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United States v. Battle

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 12, 2017



         Currently before the Court are the four defendants' motions to classify the criminal contempt charges filed against them in these cases as misdemeanor offenses rather than as felony offenses. See generally Motion to Strike and Statement of Defendant's Position as to the Classification of Criminal Contempt ("Def. Battle's Mot."), Crim. Action No. 17-67, ECF No. 19; Motion to Reduce Charges ("Def. Brooks' Mot."), Crim. Action No. 17-69, ECF No. 20; Motion to Classify Contempt as Class A Misdemeanor ("Def. Morgan's Mot."), Crim. Action No. 17-74, ECF No. 19; Defendant Bobby Rodgers' Motion to Classify Contempt as a Misdemeanor ("Def. Rodgers' Mot."), Crim. Action No. 17-77, ECF No. 19. Upon careful consideration of the parties' submissions, [1] the Court concludes that it must deny the defendants' motions and classify their criminal contempt charges under 18 U.S.C. § 401(3) as felony offenses subject to, among other penalties, the penalty of incarceration with no maximum limitation.

         I. BACKGROUND

         As alleged in their indictments, the defendants, who were already incarcerated due to their convictions in other criminal matters, were compelled through a written order by this Court to testify "at the trial of Anthony Pryor and Lance Yarbough, for a charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute heroin, [in Criminal] Case Number 14-270 (W.D. Pa.)." Indictment, Crim. Action No. 17-67, ECF No. 1. Despite the Court's orders "compelling [the defendants] to testify pursuant to [their] grant[s] of immunity" by the government, see id., the defendants, when called by the government to provide testimony on January 17, 2017, at the above referenced trial, refused to testify. Upon the defendants' refusals to testify, the Court engaged in a colloquy with each defendant, during which the Court explained to each defendant that they did not have a legal basis to refuse to testify and that if they elected to not testify, they could be held in criminal contempt. See, e.g., Jan. 17, 2017 Trial Transcript ("Tr.") at 51. Additionally, the Court informed each defendant that, if they were held in criminal contempt by the Court, they faced an additional six-month prison sentence. The Court also cautioned each defendant that the government could decide to indict them for their refusal to testify, and that, if the government did obtain indictments, the defendants could be "sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of ever being released." Id. at 52:9-10. Notwithstanding the Court's warnings, the defendants maintained their refusal to testify.

         Contemporaneously with refusing to testify, defendant Battle requested that the Court "issue a show cause order and to schedule a contempt hearing under [Federal] Rule [of Criminal Procedure] 42." Id. at 53:10-11. In opposition, the government indicated that it intended to seek indictments against each defendant because it was the government's position that the defendants' conduct "[wa]s serious and deserving of an indictment and a sentence in excess of six months in jail." Id. at 54:13-14. The Court agreed with the government, concluding that it was appropriate for "the [G]overnment [to] have the option of assessing whether it wants to proceed by way of an indictment." Id., at 54:17-55:3. Accordingly, to "give the government adequate opportunity to assess whether it want[ed] to proceed by way of indictment, " Id. at 55:4-10, the Court scheduled a status conference for a later date for each defendant, Id. at 57. However, the Court noted that the defendants "would be cited for contempt by the Court and sentenced appropriately . . . [i]f the government decide[d] not to proceed" with indictments. Id. at 55:4-10.

