Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Speedy Trial Violations Doom Pot Prosecution

US v. Henry: The Henrys (husband and wife) were indicted on multiple charges related to growing marijuana on November 3, 2004. A trial date was originally set on July 7, 2005, but both parties requested a continuance, noting that the Henrys had already prospectively waived their speedy trial rights. The motion was granted and proceedings continued until March 24, 2006, when the court learned that plea negotiations had broken down. Trial was set for July 5, 2006. At the March 24 hearing, Mr. Henry complained that the case had "dragged on for two years." Before the trial date rolled around, the Supreme Court handed down Zedner, in which it held that defendants could not prospectively waive speedy trial rights.

At a pretrial motions hearing on June 27, 2006, the district court brought up the Zedner issue sua sponte. After concluding that the Henrys' speedy trial rights waivers were invalid, the district court nonetheless concluded that the continuances granted on July 7, 2005 and March 24, 2006 satisfied the "ends of justice" criteria for being excluded from speedy trial calculations, the first to facilitate plea negotiations and the second because the need for proper trial preparation outweighed interests in a speedy trial. The district court acted on its memory of the March 24 hearing, without reference to a transcript. Nonetheless, the Henrys moved to dismiss the indictment due to speedy trial violations. The district court denied the motion, the Henrys pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to 60 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court. Reviewing the entirety of the record, including a transcript of the March 24 hearing, the court concluded that the district court in granting the continuance relied upon the Henrys' waivers of their speedy trial rights. Under Zedner, those waivers were now invalid. Critically, at the March 24 hearing the district court did not consider whether the ends of justice supported a continuance, as Zedner now requires. The court remanded with orders to dismiss, but left it to the district court to decide whether to do so with prejudice.

Congrats to the Northern WV FPD office on the win!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Court Reversed Decision Excluding Old Fraud Evidence

US v. Siegel: Siegel was indicted on multiple counts of wire fraud and mail fraud, in addition to a count of murder to prevent the reporting of those offenses. The charges stem from the latest in a long line of (alleged) scams Siegel perpetrated against family, friends, and strangers. The indictment against her dealt specifically with fraud against a boyfriend before and after his death in 1996. However, the indictment included, as part of the definition of the "scheme or artifice to defraud" allegations against several other people stretching back decades. The Government also filed notice of its intent to use other evidence of prior frauds (and convictions) as FRE 404(b) evidence. Siegel moved to exclude the Government from presenting any such evidence and striking the language in the indictment as surplusage. The district court granted the motions (at least in regard to the Government's case in chief) and the Government appealed.

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court. In doing so, it first had to determine whether it had jurisdiction to entertain such an interlocutory appeal at all. The court concluded that it did, as the district court's order was final, even if couched as a preliminary order. It precluded the Government's use of the evidence in its case in chief. While the court indicated that it might reconsider its ruling, it said it would do so only at the close of evidence, after jeopardy had attached. Given the finality of the order, the Fourth Circuit concluded it had jurisdiction.

On the merits, the Fourth also sided with the Government. As to the 404(b) evidence, the Government argued that it demonstrated how Siegel would defraud "anyone available, be it family or friend." The Fourth Circuit agreed, holding that such evidence demonstrated Siegel's scheme and her motive for murder. That evidence was also not precluded under FRE 403 as it was neither unduly prejudicial nor likely to cause confusion or repetition at trial. Given those conclusions, the Fourth Circuit held that there was no basis for striking any language from the indictment.

District Judge Kiser (WDVa) dissented with respect to the evidentiary issues, arguing that the majority failed to show appropriate deference to the district court findings and that the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the evidence.

Court Affirms Conviction, Life Sentence, for Crack Possession

US v. Farrior: Farrior was involved in two car searches that uncovered crack cocaine.

The first was the result of a traffic stop for an inoperable tag light. After Farrior was given a verbal warning, the officer who pulled him over asked if he would step out of the car and talk. Farrior agreed and eventually consented to a search of the car, which uncovered nothing. In the interim, another officer arrived on the scene with a drug dog, which sniffed the outside of the car, alerting to the trunk. The officers eventually searched one of Farrior's boots, finding 5.5 grams of crack cocaine and cash.

The second search occurred when Farrior was the victim of a shooting. After towing his vehicle, officers searched it and found 469 grams of crack cocaine (also in boots). Farrior was convicted of possession with intent to deliver crack cocaine and possession of more than 50 grams of crack cocaine and sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, Farrior challenged both his convictions and sentence, which the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

First, the court rejected Farrior's argument that the evidence uncovered during the first traffic stop should be suppressed. The court concluded that the officers did not unduly prolong the valid traffic stop such that it violated the Fourth Amendment. Second, the court rejected Farrior's Batson challenge to the Government's strike of his jury's only African-American member, pointing out the numerous race-neutral reasons given by the Government to support its decision. Third, the court concluded that the district court properly denied Farrior's request for a new trial due to statements of the prosecution about reasonable doubt during closing argument.

As to Farrior's sentence, the Fourth Circuit first rejected Farrior's argument that the court document used to prove a prior conviction was not sufficient because it did not contain an actual judge's signature, only a mechanical "authorized signature." The court noted that the records relied upon by the district court were certified, signed, and produced by the court of conviction. Even without the "authorized signature" they would have been sufficient. The court also rejected Farrior's argument that his sentence was unreasonable, noting that the life sentence was mandatory.