Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Conviction Vacated for Erroneous Instruction on Intent

In United States v. Waller, No. 10-1321 (Aug. 16, 2011), the Court holds that it was reversible Doyle error for a district court to instruct the jury that it could consider, among other things, "any statements made or omitted by the defendant” in deciding whether he had the intent to distribute a controlled substance.

Mr. Waller was found in possession of 52 stamp bags of heroin marked “Shoot, Shoot Them,” bundled into four groups of ten and one group of twelve. At trial, there was no dispute as to possession, but only as to whether the heroin was intended for personal use or distribution. There was circumstantial evidence from which the parties urged opposite inferences: for example, the defendant's possession of a gun but no cash. There was no direct evidence bearing on intent. The Court holds that the instruction permitting consideration of statements “omitted by the defendant” improperly invited the jury to infer intent from the defendant’s post-arrest, post-Miranda warnings silence, in violation of his right to due process and the rule announced in Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610 (1976).

Under the circumstances, the government could not carry its “decidedly heavy burden” to show that the constitutional error was harmless. “It is rather easy to see how the erroneous instruction might, in fact, have contributed to the jury’s verdict: in the face of equivocal evidence of Waller’s intent, the jurors were invited by the District Court to consider the statements that he failed to make.”

The opinion includes a discussion distinguishing the “statements made or omitted” language from the Third Circuit’s Pattern Instruction. The Pattern Instruction directs the jury that it may consider “what the defendant said, what the defendant did and failed to do, how the defendant acted, and all other facts and circumstances….” The Court reads this model charge to permit “the jury to take into account only those statements actually made by the defendant, as well as the defendant’s failures to act,” but “does not invite the jury to consider statements omitted by the defendant, or otherwise comment on the defendant’s failure to speak.” (The emphases are the Court’s.)

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