Sunday, October 15, 2017

Case o' The Week: "Crazy" Clamor, Obstruction Hammer - Obstruction of Justice, Malingering, and Competency Evals

 Ninth naysays "obstruction" bee in our sentencing bonnet. 
United States v. Bonnett, 2017 WL 4509039 (9th Cir. Oct. 10, 2017), decision available here.

Players: Pur curiam decision by Judges Schroeder, Tallman and DJ Whaley.

Facts: Bonnett was charged with one count of receipt and distribution of child porn. Id. at *1. He was made to undergo a court-ordered pysch eval for competency. Id. The shrink concluded that “Bonnett was feigning incompetency.” Id. After his guilty plea, Bonnett received an increase in his guideline sentence for “obstruction of justice,” based on “malingering.” Id.

Issue(s): “[Bonnett] challenges the two-level adjustment for obstruction of justice pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1 . . . .” Id. at *1. “The issue of first impression in this Circuit is whether an obstruction of justice enhancement may be founded upon a finding of malingering.” Id. “[ ] Bonnett contends that permitting an obstruction of justice enhancement on the basis of his performance in a competency evaluation chills his exercise of the right to obtain a competency hearing.” Id.

Held:We join other Circuits in holding that malingering may support an obstruction of justice enhancement pursuant to U.S.S.G § 3C1.1.” Id. at *2.

Of Note: While disappointing, this outcome is not terribly surprising. Four other circuits have upheld obstruction enhancements in the context of competency evaluations. Id. at *1. More importantly, the Ninth had already held that refusing to participate in a competency evaluation can support an obstruction enhancement. Id. at *2 (citing United States v. Fontenot,14 F.3d 1364, 1372 (9th Cir. 1994)).
  Nonetheless, despite the Ninth’s brief per curiam resolution of this thoroughly hairy issue, the confluence of competency and obstruction raises thorny problems for both defense counsel and shrinks (see below).

How to Use: First, us. Should defense counsel now balk on competency motions, when the possibility of a malingering finding may trigger an obstruction enhancement? The federal competency statute only suggests that defense counsel may make a motion “to determine the mental competency of the defendant.” 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a).
  Admittedly, there are those awkward questions to defense counsel about a defendant’s competency during a Rule 11 plea competency (not to mention the uncomfortable ethical issues arising from pleading out a potentially crazy client). 
  At minimum, if you worry that your client has a Klinger routine going, have a frank talk about Bonnett and the obstruction enhancement (and consider a private defense mental health eval before Court shrinks build that obstruction foundation for the PSR).
For Further Reading: Second, shrinks. Psychologists and psychiatrists assure our clients that competency evals are protected, and that their talks and tests are just used to determine their ability to understand the charges and assist counsel.
  That now ain’t true – creating a real ethical quandary for mental health professionals.
  For an interesting fret on this ethical dilemma, see Shaheen Darani, Behavior of the Defendant in a Competency-to-Stand-Trial Evaluation Becomes an Issue in Sentencing, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, January 2006, 34(1), 126-128, available here. (“Based on this ruling, is it necessary to inform the defendant that information gathered as part of the evaluation may be used for purposes outside of the competency evaluation? Would it also follow that the defendant should be advised that uncooperativeness or feigning of symptoms could lead to a finding of obstruction of justice and, therefore, a harsher sentence? The challenge in adopting this warning becomes the determination of the level of uncooperativeness that might rise to the level of obstruction of justice.”)

Image of bee in the bonnet from

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender Northern District of California. Website at


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Sunday, October 08, 2017

Case o' The Week: A Stitch in Twine Saves Nine (from reversing) - Spatig and Mens Rea in "Knowingly" Statutes

  Mens rea, frayed Twine, on Ninth's mind.
 United States v. Spatig, 2017 WL 4018398 (9th Cir. Sept. 13, 2017), decision available here.

Players: Decision by Judge McKeown, joined by Judge Nguyen and visiting 10th  Circuit Judge Murphy.
 Hard fought appeal by AFD Steven Richert, Federal Defenders Services of Idaho.

Facts: Spatig ran a company that ended up with lots of bulk paint and paint-related materials. Id. at *1. When Spatig’s wife became ill he stopped working and decided to store these materials at his Idaho residence (with no EPA permit). Id. County officials found the stuff in 2005 and destroyed much of it. Id.
  However, in 2010, hazardous materials were again found strewn across the property: corroded, rusted, and not stored safely. Id. An EPA team came in, removed over 3,000 containers, and spent almost half a million dollars on the clean-up. Id.
  Spatig was charged with knowingly storing and disposing hazardous waste, without a permit, in violation of 42 USC § 6928(d)(2)(A) (the “Resource Conservation and Recovery Act,” or “RCRA.”) Id.
  The government won an in limine motion to preclude evidence on Spatig’s diminished capacity, arguing the offense was a general-intent crime. Id. Spatig was convicted after trial.

Issue(s): “The key issue on appeal is whether § 6928(d)(2)(A) defines a crime of general or specific intent, as that decision dictates whether Spatig can advance a diminished-capacity defense. We have consistently held that diminished capacity defenses are not available to defendants who are accused of general intent crimes.” Id. at *2 (quotations and citations omitted).

Held: “[W]e affirm because § 6928(d)(2)(A) defines a general-intent crime.” Id. “Because § 6928(d)(2)(A) defines a crime of general intent, the district court did not err in excluding evidence of Spatig’s diminished capacity.” Id. *4.

