One of the trickiest problems in a criminal trial, in federal court or any other court, is determining if the person accused of a crime should testify.
On one hand, the jurors instinctively want to hear what the person has to say. They’re instructed not to hold it against him if he doesn’t testify, but, as a matter of human psychology, people want the guy who just sat and listened to others say bad things about him to say something back.
And, of course, the person on trial may have something useful to say in his own defense.
On the other hand, if the person has a criminal record, by testifying the government can often introduce that criminal history to the jury – if it wasn’t already presented.
Worse, in federal court, a person who testifies and is convicted runs the risk of being assessed a two-level increase for obstruction of justice under U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1.
Doesn’t that violate a person’s right to testify in their own defense? you may wonder. As it happens, the Supreme Court heard an argument to that effect – and rejected it – in United States v. Dunnigan.
The Court acknowledged that in prior precedents
we indicated that the ordinary task of trial courts is to sift true from false testimony, so the problem caused by simple perjury was not so much an obstruction of justice as an expected part of its administration
Nonetheless, because section 3C1.1 does not apply to every defendant who testifies and is convicted, the Supreme Court held that section 3C1.1 passes constitutional muster and does not unduly infringe on a person’s right to testify in his defense.
The obstruction enhancement was at issue in the Fourth Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Perez.
In Perez, the person on trial testified in his own defense. He was convicted. At sentencing, the district court determined that the two-level bump under 3C1.1 applied because:
[T]he fact remains that the jury decided this matter unfavorably toward Mr. Perez. . . . the Court agrees that the government witnesses were more credible, from the Court’s perspective, than was Mr. Perez . . . The Court believes that the jury reasonably accepted testimony of the government witnesses, rejected that of Mr. Perez and the Court believes that Mr. Perez’s testimony at trial was not credible and constituted obstruction of justice.
The Fourth Circuit used Perez as an opportunity to discuss what a sentencing court has to find in order to impose an adjustment under 3C1.1. Mindful that the Supreme Court requires that the enhancement not apply in every case where a person testified and was convicted, the Fourth Circuit clarified that 3C1.1 only applies when the person on trial:
“(1) gave false testimony; (2) concerning a material matter; (3) with willful intent to deceive”
The Fourth Circuit, though, seemed troubled by how easy it can be for a sentencing court to impose this enhancement. For that reason, the Fourth Circuit now requires that a district court
must provide a finding that clearly establishes each of the three elements. With respect to willfulness, for example, it would, in the usual case, be enough for the court to say, “The defendant knew that his testimony was false when he gave it,” but it could not simply assert, “The third element is satisfied.” While some may suggest this is little more than an empty formality, we believe it serves a vital purpose.
Because the district court in Perez did not do this factfinding, the court of appeals reversed and remanded for a new sentencing hearing.