Wednesday, February 17, 2016

District Courts Have Wide Latitude in Reserving their Decisions on Rule 29 Motions

Although it is common, a district court's decision to reserve its ruling on a defendant's motion for acquittal pursuant to Rule 29 can prove frustrating if the defendant is forced to defend against claims that are not supported by sufficient evidence. In United States v. Robinson, the Sixth Circuit held that district courts have wide latitude in deciding whether to reserve their rulings.

In Robinson, the Sixth Circuit upheld the convictions for vote buying and conspiracy against Ruth Thomasine Robinson, the former mayor of Martin, Kentucky, (she lost her re-election bid by three votes), and against her stepson, Steven Robinson.  The Court also upheld the vote buying conviction against Mrs. Robinson's husband, James.

At trial, James Robinson moved for acquittal pursuant to Rule 29 both after the United States concluded its case and after the close of all of the evidence.  The Court reserved its ruling on his motion until after the jury returned its verdict.  The jury ultimately returned guilty verdicts for all three defendants, and the Court granted Mr. Robinson's motion for acquittal as to his conspiracy charge.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit upheld all three convictions, holding that there was sufficient evidence for each conviction.  The Court also addressed James Robinson's argument that the District Court erred by reserving its ruling on his Rule 29 motion until after the jury returned its verdict.  In his brief, Mr. Robinson asserted that the District Court's decision prejudiced his case because it forced him to defend against the conspiracy charge and because it allegedly biased the jury by forcing it to consider the conspiracy charge.  The Court disagreed, holding that Rule 29, and its previous decision in United States v. Mathis, 738 F.3d 719, 737 (6th Cir. 2013), permitted the District Court to reserve a motion for acquittal made at the close of the United States' case.  In reaching this conclusion, the Court disagreed with Mr. Robinson's argument that Mathis only applied where the Government presented sufficient evidence to submit the case to the jury and any erroneous reservation was harmless error.  Removing all doubt, the Court held that Rule 29 and Mathis permit the district court to reserve its ruling on a properly raised Rule 29 motion for acquittal until after the jury reaches a verdict.

James Robinson also challenged the District Court's two-level enhancement of his sentence for obstruction of justice pursuant to USSG 3C1.1.  At Mr. Robinson's sentencing, the District Court imposed the enhancement based upon evidence that he "made menacing gestures and sounds" toward three government employees who were investigating perjury at the trial.  Specifically, the District Court noted that Mr. Robinson "menacingly confronted government employees outside the courthouse by making a noise to get their attention, then staring at them and puffing out his chest."  Although there was no evidence that Mr. Robinson made direct threats to the employees, the Court concluded that there was sufficient evidence to support the enhancement.

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