September 30, 2014 CJS: Around the Circuit

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

A quarterly case summary digest of recent federal circuit court opinions

by: Masooma Javaid

United States v. Field, No. 13-1358 (6th Cir. June 27, 2014), 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 12123.

In 2000, Defendant was indicted on charges of receipt of stolen property and aiding and abetting after the fact.  FBI agents were informed that Defendant was the girlfriend of a suspect in a robbery. Agents questioned Defendant at her father’s house after entering the premises without a warrant.  Defendant was searched, handcuffed, and interviewed without being given her Miranda warnings. Defendant was not arrested at the time and consented to a search of the apartment that she shared with the robbery suspect. After Defendant was indicted, she moved to suppress the statements and evidence against her.  The district court granted the motion and cited to the FBI’s warrantless entry and custodial interrogation of Defendant even after she requested a lawyer. 

After the motion to suppress was granted, the government moved to dismiss the charges against Defendant without prejudice. Over ten years later, Defendant submitted a pro se letter requesting that the district court expunge her record of arrest, which Defendant asserted is made known to her potential employers during background checks. Defendant was unable to directly work with the FBI on expunging her arrest record because the FBI refused to act until a court ordered the record expunged. The district court treated the pro so letter as a motion for expungement but then concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to consider such a motion.

Held: Federal courts may assert limited ancillary jurisdiction to expunge criminal records when no statutory grounded permission is apparent. Federal courts lack ancillary jurisdiction over motions for expungement that are grounded on purely equitable considerations because such motions do not enable a court to manage its proceedings, vindicate its authority, or effectuate its decrees. Jurisdiction exists where motions for expungement challenge an unconstitutional conviction or an illegal arrest or are otherwise based upon a constitutional claim. In this case, Defendant asserts that her arrest was the result of unconstitutional government conduct.  However, Defendant’s motion to expunge her arrest record does not enable the district court to vindicate its authority or effectuate its decree because the district court did not hold that Defendant was illegally arrested. The district court’s order in Defendant’s case pertained to suppression of evidence and was unrelated to any claims that Defendant was illegally arrested. Therefore, the district court does not have jurisdiction over Defendant’s motion to expunge the record of her arrest.

United States v. Nagy, No. 13-4151 (6th Cir. July 24, 2014), 2014 U.S. APP. LEXIS 14055

Defendant was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and with knowingly possessing a stolen firearm.  The government argued for a sentence enhancement because of Defendant’s past felony convictions. Defendant argued that any fact that increases the mandatory minimum sentence is an element of an offense that must be submitted to the jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt by the government. The government argued that past convictions are not elements of a crime and the district court agreed. Defendant appealed on the grounds that his sentence violated his Sixth Amendment right. 

Held: Even if past convictions increase the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime, past case law does not suggest that a Defendant’s prior convictions must be submitted to a jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt. These past cases have created an exception where prior convictions are not elements of the related crime.  Therefore, Defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights were not violated because the government is not required to submit prior convictions to the jury for a sentence enhancement.

United States v. Heard, No. 13-5649 (6th Cir. August 8, 2014), 2014 U.S. App, LEXIS 15276

<>Defendant represented himself in a jury trial and was convicted on numerous drug and money-laundering offenses. After his indictment, the district court appointed an attorney to represent Defendant. However, Defendant refused to work with this attorney on his defense and the attorney moved for a determination on whether Defendant was competent to stand trial. After several tests and examinations, a forensic psychologist concluded that Defendant was competent to stand trial. Defendant requested that he be allowed to represent himself after refusing to speak to his attorney.  The district court judge warned Defendant of the difficulties of representing himself and was advised against it. Defendant again insisted that he able to represent himself and the court granted this request. Defendant did not want to have a competency hearing and stipulated that he was competent to stand trial.  On appeal, Defendant argues that the district court violated his right to a fair trial when it failed to proceed sua sponte on the competency hearing.

