Appellate review in a federal criminal appeal is a funny thing. Sometimes, saying the wrong thing is the easiest way to get reversed. Sometimes it’s a question of not saying enough.
The D.C. Circuit remanded a bail reform act decision in United States v. Nwokoro.
Mr. Nwokoro is a U.S. citizen who is from Nigeria. He apparently fell on hard times in Washington D.C. and was living in a homeless shelter. Then he was charged by complaint with a crime. Then he was indicted.
He was arrested and brought to a magistrate judge. The court ordered that he can’t be released before trial because he might run under the Bail Reform Act. The court explained that:
[Mr. Nwokoro] has moved to Africa. He has moved hundreds – – well based on the representations I have heard from the Government and the documents I have seen here, I have wire transfers totaling over $280,000 and an Agent testified to . . . a million dollars in receipts in a two-year period [referring to appellant’s tax preparation services’ gross receipts in 2005 through 2007] .
The Court finds that the Defendant is indeed a substantial flight risk. The Court finds . . . that there is no combination of conditions that could possibly protect this Court’s interest in having him appear here before this Court. . . . The Court finds that he is a flight risk and that he should be detained pending the outcome of this case.
The problem is that the court isn’t supposed to just find someone is a flight risk, the court is also supposed to figure out if there are any conditions of release that can make sure they don’t fly. And the court should consider any factors that suggest that the person is not a flight risk.
As the D.C. Circuit noted, there are a lot of reasons to think the guy isn’t going to run:
When given the opportunity to flee the area, appellant has not. He does not presently have assets under his control in the United States (his bank account in the United States has been frozen), and he does not have possession of his U.S. or Nigerian passports (which are in government custody) with which to leave this country, much less to enter Nigeria. He has never failed to appear in court when notified, and he has never failed to check in with the Pretrial Services Agency as he was previously required to do on a weekly basis. Indeed, after the magistrate judge dismissed the initial criminal complaint against him, appellant made no apparent attempt to flee prior to his arrest on a new indictment five days later. Appellant was released on his own recognizance two days later and again made no apparent attempt to flee between then and the detention hearing four weeks later. Appellant is not charged with a violent offense, and he has no prior criminal record.
Why couldn’t he have been released to a halfway house? Or with a condition that he check in with pretrial services every day? The district court was silent on those questions. Because of that, the D.C. Circuit sent the case back, for a quick hearing on these issues.
One thing this case raises is just how slow even a fast appeal can take. According to the record cites in the opinion, Mr. Nwokoro’s hearing was on May 10. The opinion came out on August 3. Which means the man sat in jail for almost three months based on a flawed hearing.
If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.