People love a criminal defendant who tries to outwit the system. I suspect it says something profound about the American impulse to root for the underdog.* I’ve written before (here and here) about federal criminal defendants in the Ninth Circuit who have been rewarded by being clever about their cases.**
And, in United States v. Alvarez-Moreno, defense counsel cleverly navigated his client to an appellate issue.
Mr. Alvarez-Moreno was charged with transporting an alien for profit under 8 U.S.C. S 1324.
Two weeks before he was to start a jury trial, Mr. Alvarez-Moreno and the government agreed that the trial could be a bench trial. The court also agreed. (One odd feature of the federal system is that you can only have a bench trial on a felony if the government, the person who would be on trial, and court all agree under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 23.).
Everyone came to this conclusion right before trial. In the last minute push to get rid of a jury and go to the bench trial, no one noticed that Mr. Alvarez-Moreno never waived a jury trial in writing as required by Rule 23.
Mr. Alvarez-Moreno was convicted at the bench trial.
After he was convicted, he filed a “Motion to Set Aside Verdict By Trial Court” because Mr. Alvarez-Moreno did not properly waive his right to a jury trial. There’s no question but that Mr. Alvarez-Moreno’s conviction would be reversed on appeal if allowed to stand.
The district court treated that motion as a motion for a new trial, which it granted. The court set a new trial date.
Here’s where things get interesting.
Mr. Alvarez-Moreno filed a motion to vacate the order for a new trial and dismiss the indictment because double jeopardy had attached. The trial court denied the motion.
Mr. Alvarez-Moreno appealed. (Normally, you can’t appeal a criminal case until after sentencing. One of the narrow exceptions is for a violation of double jeopardy – the idea is that the harm in a double jeopardy violation is the second trial, so the appellate court will hear the decision before that harm can take place.)
The Ninth Circuit found that a new trial would violate double jeopardy. Jeopardy attached in the first trial when the judge started hearing evidence. Once jeopardy attaches, a person accused of a crime can only be retried – consistent with double jeopardy – in certain narrow circumstances.
One of those circumstances is if the defendant himself asks for a new trial. The district court construed Mr. Alvarez-Moreno’s motion to set aside the verdict as a motion for a new trial. The Ninth Circuit said, basically, no. For that reason, a new trial would violate double jeopardy and the Ninth Circuit vacated the court’s order granting one.
The appeals court, however, went a little further, denying Mr. Alvarez-Moreno’s win much pleasure. The court of appeals directed the district court, on remand, to deny Mr. Alvarez-Moreno’s original motion to set aside the court’s verdict.
The Ninth Circuit then laid out Mr. Alvarez-Moreno’s options:
If Alvarez-Moreno wants to correct the legal error, he can make a proper motion under Rule 33 for a new trial, or he can appeal the final judgment after he is sentenced; in either event, under the principles discussed earlier, he would have consented to retrial. Alternatively, Alvarez- Moreno may view those two routes as merely prolonging the inevitable, and so may decide that he does not want to undergo the stress of another trial. If so, he is, of course, entirely free to forego any Rule 33 motion or appeal and accept the sentence meted out on the basis of the conviction after it is reinstated upon remand. That sentence would not be void, but voidable, and if the sentence is complied with he could not be punished again for the same offense.
Perhaps cleverness has its limits.
* Though, as Adam Levin rightly reminds us in The Instructions, “anyone can tell his own underdog story. Be wary of underdogs.”
** Why does this stuff only happen in the Ninth Circuit? You almost never see a clever defendant appeal come out in a defense-friendly way in, say, the Fourth Circuit.