Monday, January 24, 2011

"Stipulation" Entered Without Defendant's Consent Not Harmless Error

US v. Williams: Williams was charged with conspiring to possess with intent heroin. The heroin at issue was seized when it came into the country at the Louisville airport in a package. Per the Government's theory, Williams was the end recipient of the package and he would distribute the contents. Williams went to trial. At the trial, the Government presented a stipulation regarding the substance in the package - that it was approximately 98 grams of heroin. Williams refused to sign the stipulation. However, Williams's attorney suggested that she would do so, if the court would allow it. She signed the stipulation, which was read to the jury. During deliberations, the jury asked what amount of drugs was necessary to delineate personal use from distribution. The court referred them to "common sense" and provided them with a copy of the stipulation. The jury convicted Williams.

On appeal, Williams argued that the use of a stipulation without his consent violated hi Sixth Amendment right to confrontation. The Government agreed that it was an abuse of discretion for the district court to allow the stipulation. However, it argued that the error was harmless. The Fourth Circuit first agreed with the parties that Williams's Sixth Amendment rights were violated. It then proceeded to analyze the evidence in the case and concluded that the error was not harmless. The court noted that the stipulation went beyond merely identifying the substance at issue as heroin - it "essentially established an element of the crime" and was used by the jury in determining whether Williams had an intent to distribute the heroin. Thus, the court vacated Williams's conviction and remanded the case to the district court.

District Judge Dever concurred with the majority on the Sixth Amendment violation, but dissented from the conclusion that the error was not harmless. He argued, after a lengthy recitation of the trial facts, that the stipulation had much less of an impact on the ultimate outcome and therefore its admission was harmless.

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