Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Panel Majority Finds Constitutional Speedy Trial Violation, Holds Standard of Review is De Novo

United States v. Molina-Solorio, No. 08-10167 (5th Cir. July 27, 2009) (Stewart, Southwick; King, dissenting)

It's not every day that you see the court of appeals reverse a district court's denial of a constitutional speedy trial claim—much less when the charge is escaping from federal custody—but that's just what happened in this case. Let's dig in, shall we?

The timeline:
  • 1997: Molina is convicted in federal court of participating in a marijuana conspiracy, escapes from prison, and is indicted for escaping from federal custody (18 U.S.C. § 751(a)).
  • 1999: Molina is sentenced in Texas state court for possession of cocaine. After he serves his sentence, state authorities release him to ICE custody. Federal authorities are aware of the warrant for the 1997 escape charge.
  • 2001: ICE deports Molina to Mexico.
  • December 2006: ICE catches Molina in Texas.
  • July 2007: Molina is sentenced to 51 months' imprisonment for illegal reentry.
  • September 2007: Molina is arrested and arraigned on the escape charge.
  • November 2007: Molina moves to dismiss the escape indictment due to statutory and constitutional speedy trial violations.
  • Next: The district court denied the motion. Molina pleaded guilty conditionally, reserving his right to appeal the denial of the motion to dismiss. He was sentenced to 30 months' imprisonment.
Molina appealed, pressing only the constitutional claim. But before getting to the meat of the matter, the court had to figure out what the standard of review was: "Surprisingly, still unsettled in this circuit is the proper standard for reviewing the district court’s application of the four-factor balancing test from Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972)." In an earlier case that declined to resolve the question, United States v. Frye, the court noted that, while factual findings are typically reviewed for clear error, balancing tests are at least mixed questions of fact and law, and are typically reviewed de novo. Molina-Solorio holds: "We agree with the Frye court that application of the Barker test is at least a mixed question of fact and law, and we hold that the appropriate standard of review of the district court’s application of the Barker factors is de novo." This accords with at least five other circuits.

That having been resolved, the court moved on to balance the Barker factors anew:
  • Length of Delay: The 10-year delay weighed heavily in Molina's favor.
  • Reason for the Delay: "[T]his case falls in the 'middle ground' that exists 'between diligent prosecution and bad faith delay and demonstrates negligent prosecution.'" Given the Government's failure to diligently pursue Molina, coupled with the length of the delay, this factor also weighed heavily in Molina's favor.
  • Assertion of Right: This one was a closer call, but ultimately weighed in Molina's favor because there was no evidence that he was aware that he had been indicted for escape until late summer 2007, and he filed his motion to dismiss soon after he was arraigned.
  • Prejudice: Because the first three factors collectively weighed heavily in Molina's favor, the court presumed prejudice. And the Government failed to rebut the presumption (although the court doesn't really explain why).
Consequently, the delay violated Molina's right to a speedy trial, and the court vacated the conviction and remanded with instructions to dismiss the indictment.

Judge King dissented. Although she agreed with the majority that prejudice should be presumed—principally because of the "egregious length of the delay"—she believed the Government successfully rebutted the presumption. In Judge King's view, the Government
argues persuasively that the delay in bringing Molina-Solorio to trial does not implicate the three key interests that “the speedy trial right was designed to protect”: (1) “to prevent oppressive pretrial incarceration”; (2) “to minimize anxiety and concern of the accused”; and (3) “to limit the possibility that the defense will be impaired.” Barker, 407 U.S. at 532. Regarding the “most serious” of the three interests, Molina-Solorio does not even argue that his defense was impaired, nor could he. Id. He makes no claim that his ability to defend against the charge specified in the indictment—specifically, escaping from the Big Spring Prison Camp—has been impaired by the amount of time that elapsed after the indictment. As for the other two interests, again, neither is even claimed by Molina-Solorio to have been infringed. Molina-Solorio’s primary assertion—that had he been incarcerated for escape, he might not have committed the subsequent crimes of possession of a controlled substance (cocaine) and illegal reentry and would not have been charged with the resulting criminal history points—not only fails to demonstrate prejudice; it is, as the government says, “preposterous.” His second assertion—that Texas “might have been willing to run his state sentence of three years imprisonment for possession of a controlled substance . . . concurrent or partially concurrent with his federal charge of escape”—is pure speculation.
It's unlikely that you'll ever have a case presenting similar facts, but this is a good opinion to keep on hand because it canvasses a lot of the Fifth Circuit case law on the constitutional speedy trial right, making it a both a good overview of the issue and a handy starting point for further research.

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