Friday, August 19, 2016

Court Decides Indictment Error SOR, Evaluates Speedy Trial Claim

United States v. Terrell Stevenson, No. 15-1942, concerns a “hip-hop heroin hub” called Hood Promo.  Following a federal investigation, 8 people were indicted on drug and weapons charges.  All of them pled guilty, except Stevenson.  On appeal, Stevenson argued that the Court, which granted his Speedy Trial motion, should have dismissed the indictment with prejudice.  He also argued that the indictment failed to allege all the elements of the crime of fraud in relation to identification documents, and he appealed the District Court’s denial of his motions to suppress, the propriety of the district court’s conduct at trial, and the reasonableness of his 360-month sentence.

The Speedy Trial Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3161–3174, requires that a trial start “within seventy days from the filing date (and making public) of the information or indictment.  § 3161(c)(1). This deadline is not absolute, however, because certain periods of delay “shall be excluded . . . in computing the time within which the trial . . . must commence.” 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h).  The most common form of “excludable” delay results from the filing and disposition of pretrial motions. 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(1)(D).  When a violation is found, the court may dismiss the indictment with or without prejudice, depending on three factors (1) seriousness of the offense; (2) reason for the delay; and (3) administration of justice.  18 U.S.C. § 3162(a)(2).  The Court found that the offense here was serious, that the delay was largely due to the repeated delays and chaotic nature of the litigation (which it blamed on the 8 defendants, finding that any government contribution was relatively innocent and harmless), and it found no prejudice to Stevenson from the delay (the fact that a case gets stronger over time – including by coD pleas – is not prejudice, for purposes of the statute).  The district court did not err in looking at the number of excludable days in the context of factor (2).

The Court also addressed what it called a “close case” of sufficiency of the indictment on fraud in relation to identification documents.  The Court found an implied reference to interstate commerce in the indictment’s description of interstate activity.  But it found that any failure would have been harmless (and applied harmless error review here, because Supreme Court guidance in analogous circumstances – citing Neder on jury instructions – suggests defective indictments do not constitute “structural” error).

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The District Court's indication of the sentence it would impose before the defendant allocuted was not reversible plain error.

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