Of Note: “But wait,” you protest, “what about Twine?” In that 1988 decision, Judge Brunetti looked at a pair of statutes that prohibited knowingly conveying a threat – the same operative verb in the charge facing Spatig. See United States v. Twine, 853 F.2d 676 (9th Cir. 1988). The Court held that those statutes required an “intent to threaten,” and thus required “specific intent.” Id. at 680.
  Judge McKeown is unpersuaded.
  Twine, Judge McKeown concludes, covers offenses that are “akin to ‘classic’ specific-intent crimes,” while the hazardous waste statute in Spatig is “agnostic” as to the defendant’s aim. Id. at 2017 WL 4018398 at *3.
  The Court also takes a swipe at Twine, opining that the Ninth has “softened on the reasoning” of the decision and reporting the circuit split engendered by the case. Id. at *3 & n.2.
  It is a disheartening discussion for those on all sides of the political spectrum who worry about federal prosecutions in a strict liability world, checked only by prosecutorial discretion.   

How to Use: Good Conservatives (well, at least, good Federalists) distrust the regulatory state and worry about the constant erosion of mens rea requirements in federal criminal statutes and regs. As President Trump’s judicial appointees join the district courts and Ninth (and more Justices join the Supreme Court), the time is ripe for a renewed mens rea effort by the federal defense bar.
   More immediately, and despite the discounting of the Spatig panel, note that Twine remains good law. Spatig’s “akin to classic specific-intent” distinction of Twine feels like an awfully fuzzy test. When advocating for specific intent for a “knowingly” statute, brush off your copy of Reading Law, channel Justice Scalia’s originalism vibe, and root about old common law for “classic” specific-intent analogues that are arguably “akin” to offenses in “knowingly” statutes.   
For Further Reading: “The Supreme Court has long recognized a ‘presumption’ grounded in our common law tradition that a mens rea requirement attaches to ‘each of the statutory elements that criminalize otherwise innocent conduct.’”
  Who penned these wise words?  Then-Judge, now-Justice Gorsuch. See Neil Gorsuch on criminal defendants and the rule of law, available here

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender, Northern District of California. Website available at


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Sunday, October 01, 2017

Case o' The Week: Ninth Mulls Serious Minor Issue: Jayavarman and Mens Rea for Foreign Child Porn Cases

  You gotta believe.
  (And that'll get you convicted).
 United States v. Jayavarman, 2017 WL 4247402 (9th Cir. Sept. 26, 2017), decision available here.

Players: Decision by Judge Clifton, joined by Judges Graber and M. Smith.  

Facts: Jayavarman visited Cambodia and made videos of himself having sex with a female he believed was a minor. Id. at *2. Evidence at trial(including a disputed birth certificate) suggested that while Jayavarman thought the female was a minor, she may have been an adult when the videos were made. Id. [The jury apparently could not agree on whether the was a minor]. Id. 
  Jayavarman was tried on, among other things, “Count 1B.” That count alleged a violation of 18 USC § 2251(c)(1) and § 2251(e): attempting to persuade a minor, abroad, to produce child porn. Id. Jury instructions for this count did not require that the jury find that the female was actually under the age of eighteen. Id. at *4. 
  Jayavarman was convicted and sentenced to 216 months. Id. at *11.

Issue(s): “Jayavarman [contends] . . . that a jury must find that the victim was actually a minor, as opposed to finding that the defendant believed the victim was a minor, in order to convict a defendant of an attempted violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251(c).” Id. at *3. 
  “In this case, we consider what happens when a defendant believes that the victim appearing in a depiction is a minor but the victim turns out to be an adult. That defendant cannot be convicted of the completed version of the crime, but can he be convicted of attempt?” Id. at *2.

Held: We answer that question in the affirmative: a defendant attempts to produce and transport a visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct when he believes that the victim is a minor, regardless of the victim’s actual age.” Id. at *2.
  “We conclude that a person may be convicted for attempting to commit the crime charged in Count 1B if he believed that the victim was a minor, even if the victim was not in fact a minor. On this attempt theory of the crime, the prosecution did not have to prove that the victim was actually a minor, and the district court correctly instructed the jury accordingly.” Id. at *3.
  “[A] defendant may be convicted of an attempt to violate § 2251(c) if he believes that the victim is a minor, even if the victim turns out to be an adult.” Id. at *5.

Of Note: By way of context, it is settled law that when a defendant personally interacts with a victim and actually produces and tranports child porn, there is no requirement under § 2251(c) for the government to prove that the defendant was aware that the victim was actually a minor. Id. at *4 (though note that there is a “reasonable mistake of age” defense). What makes this particular case different is that it involved attempted production. Id. at *5. Unfortunately, the Ninth’s 2004 decision in United States v. Meek, 366 F.3d 705 (9th Cir. 2004) set a (low) mens rea bar. 
  In Meek, the Ninth upheld an attempted child prostitution conviction under § 2422(b), where the defendant thought he was corresponding with a minor victim, but it was actually dealing with an undercover cop. Id. at *5. The Ninth held that the “simple fact of Meek’s belief [as to the age of the victim] is sufficient as to [the mens rea] element of a § 2422(b) violation.” Id. Judge Clifton finds no basis to distinguish the statute at issue in Meek from the § 2251(c) statute charged in Jayavarman: conviction upheld.

How to Use: In this case, Jayavarman’s conviction was upheld when he attempted to create child porn abroad with a female he believed was a minor – but may have been an adult. What about the reverse scenario? What if a defendant attempts to violate § 2251 with a victim he believes is an adult, but that turns out to be a minor?
  The Ninth expressly dodges this fact pattern: flag this as an issue to be fought another day. Id. at *5 & n.3.
For Further Reading: Turns out that you, and the Heritage Foundation, agree: the federal criminal code is a trap for the unwary, and needs meaningful mens rea reform. 
   For an interesting piece advocating for Congressional action, see John Malcolm, The Importance of Meaningful Mens Rea Reform, available here

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender N.D. Cal. Website at


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