Thursday, May 17, 2007

Post-Verdict Judgment of Acquittal Reversed

United States v. Hope, No. 06-60131 (5th Cir. May 15, 2007) (Jones, Jolly, Stewart)

Let's say the Government charges you with being a felon in possession of a firearm, alleges that you were previously convicted of a particular felony offense, introduces documents at trial which show that you were convicted of that offense, and the jury finds you guilty. But in fact, you were never convicted of the felony that the Government alleged and proved. Instead, you were convicted of some other felony offense. Are you entitled to a judgment of acquittal? Apparently not, at least not in the circumstances present in Hope.

Hope was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. The predicate felony alleged in the indictment was an aggravated assault conviction from Mississippi. At trial, the Government introduced a certified state court judgment showing that Hope had been convicted of that offense. Hope did not object. After being found guilty, new counsel was appointed for Hope. His new attorney reviewed the state court transcript from his prior conviction, and discovered that the aggravated assault charge had been dismissed and that Hope had actually pled guilty to strong-arm robbery. Hope therefore filed a motion for new trial, which the district court construed as a renewed Rule 29 motion for judgment of acquittal. The district court granted the motion on the ground that Hope was not in fact convicted of the prior felony alleged in the indictment and proven at trial.

The court of appeals reversed the judgment of acquittal, although it's hard to tell exactly why. So rather than attempt to summarize the court's reasoning, I'll just quote it in full:

Hope’s argument for acquittal was that, based on the transcript of the Mississippi proceeding, the evidence was insufficient to convict him of being a felon in possession. Hope argues that “no evidence of a valid conviction was ever presented at trial,” because the indictment charged Hope with having been convicted of aggravated assault, which the transcript proved was not true. Thus, Hope says, neither the grand nor petit jury has ever been presented with evidence that he had a valid prior felony conviction, and consequently because the evidence introduced at trial does not support a verdict of guilty, the district court did not err in granting a judgment of acquittal under Rule 29.

We cannot agree. First, the indictment alleged that Hope had been convicted of a qualifying felony and it listed the particular cause number and date of his conviction, none of which is disputed. There is no variance between the evidence introduced and the crime charged in the indictment. The only variance exists between the official record of the state trial and the state transcript introduced in federal post-trial proceedings. Hope makes no argument that he was uncertain to which felony conviction the indictment referred; although at some point in the trial he apparently said that he did not plead guilty to aggravated assault, he never denied that he had pled guilty to a felony in the same case and case number alleged in the indictment. Second, the evidence that the government introduced at trial, namely the official Mississippi judgment order, supported the indictment in every particular. Hope’s trial counsel did not object to the introduction of this evidence nor did he otherwise contest the fact that Hope had been convicted of a qualifying felony. Finally, it is clear that, irrespective of whether the crime was denominated as aggravated assault or strong-arm robbery, Hope was in fact convicted of a qualifying felony --specifically in the same case and case number that was reflected in both the certified judgment and the indictment. As noted, the record further shows that Hope was aware that this conviction made it a federal crime for him to possess a firearm in interstate commerce. He signed a form to this effect on August 28, 2000, four days after his guilty plea in state court.

. . .

We thus conclude: The only question in reviewing the district court’s grant of the Rule 29 motion is whether the evidence introduced at trial and upon which the jury based its verdict is sufficient to support the crime charged in the indictment. A federal crime was correctly charged in the indictment; the government proved the crime charged with competent evidence, that is, an unobjected-to, certified state court judgment. Such evidence is sufficient to support the crime charged in the indictment and the guilty verdict the jury returned based on that evidence. Thus we hold that the district court erred in entering a judgment of acquittal in response to Hope’s oral Rule 29 motion. If Hope is entitled to relief, he must pursue a different procedural course in order to achieve it. For the foregoing reasons, the district court’s judgment is REVERSED, Hope’s conviction is hereby REINSTATED and the case is REMANDED for sentencing.

I invite any readers who can decipher this holding to weigh in with a comment.



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