Monday, January 12, 2015

United States v. Neal, No. 12-10454 (NR Smith joined by Ikuta and Murguia)
--- The sovereign citizens lose another battle in this case as the Ninth Circuit affirms a conviction and sentence imposed on a federal prisoner who attempted to secure false liens against guards at USP-Atwater in order to get them fired from their federal jobs at the prison. The court held that the evidence was sufficient to support the conviction, the defendant was competent to represent himself at trial, and that the sentencing judge correctly applied the Guidelines that apply to this offense. All of these issues were reviewed under plain error, because the defendant represented himself in the district court and didn't make any objections on these grounds.

This August 23, 2013, article from the New York Times explains what the defendant in this case was trying to do:

Under 18 U.S.C. ยง 1521, it's a crime to retaliate against a federal employee by filing a false lien against the employee's "real or personal property." Here, the defendant claimed he was trying to encumber the employee's oath of office, but did so by filing UCC-compliant liens that made clear who the individual debtors were and the amount they owed -- up to $45 million. It didn't matter that the defendant didn't actually file the liens -- a fellow prisoner being released had them in a package to be mailed to the defendant's mother, and was discovered during a search of the releasee -- because the statute punishes attempting to file the liens as well. Nor did it matter that the liens were false, because that doesn't affect the ability to file a lien. (Indeed, it's the person against whom the lien is taken out who bears the burden of proving that the lien is false.) And making matters worse, the package included detailed instructions to the defendant's mother explaining how to file the liens. The evidence was sufficient to support the conviction.

The district court didn't have any obligation to inquire sua sponte into the defendant's competency, because nothing before it indicated that the defendant was not competent to stand trial. This was so despite the numerous, frivolous motions that the defendant filed advancing the novel legal theories of the sovereign citizen movement. Disillusionment with the legal system is not a basis for a finding of lack of competency (even if it may require one to seek therapy). And during the Faretta colloquy the defendant made it abundantly clear that he wanted to represent himself because he felt he was the best person who could advocate on his behalf (by advancing the legal theories of the sovereign citizen movement). The Faretta colloquy also was not otherwise defective.

The sentencing judge correctly computed the Guidelines range by applying both the specific offense characteristic for filing more than two false liens (here, there were fourteen) and for grouping each of the fourteen charges together. The Guidelines intended to give two upward adjustments under these circumstances, so there wasn't any improper double-counting.

The decision is here:


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