         On March 14, 2017, the government obtained indictments against each defendant, charging them with criminal contempt in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 401(3) for "willfully and knowingly disobey[ing] and resist[ing] the lawful order and command of a Court of the United States." Indictment, Crim. Action No. 17-67, ECF No. 1. The indictments also state that the criminal contempt charges subject the defendants to "[a]n unlimited period of incarceration[, ] ... [a]n unlimited period of supervised release[, ] . . . [and a]n unlimited amount in fines." Indictment Mem., Crim. Action No. 17-67, ECF No. 2. Thereafter, the Court conducted status conferences to determine how the parties wished to proceed in light of the indictments, and at these status conferences, the Court granted the defendants' oral requests for leave to file motions requesting that the Court classify their criminal contempt charges as misdemeanor offenses. The parties have now completed their briefing of the defendants' motions, and the Court will therefore now address whether the criminal contempt offenses as charged in the indictments are properly classified as misdemeanor or felony offenses.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Section 401(3) authorizes courts "to punish by fine or imprisonment, or both, at its discretion, such contempt of its authority, and none other, as [d]isobedience or resistance to its lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command." Section 401 therefore does not impose a maximum possible penalty for its violation, and it does not designate whether a violation constitutes a felony or misdemeanor. See generally 18 U.S.C. § 401. However, the language of the statute explicitly grants courts broad discretion in their determination of the appropriate punishment to impose. See id.; see also In re Solomon, 465 F.3d 114, 121 (3d Cir. 2006) ("Indeed, there are no statutory limits on the court's discretion to impose penalties for criminal contempt."). Nonetheless, the defendants contend for various reasons that the Court should classify their criminal contempt charges as alleged in the indictments as misdemeanor offenses. The Court will address each of the defendants' arguments in turn.

         A. The Court's Jurisdiction to Resolve the Pending Motions

         At the outset, the government asserts that it "belie [ves] that the Court is without authority to decide this issue at this point" because the Court's decision on this issue "would have no impact on the admission of evidence or any of the defendants' substantive rights, " and therefore, the Court's decision on "whether these charges are felony or misdemeanor offenses would be" nothing more than an advisory opinion, which the Court is precluded from issuing by Article III of the United States Constitution. Gov't's Opp'n at 2. Accordingly, the government contends that "the Court should deny the defendants' motions because it lacks jurisdiction to decide [them]." Id. The Court disagrees.

         While the Court appreciates that it lacks jurisdiction to render advisory opinions, see Rhone-Poulenc Surfacants and Specialties. L.P. v. Comm'r, 249 F.3d 175, 181-82 (3d Cir. 2001) (noting that Article III, Section II of the Constitution "stands as a direct prohibition on the issuance of advisory opinions" (quoting Travelers Ins. Co. v. Obusek, 72 F.3d 1148, 1153 (3d Cir. 1995))), the Court does not consider addressing the issue of whether the defendants' criminal contempt charges are misdemeanor or felony offenses as equivalent to rendering "an opinion advising what the law would be on a hypothetical state of facts, " PSA, LLC v. Gonzales, 271 F.App'x 218, 220 (3d Cir. 2008) rquoting Step-Saver Data Sys. Inc. v. Wyse Tech., 912 F.2d 643, 649 (3d Cir. 1990)). Quite to the contrary, this legal issue presents a "controversy that is real and not hypothetical. . . [and] that affects [the defendants] in a concrete manner so as to provide the factual predicate for reasoned adjudication." Travelers Ins. Co., 72 F.3d at 1154 (quoting Armstrong World Indus., Inc. v. Adams, 961 F.2d 405, 410 (3d Cir. 1992)). And, as defendant Morgan notes, "the [g]overnment has sought and obtained . . . indictment[s] against [each of] the defendants], " Def. Morgan's Reply at 1, for their alleged contemptuous conduct, which statutorily subjects them to an unspecified term of punishment, see 18 U.S.C. § 401. Consequently, there can be no greater controversy than the one presented here, which among other consequences, directly impacts the period of time the defendants' liberties may be involuntarily denied due to the criminal charges brought against them by their government.

         Contrary to the government's position that the Court's decision on this issue would not have any impact on the defendants' substantive rights, see Gov't's Opp'n at 2, the defendants' due process rights are implicated by the Court's decision. Due process embodies the "[e]lementary notions of fairness enshrined in our constitutional jurisprudence[, which] dictate that a person receive fair notice not only of the conduct that will subject him to punishment, but also of the severity of the penalty that.. . may [be] impose[d]." BMW of N. Am., Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559. 574 (1996V see also Unkford v. Idaho, 500 U.S. 110, 120-22 (1991) (concluding that due process was violated because the defendant and his counsel did not have adequate notice "that the trial judge was contemplating a death sentence"); United States v. Spiers, 82 F.3d 1274, 1282 (3d Cir. 1996) (noting that due process is not violated "[a]s long as the defendant has adequate notice [of the punishment that] may be imposed"). Furthermore, the Court's conclusion that it has jurisdiction to adjudicate the pending motions is supported by the case law cited by both the defendants and the government addressing the issue of whether the criminal contempt the defendants are charged with committing should be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony. See Gov't's Opp'n at 3-4 (discussing the defendants' reliance on cases from the First, Third, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits that have addressed this issue). Accordingly, the Court concludes that it has jurisdiction to address the pending motions.

