Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Third Circuit holds Fed. R. App. P. 4(b) not jurisdictional, and explicates the rule on questioning a defendant at trial on post-arrest silence.

In Gov’t of V.I. v. Martinez, No. 08-2694 (3d. Cir. Sept. 8, 2010) the Third Circuit clarified two rules, on procedural, one substantive.

The defendant was convicted in the Territorial Court of the Virgin Islands for kidnapping for rape. The Appellate Division of the District Court of the Virgin Islands affirmed.Martinez then appealed to the Third Circuit -- late. The procedural issue that the Third Circuit addressed was Martinez’s untimely filing of his notice of appeal.

The Court ruled that the time limitation in Federal Rule of Appellate 4(b), while a "rigid" deadline, is a claim-processing rule subject to forfeiture, and not jurisdictional. In other words, if a criminal defendant files a late notice of appeal, and the Government moves to dismiss the appeal for filing out of time, the Court will dismiss the appeal. But if the Government fails to make a motion to dismiss, or if the Government fails to respond to the Clerk’s Order requesting comment on possible lack of jurisdiction because of untimely filing, the issue is forfeited. In that circumstance, the Court will exercise appellate jurisdiction to address appellant’s claim on the merits.

The substantive issue that the Court addresed was whether the Government violated Martinez’s right to due process by questioning him on his post-arrest silence, contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610 (1976). In Doyle, the Supreme Court held that once a criminal defendant recieves proper Miranda warnings, it is improper for the Government at trial to cause the jury to infer guilt from the defendant’s post-arrest silence. Doyle’s rule is subject to harmless error review.

At trial, Martinez’s testimony during direct examination provided an exculpatory narrative. The Government attempted to counter Martinez’s testimony by asking him whether he had told that exculpatory story to anyone before trial. Defense counsel objected.

The Third Circuit was especially troubled by the Government’s questions about whether Martinez had ever told "anyone" his exculpatory account: "[b]ecause the prosecutor placed no personal or temporal specifications on the questions, they might well have been construed as targeting Martinez’s post-arrest, post-Miranda warning failure to proffer his story to the police." But after a comprehensive examination of the record, the Court found – under harmless error review – that "[u]nder all the circumstances here", the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

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