “because Mr. Aragon had quickly indicated his intent to resolve the case, which prompted the government to cease its investigation.” Id. The sentencing judge, however, decided to collect and present its own evidence regarding what was found in Mr. Aragon’s car. The judge directed the Government to provide the court with “all documents and reports relating to Mr. Aragon’s arrest and the discovery of [suspected] drugs in his car,” a police report relating to phone calls that Mr. Aragon had made from jail, and a report regarding the contents of Mr. Aragon’s cell phone. Id. at 4. In addition, the judge directed the Government to “have the case agent present at sentencing.” Id. Over Mr. Aragon’s objection, the district court relied on the evidence that it had gathered to increase Mr. Aragon’s guidelines range.

Mr. Aragon maintained the district court’s sua sponte actions were improper, but the Tenth Circuit disagreed. The Court reaffirmed prior precedent that a district court’s power to gather and elicit its own evidence is incident to its obligation to determine the facts relevant facts at sentencing. Id. at 8. Still, the Court recognized that this power is not absolute. While ultimately rejecting Mr. Aragon’s argument, the Court did agree with Mr. Aragon on two preliminary points: (1) that a sentencing judge who gathers and elicits his own evidence “must take care not to create the appearance that he or she is less than totally impartial” and (2) that a district court’s power to gather and elicit its own evidence is “subject to abuse-of-discretion review.” Id. at 8, 10. The Court simply held that Mr. Aragon had not established an abuse of discretion on the particular facts of his case. Id. at 8-12.

The Aragon opinion ultimately sheds little broader light on when a district court’s sua sponte conduct at sentencing may go too far. The decision says that sua sponte actions may be overturned for an abuse of discretion. The opinion does not explain which factors are material to assessing whether a district court has abused its discretion, though it did deem significant that the judge had “made multiple statements to Mr. Aragon reassuring him that the manner in which the additional evidence was uncovered would not impact his sentence.” Id. at 11.

 B.          Must counsel disclose to the district court all information that “reasonably could be deemed” to affect the guidelines range?

A concurring opinion by Judge Holmes took aim at an ethical question that had been raised by the sentencing judge. In explaining his decision to gather and elicit evidence sua sponte, the district judge expressed the view that counsel for the parties had intentionally concealed the fact that contraband had been found in Mr. Aragon’s car and thereby acted improperly. Id. at 20 (Holmes, J., concurring). The principal opinion, however, described how defense counsel had disclosed at the change-of-plea hearing that contraband that might have increased Mr. Aragon’s offense level had been found in his car when he was arrested, and the Court assumed without deciding that the district court clearly erred in finding that the parties had acted deceptively. Id. at 2-3, 8-9 (principal opinion). Judge Holmes deemed himself “content with that assumption” and “d[id] not opine on the propriety of counsel’s actions in this case.” Id. at 20, 26 (Holmes, J., concurring). Nevertheless, speaking “hypothetically,” Judge Holmes wrote separately to offer his view that it would violate counsel’s duty of candor to the tribunal to “agree to intentionally withhold from the court’s consideration evidence that reasonably could be deemed to qualify as relevant conduct.” Id. at 24. Neither of the other two judges on the panel joined Judge Holmes’s concurrence.

 TAKEAWAYS

  •  Packaged Weights, Gross Weights, and Net Weights (Oh My?)

Be on guard for drug quantities that are reported as “packaged weights” or (equivalently) as “gross weights” — that is, the combined weight of drugs and their packaging. Likewise, be skeptical if quantities reported do not explicitly specify that they are “net weights” — that is, the weight of the drugs themselves, not including any packaging. Under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1 n.1, the applicable drug quantity does not include packaging or other material “that must be separated from the controlled substance before the controlled substance can be used.” And the Aragon opinion highlights cases in which the difference between gross weight and net weight was large.

  •  No Guessing Allowed.

 Aragon is also useful because it reemphasizes the more broadly applicable principle that a drug quantity calculation must be grounded in something more than guesswork. Consider an objection on these grounds any time the Government’s or Probation’s drug quantity calculation is based on ambiguous or contradictory information.