         B. The Applicability of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 42(b) and 18 U.S.C. § 3691

         1. Summary Disposition Under Rule 42(b)

         In relevant part, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 42 provides that "[a] court. .. may summarily punish a person who commits criminal contempt in its presence if the judge saw or heard the contemptuous conduct and so certifies." Fed. R. Crim. P. 42(b) (emphasis added). Defendants Battle and Brooks argue that the criminal contempt offenses they are charged with committing should be classified as misdemeanor offenses with a maximum sentence of incarceration of six months because their refusal to testify in the presence of the Court falls within the purview of the Court's summary disposition authority under Rule 42(b). See, e.g., Def. Brooks' Mot.; Def. Battle's Mot. at 2-3. In response, the government contends that "Rule 42 provides no guidance as to whether, under the circumstances of this case, the offenses are felony or misdemeanor offenses" because Rule 42 does not require "the Court [to] summarily punish contemptuous conduct that occurs in [the Court's] presence." Gov't Opp'n at 6.

         Based on Rule 42(b)'s plain language, summary disposition is an available tool of punishment for contemptuous conduct made in a court's presence, if the court, in its discretion, concludes that summary disposition is appropriate under the circumstances. See Harris v. United States, 382 U.S. 162, 167 (1965) (noting that summary disposition was envisioned for situations "where instant action is necessary to protect the judicial institution itself). And summary punishment under Rule 42(b) carries a maximum term of punishment of six months. See Codispoli v. Pennsylvania, 418 U.S. 506, 513-14 (1974) ("Undoubtedly, where the necessity of circumstances warrants, a contemnor may be summarily tried for an act of contempt during trial and punished by a term of no more than six months."). However, a court is not mandated to summarily punish contemptuous conduct that occurs in its presence, as Rule 42 also permits the prosecution of an individual who commits criminal contempt. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 42(a) (outlining procedural safeguards for the prosecution of criminal contempt); see also Harris, 382 U.S. at 166-67 (discussing the procedural safeguards of Rule 42(a) and providing factual scenarios when a trial pursuant to Rule 42(a) would be appropriate).

         Although the defendants' alleged contemptuous conduct in this case occurred in the Court's presence and upon a finding of guilt the Court could have summarily punished them, see United States v. Wilson, 421 U.S. 309, 314-19 (1975) (concluding that the trial court's summary punishment of two witnesses who refused to testify after both witnesses received immunity was appropriate because their refusal to testify were "intentional obstructions of court proceedings that literally disrupted the progress of the trial and hence the orderly administration of justice"), the Court, as the government notes, see Gov't Opp'n at 6, did not summarily act pursuant to Rule 42(b), but rather provided the government the opportunity to seek indictments against the defendants as permitted by Rule 42(a), see supra Part I, at 2. Thus, even though the defendants' contemptuous conduct could have been summarily punished under Rule 42(b), which would have rendered their contemptuous conduct as misdemeanor offenses given the six-month maximum sentence for summary dispositions, the Court's decision to allow the prosecution of the defendants' contemptuous conduct under Rule 42(a), and the fact that the government obtained indictments against the defendants, removed the defendants' contemptuous conduct from the purview of Rule 42(b). Therefore, summary disposition under Rule 42(b), coupled with its six-month maximum sentence, have no bearing on the Court's decision on whether to classify the defendants' contemptuous conduct as charged in the indictments as misdemeanor or felony offenses.

         2. Right to a Jury Trial Pursuant to 18 ...

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