December 15, 2011

The Right To Not Remain Silent


People are social animals. We teach each other. We learn from each other. We judge each other.

Perhaps dozens of times a day we make evaluations about other people based on how they look at us and what they say to us. We make determinations about other people based on race and class and whether we think another person is "one of us" - in all the ways that a person can be one of us. Maybe pheromones play a role in how we evaluate each other. But these small judgments we make in our interactions with others shape how we treat each other in ways large and small.

None of this goes away when a judge puts on a robe and imposes a sentence on a person who has been convicted of a crime.

A federal district judge will know generally about the crime - the judge either sat through a trial and heard the testimony, or read a statement of offense in a plea agreement - and will know from the presentence report about the person being sentenced.

But these background facts don't give the judge the same human knowledge about the person that a face-to-face interaction does. Which is why whether the person speaks at his sentencing - and how he acts if he does speak - can be very important.

Rule 32 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure give a person being sentenced a right to talk to the judge about what sentence the court should impose.

837375_mouth.jpgThe right to talk to the judge before the sentence is imposed was given a very muscular reading by the Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Perez.

Mr. Perez, along with a number of others, was convicted of conspiring to rob a check cashing store, as well as a drug stash house that did not, in fact, exist. The federal government, in an apparent effort to bring counter-terrorism tactics to the street, has started finding people who may be interested in committing a crime, then arranging with a confidential informant to have them find some fake entity to conspire to rob. It's easier to catch fake crime than real crime, I suppose. (For more on these kinds of cases, please see this post at the Ninth Circuit blog).

At sentencing, the sentencing court said to Mr. Perez's counsel "will the defendant be allocating?" Mr. Perez's lawyer conferred with his client then told the court, "No, Your Honor. He doesn't wish to address the Court." Mr. Perez did not, then, address the court.

The Eleventh Circuit found that this violated Mr. Perez's right to present information to the court. The court of appeals noted that:

On a number of occasions, "[w]e have explicitly held that the requirement of Rule 32[(i)(4)(A)(ii)] is not satisfied when the court does not address the defendant personally concerning the defendant's desire to allocute but instead addresses defendant's counsel only."

In light of that, the court held that it was not convinced that Mr. Perez knew that he had a right to speak to the sentencing judge.

Because the right to allocute is fundamental, the Eleventh Circuit reversed, even though no one objected at the time.

Waxing poetic about the importance of allocution, the court of appeals said

The right of allocution provides a defendant "an opportunity to plead personally to the court for leniency in his sentence by stating mitigating factors and to have that plea considered by the court in determining the appropriate sentence." United States v.Tamayo, 80 F.3d 1514, 1518 (11th Cir. 1996). "As early as 1689, it was recognized that the court's failure to ask the defendant if he had anything to say before sentence was imposed required reversal." Green v. United States, 365 U.S. 301, 304, 81 S. Ct. 653, 655, 5 L. Ed. 2d 670 (1961) (Frankfurter, J., plurality opinion). Although criminal procedures have progressed significantly since the seventeenth century, "[n]one of these modern innovations lessens the need for the defendant, personally, to have the opportunity to present to the court his plea in mitigation." Id. Allocution continues to "ensure that sentencing reflects individualized circumstances," United States v. De Alba Pagan, 33 F.3d 125, 129 (1st Cir. 1994) (citing United States v. Barnes, 948 F.2d 325, 328 (7th Cir. 1991), while maximizing the "perceived equity of the process." Id. (quoting Barnes, 948 F.2d at 328). Consequently, a defendant's right of allocution, which is codified in Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32, remains firmly entrenched in our criminal jurisprudence.

And so, back for resentencing Mr. Perez will go.

About This Blog

The Federal Criminal Appeals Blog is published by Kaiser, LeGrand & Dillon PLLC in Washington, DC. Kaiser, LeGrand & Dillon PLLC represent people who have been charged with federal crimes, are under federal investigation, or have a federal criminal appeal.

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