  •  The Judge’s Authority to Investigate

 Aragon confirms that, as a general matter, a judge may gather and elicit evidence in connection with sentencing. Defense counsel should anticipate and, in appropriate cases prepare for, this possibility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice Tip: Challenging “Crimes of Violence” and “Controlled Substance Offenses” under § 4B1.2 — Ideas about Inchoate Offenses

Figuring out how your client’s criminal history impacts their sentencing exposure is often no easy task. This is particularly so when you’re dealing with prior convictions that could be counted as “crimes of violence” or “controlled substance offenses” under the career offender guideline, § 4B1.2. Take a felon-in-possession sentencing, for example, where a single prior “crime of violence” will increase a client’s base offense level from 14 to 20—and potentially add years to his sentence.

That’s why it’s worth looking closely at every supposed “crime of violence” or “controlled substance offense,” and objecting to the characterization of that prior conviction if possible. Challenging priors might help your client now, or it might help later (read on for ideas about how to preserve arguments for appeal). Remember, a district court commits procedural error when it fails to properly calculate the correct Guidelines range. See, e.g., United States v. Lente, 647 F.3d 1021, 1030 (10th Cir. 2011).

Here are some arguments to consider if the prior conviction is for an inchoate offense such as conspiracy, aiding and abetting, or attempt.

THE BASICS

Is the prior conviction a categorical match for the generic offense?

When determining whether a particular conviction constitutes a “crime of violence” or “controlled substance offense” under § 4B1.2, courts apply the categorical approach and “look to the statute under which the defendant was convicted.” United States v Martinez-Cruz, 836 F.3d 1305, 1309 (10th Cir. 2016). That includes determining whether the elements of the generic, contemporary version of the relevant inchoate offense match up with the elements of the prior conviction. In Martinez-Cruz, for example, the Tenth Circuit found that the defendant’s prior conviction for federal conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute was not a “controlled substance offense” because—unlike generic conspiracy—that offense does not require proof of an “overt act.” See 836 F.3d at 1310-11.

To conduct this type of analysis, begin by taking a look at the underlying inchoate offense and figuring out what it requires the government to prove, and then compare it to similar offenses in other jurisdictions. In Colorado, for example, conspiracy is “unilateral,” which means it is “committed when the defendant agrees with another person to act in a prohibited manner; the second party can feign agreement.” People v Vecellio, 292 P.3d 1004, 1010 (Colo. Ct. App. 2012). But in other jurisdictions, conspiracy is “bilateral” and requires two co-conspirators to actually agree to commit a crime—you can’t “conspire” with an undercover law enforcement agent who is only pretending to agree. See, e.g., United States v Barboa, 777 F.2d 1420, 1422 (10th Cir. 1985); People v Foster, 457 N.E.2d 405, 415 (Ill. 1983).

If there seems to be a real split in authority, it’s worth digging deeper to suss out the majority approach to the question—i.e., what counts as the generic form of the crime. If your client’s prior is broader than that generic crime, then it is not a categorical match for the offense, and cannot be counted as a “crime of violence” or “controlled substance offense” under § 4B1.2.

FORECLOSED BUT MIGHT BE WORTH PRESERVING

There are a couple of arguments in this vein that are foreclosed by Tenth Circuit precedent, but may be worth raising for preservation.

  • Does Application Note 1 unlawfully expand the definition of “crime of violence” to include inchoate offenses?

The practice of counting inchoate offenses as “crimes of violence” or “controlled substance offenses” is not actually rooted in the text of § 4B1.2. Rather, it is based entirely on Application Note 1 to that guideline, which states that the definitions of “crime of violence” and “controlled substance offense” “include the offenses of aiding and abetting, conspiring, and attempting to commit such offenses.”