Held: A district court is obligated to inquire into a defendant’s competency when there is reasonable cause to believe that the defendant is incompetent to stand trial. A defendant is competent to stand trial if he has a rational and factual understanding of the proceeding against him. Defendant should also have the ability to consult with a lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding. In this case, the district court ordered an evaluation by a forensic psychologist that revealed that Defendant had the ability to understand his legal case.  Although the forensic psychologist diagnosed Defendant with a personality disorder, such a diagnosis did not affect his legal competence.  Furthermore, the report by the forensic psychologist concluded that Defendant had the ability to work with his attorney on his defense, but chose not to do so and was unwilling to admit when he was incorrect about certain issues. The report shows that a thorough competency examination was conducted and the district court did not abuse its discretion by choosing not to proceed with a hearing on the issue.

United States v. Tomlinson, No. 13- 5625 (6th Cir. August 20, 2014), 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 15987.

Defendant was convicted by a jury for the possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. For the jury selection process, the district court awarded Defendant ten peremptory challenges and the government six. During the first three rounds of peremptory challenges, neither side objected to each other’s challenges. In the fourth round, when each party exercised its last peremptory challenge, Defendant objected to the government’s last strike, an African American juror, by asserting a Batson challenge for the last strike as well as for the all of the other strikes used by government previously since they were all against African- American jurors. The court initiated a Batson inquiry as to the last strike only and concluded that the government was to provide a race-neutral reason(s) for its last strike only.  The district court did not entertain Batson challenges for the government’s previous five peremptory challenges because it held that that Defendant’s objection was untimely.

Held:  No matter which method of jury selection is used, a Batson challenge does not have to be contemporaneous to the peremptory strike and is timely if it is made before the jury is sworn and the trial commences. A Batson objection needs to provide sufficient time for counsel to ascertain the propriety of a strike or a pattern of strikes while jurors are present, while also ensuring that Batson inquiries and trials proceed efficiently. In this case, Defendant’s counsel could not fully comprehend the pattern of strikes being used against African American jurors until successive rounds of jurors had been dismissed. Even though Defendant’s counsel raised her Batson challenge when the government had used all of its peremptory strikes, her challenge was made in a timely fashion since the jury had not been sworn and trial had not commenced.

United States v. Snelling, No. 12-4288, (6th Cir. Sept 22, 2014), 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 18057, 2014 FED App. 0244P.

Defendant was sentenced to 131 months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and tax evasion. Defendant was accused of operating a Ponzi scheme that the court determined led a loss of nearly nine million dollars for its investors. Defendant asserted in his plea agreement and in his sentencing that that he should  have received credit for money returned to victims during the scheme; such a credit would have reduced the loss amount to a over five million dollars and place him in the 97-121 month sentencing range. The district court rejected the Defendant’s argument and asserted that the loss calculation should not be reduced because any money returned to victims was money to induce further investment and allowed Defendant to continuously perpetuate the fraud. Defendant appealed the district court’s sentence.

Held: Defendant argued that the loss amount should take into account the total amount returned to investors over the life of the fraud, which would be over five million dollars rather than the nearly nine million dollars calculated by the district court. Defendant pointed to U.S.S.G. §2B1.1 Application note 3(E) in the Sentencing Guidelines to support his argument. Furthermore, other application notes resulting from the revision of the Sentencing Guidelines have led to the inclusion of provisions that acknowledge a reduction of the loss value based on sums returned to victims.  Taken together, the Court held that Defendant provided sufficient evidence to support his contention that any money paid out to investors during the fraud should not be used as part of his total loss calculation used to determine the length of his sentence. Therefore, Defendant’s sentence was vacated and remanded for resentencing. 

Masooma Javaid is a 2013 graduate of the George Mason University School of Law and currently works as a Staff Attorney in the Parole Revocation Defense Unit at The Legal Aid Society in New York City.  She is admitted to practice in New York and New Jersey.


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