Tuesday, September 16, 2014

District Court’s failure to rule on a motion constitutes an implicit denial of that motion. Significant pre-arrest delay does not always lead to a speedy trial violation. Delays attributable to co-defendants’ motions can be considered against defendant in speedy trial claims.

United States v. Craig Claxton, Appeal No. 12-3933 (3d Cir. August 18, 2014)
Claxton and others were charged with a conspiracy involving the transportation of cocaine between the Virgin Islands (USVI) and the US mainland.  The first trial in the case started without Claxton because he could not be found.  Two defendants were convicted and a mistrial was declared for the rest.  Two other defendants took an appeal prior to retrial.  While that appeal was pending, Claxton was arrested.  Upon retrial, which now included Claxton, he was convicted.  Post-verdict, the district court granted Claxton’s JOA motion, but failed to rule on Claxton’s R.33 motion for a new trial.  The Third Circuit reversed the grant of JOA and remanded.  Claxton moved for safety-valve relief at sentencing.  Judge denied and sentenced Claxton to 120 months.  This is the second appeal in the case (for Claxton, at least).  Court made several rulings (not all of which are included here) in affirming the conviction and sentence:
1.               No Waiver
The Circuit decided that Claxton had not waived the issues raised in his Rule 33 motion (asking for new trial based on admission of drug evidence in violation of FRE 403 and violation of Brady/Giglio).  Under Rule 29(d), when a judge grants a JOA, the judge is also required conditionally rule on the motion for new trial.  The district court failed to do so in this case, but Claxton did not raise that issue in the first appeal nor did Claxton renew his motion for new trial upon remand.  The Circuit decided that the district court’s failure to rule on the motion constituted an implicit denial.  The Circuit also declined to fault Claxton for the district court’s failure to rule because Claxton had timely filed his Rule 33 motion.  Ultimately, however, the Circuit decided that Claxton’s claims of violation of FRE 403 and Brady/Giglio were meritless.
2.               No Statutory or Constitutional Speedy Trial Violation
The indictment was returned on 12/19/06.  Claxton was arrested on 4/23/08 in Florida.  His initial appearance in the USVI was on 7/16/08.  Claxton’s trial began on 5/24/10. 
Circuit said there was no violation under the Speedy Trial Act (STA).  Under the STA, if no severance has been granted, then a period of time excludible as to one defendant is excludible as to all co-defendants.  Thus, even if Claxton was not responsible for any interlocutory appeals or pretrial motions, the appeals of co-defendants and their pretrial motions all served to stop Claxton’s speedy trial clock.
The Circuit also found no constitutional speedy trial violation, distinguishing this case from Velazquez, decided earlier this year.  In Velazquez, 6.5 years passed between the indictment and the arrest of defendant.  The Velazquez court concluded that all four Barker factors weighed in favor of finding a speedy trial violation:  (1) the length of delay was sufficient to trigger a Barker analysis; (2) the gov’t was not reasonably diligent; (3) Velazquez diligently asserted his speedy trial rights; and (4) there was prejudice (in that case, presumptive prejudice due to excessive delay).  On the contrary, for Claxton, the second and the fourth Barker factors weighed in favor of the gov’t.  On the second factor, Velazquez was easily distinguishable because the investigators in that case were lax in trying to find Velazquez – they checked NCIC eight times over five years.  Claxton had moved, left USVI, and the agents found him due to their own police work in tracking his passport application.  Plus, the delay was much shorter.  Therefore, the gov’t was diligent in trying to locate Claxton.  Furthermore, there was no prejudice under the fourth factor because Claxton was at large and unaware of the indictment for much of the pretrial time; he was only incarcerated for 14.5 months of that time; much of that delay was due to his co-defendants’ actions; and there was no specific occurrence of actual (vs. presumed) prejudice.

3.               No Violation of Right to Impartial Jury
Claxton claimed the jury was tainted by pretrial publicity.  Two weeks prior to his trial, there was another related conspiracy trial which was reported in the press.  That trial included the testimony of some of the same witnesses and included an organizational chart that named Claxton.  The Circuit reiterated that pretrial publicity does not necessarily taint the jury as long as the jurors agree to be fair and impartial and consider only the courtroom evidence.  Also, both jurors who had any knowledge about prior case were excused.
            Claxton also claimed jury tampering.  One potential juror was offered a bribe and she shared that information with another person on the panel.  The district court conducted a voir dire of the two, they stated that it wouldn’t affect their judgment, and, most importantly, they didn’t participate in the deliberations.  Therefore, no error.

4.               Defendant Not Eligible for Safety-valve
Prior to sentencing, Claxton had a proffer session with the gov’t.  During the session, Claxton never offered any information about the crime of conviction nor did the government ask for such information.  Because Claxton did not satisfy 5C1.2(a)(5), the district court did not err in imposing the mandatory minimum.

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