That raises the question: Since when can the Sentencing Commission expand the scope of a guideline through its commentary? Unlike the guidelines themselves, the commentary are not subject to the Administrative Procedures Act. And while the Sentencing Commission is free to interpret the guidelines through commentary, the expansion of the guideline to include inchoate offenses arguably exceeds that interpretive authority. At least, that’s what the D.C. Circuit held in United States v Winstead, 890 F.3d 1082 (2018), and what a panel of the Sixth Circuit seemed to believe in United States v Havis, 907 F.3d 439 (2018). The Havis panel was bound to affirm the sentence by prior circuit precedent—but were apparently able to persuade the entire court to take the issue en banc. See United States v. Havis, 921 F.3d 628 (2019) (granting petition for rehearing en banc).

The Tenth Circuit previously rejected a version of this argument in United States v Martinez, 602 F.3d 1166 (2010). However, the issue may nevertheless be worth raising, in light of the new (and growing?) circuit split on the issue.

  • Is Colorado attempt broader than generic attempt, insofar as it defines “substantial step” to mean any conduct that is strongly corroborative of the actor’s criminal purpose?

The Tenth Circuit has held that generic attempt liability requires “the commission of an act which constitutes a substantial step toward commission of that crime,” United States v Venzor-Granillo, 668 F.3d 1224, 1232 (10th Cir. 2012), a formulation that derives from the Model Penal Code. The Model Penal Code, in turn, states that “[c]onduct shall not be held to constitute a substantial step . . . unless it is strongly corroborative of the actor’s criminal purpose.” Model Penal Code § 5.01(2). In other words, it suggests that strongly corroborative conduct may constitute a substantial step—but not that it necessarily does.

By contrast, Colorado law provides that “[a] substantial step is any conduct . . . which is strongly corroborative of the firmness of the actor’s purpose to complete the offense.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-2-101(1) (emphasis added). Under Colorado law, strong corroboration of criminal purpose is not merely necessary but rather sufficient to establish a substantial step, unlike the “unadulterated Model Penal Code approach.” People v Lehnert, 163 P.3d 1111, 1114 (Colo. 2007). In this way, Colorado attempt arguably sweeps more broadly than generic attempt.

The Tenth Circuit recently rejected this argument in United States v. Mendez, No. 18-1259 (10th Cir. 2019). This is another argument that may be worth raising for preservation purposes, in case the law changes in the future.

Takeaways

  • Look closely at any conviction that is classified as a “crime of violence” or “controlled substance offense.” It could make a big difference to your client’s sentence!
  • Be creative. The elements of the inchoate offenses—conspiracy, aiding and abetting, and attempt—vary across jurisdictions. Compare the elements of your client’s prior offense against those in other jurisdictions, and consider whether there’s a viable challenge under the categorical approach.
  • Focus on the text of the guideline. As the D.C. Circuit and several judges on the Sixth Circuit have noted, § 4B1.2 says nothing about inchoate offenses—and the Sentencing Commission lacks the authority to expand the reach of its guidelines through its commentary. While this argument is arguably foreclosed in the Tenth Circuit, it may be worth preserving in your client’s case.
  • Brush up on the categorical approach. This sentencing doctrine is hyper-technical and obscure—and it can produce real results for our clients. For a good overview of the categorical approach in general, take a look at United States v Titties, 852 F.3d 1257 (10th Cir. 2017). For an example of its use in the guidelines context, take a look at United States v Martinez-Cruz, 836 F.3d 1305 (10th Cir. 2016).

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Vacates Denial of Suppression Motion in a Published Decision (With Photos!)

In US v. Gaines, the Tenth Circuit vacated the denial of a motion to suppress in a published opinion, ruling: (1) the defendant was seized when police officers confronted him about reported drug sales in a parking lot; and (2) the subsequent discovery of an arrest warrant did not attenuate the connection between the seizure and the evidence. And they did so with style, buttressing their points with actual photographs of the alleged seizure in question. The opinion doesn’t break new legal ground, but it provides a nice review of some basic Fourth Amendment principles—and is a great example of creative appellate advocacy.

Background

Kansas City police received a 911 call reporting a man dressed in red had sold drugs in a local parking lot. Based on that call, uniformed officers driving two separate police cars pulled into the parking lot and parked behind a car occupied by a man wearing red clothing—Mr. Gaines. Police turned on their flashing roof lights and gestured for Mr. Gaines to get out of his car. To help established the scene, Mr. Gaines included the following image the Opening Brief:

Photo1

After Mr. Gaines got out of his car, one officer confronted him about the reported drug sale, observed an open container of alcohol, and smelled PCP. Officers told Mr. Gaines he would be detained. Mr. Gaines then grabbed a pouch from his car and fled the scene. He was soon captured. Meanwhile, police discovered cocaine, marijuana, PCP, drug paraphernalia, cash, and a handgun in his car.  Mr. Gaines unsuccessfully moved to suppress this evidence, and was convicted after trial. He appealed the denial of his motion to suppress.

Tenth Circuit Decision

The Tenth Circuit vacated the denial of the suppression motion in a published opinion, focusing on two issues: (1) whether there was a seizure; and (2) whether the relationship between the seizure and the evidence was attenuated.

  • There was a seizure

The Tenth Circuit found Mr. Gaines was seized because a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave the scene, and Mr. Gaines in fact yielded to the police’s show of authority. The opinion goes into a lot of detail about what specifically made the encounter a seizure, including that it involved uniformed police officers in marked police cars with flashing lights, where state law requires motorists to stop for flashing lights. The Court also emphasized one of the officers had gestured for Mr. Gaines to get out of his car before asking him an accusatory question.

  • There was no attenuation

The Tenth Circuit also rejected the government’s attempt to salvage the case through the attenuation doctrine. Under that doctrine, evidence does not need to be excluded if the Government can meet its heavy burden of showing that there is only a weak or attenuated connection to the asserted Fourth Amendment violation. When applying the attenuation doctrine, the court considers: (1) the temporal proximity between the alleged Fourth Amendment violation and the discovery of the evidence; (2) the presence or absence of intervening circumstances; and (3) the purpose and flagrancy of the police wrongdoing.

Specifically, the Tenth Circuit rejected the government’s arguments that either an outstanding arrest warrant or the subsequent development of probable cause established attenuation in this case. With respect to the warrant, the Tenth Circuit noted that executing the warrant and arresting Mr. Gaines would not automatically have allowed the search of his vehicle—citing the Court’s recent decision limiting officer authority to conduct warrantless searches of arrestees in US v. Knapp. The Court also observed that neither the warrant nor the observations arguably amounting to probable cause were discovered until after the challenged seizure. The Court therefore reasoned both the close temporal proximity and the absence of intervening circumstances weighed against application of the attenuation doctrine in this case.

Takeaways

  • Preservation matters. The standard of review is important, and this is another appellate win born of  preservation. Mr. Gaines moved before trial for an order suppressing all evidence derived from law enforcement’s initial seizure of him. The court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion, ultimately denying it. Mr. Gaines reasserted his motion towards the end of trial.  Notably, this belt and suspenders approach is commendable, but the issue was already preserved for appeal. Under  Federal Rule of Evidence 103(b):“[o]nce the court rules definitively on the record—either before or at trial—a party need not renew an objection or offer of proof to preserve a claim of error for appeal.” 
  • Detail matters. Suppression motions often require fact-intensive inquiries, and as this case demonstrates, it’s useful to do everything you can to marshal the facts in your favor. Explain in detail exactly what happened: How many police officers were there? What were they wearing? What were they driving? And what exactly did they do when they encountered the defendant? And then those details to the relevant legal standard.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words. Check out the Opening Brief  in this appeal(filed by the Kansas FPD). Sometimes, it’s useful not only to tell the court why your motion should be granted, but also show them. If there’s an image that really captures the essence of your argument, consider including it in your brief so your point doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. Nobody’s suggesting you file a comic book, but when done right, this technique shakes up legal writing and can be quite effective.
  • Arrest authority is not the end of the story. As the Tenth Circuit’s in-depth attenuation analysis demonstrates, the fact that police could have lawfully arrested your client doesn’t necessarily excuse any Fourth Amendment violations. Pick apart any attenuation argument to see if the Government’s claim holds up: Would an arrest really have led to the discovery of the evidence, independent of the Fourth Amendment violation? And can the warrant really be considered an “intervening event” that weakens the causal connection between the Fourth Amendment violation and the evidence sought to be excluded?