Friday, November 25, 2016

To In Propria Persona or not In Propria Persona? Sixth Circuit Affirms Appointment of Counsel for Unruly Defendant

Defense attorneys have their fair share of stories involving difficult clients, and many of us have served as "standby" counsel for defendants who wish to represent themselves (insert the old "fool for a client" adage here).  In United States v. Pryor, however, the Sixth Circuit addressed a less frequent situation: one in which the defendant is so disruptive to the court's proceedings that it not clear, what, if anything he intends to do.

Jermaine Pryor -- who would prefer we call him "Al Gomono Bey" -- (we will just call him Pryor) was indicted for conspiring to distribute heroin between 2012 and 2014.  The indictment stemmed from an investigation law enforcement that involved several intercepted phone calls between other individuals and Prior, who went by the code names "Daffy" and "Taz."

The procedural history of this case is...well...interesting.  Although he never identified himself as such, Pryor apparently adopted many of the tactics employed by the "sovereign citizen" movement, which is an ideology that rejects the United States' jurisdiction over its members.  Pryor repeatedly interrupted the magistrate judge during his initial appearance to object to the jurisdiction of the United States courts over him.  The magistrate judge subsequently appointed standby counsel for Pryor, to which he again objected, stating he was “not a part of your society. . . . I am a moor, and your laws d[o]n’t apply to me.”  When asked whether he was going to hire his own attorney, Pryor responded that he was not going to do so and explained he was "not a minor and no one . . . will be talking for me."  Pryor's actions in the courtroom ultimately prompted the magistrate judge to order the Bureau of Prisons to evaluate Pryor's competency to stand trial.

Unfortunately, Pryor's competency evaluation, and his subsequent competency hearing, did little to improve his relationship with the magistrate judge.  Pryor objected to being in court and indicated he was appearing in propria persona (a fancy term for pro se).  Despite Pryor's statement, the magistrate judge appointed Pryor's standby counsel to represent him, at least during the competency hearing.  After Pryor repeatedly failed to answer the magistrate judge's questions as to whether he wished to represent himself, the judge appointed Pryor's standby counsel to represent him during the duration of the proceedings.  This did not satisfy Pryor, who continued to interrupt the magistrate judge, to which the judge responded by having Pryor removed from the courtroom.  This did not slow down Pryor, however, who continued sending letters to the court objecting to its jurisdiction.  The court ultimately entered an order directing the clerk to automatically reject his letters.

Now before the district court judge, Pryor continued attacking the court's jurisdiction and its decision to appoint counsel to represent him.  Nevertheless, Pryor's case proceeded to trial, during which the jury convicted him of conspiracy to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin.  The district court subsequently sentenced him to 235 months imprisonment.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit, after briefly addressing Pryor's numerous arguments regarding its jurisdiction, turned its attention to some of his more interesting arguments, including his assertion the district court erroneously denied him his constitutional right to represent himself.  After addressing this and other arguments Pryor raised, it affirmed his conviction.

In addressing Pryor's self-representation argument, the Court acknowledged the difficult balancing act in which courts must engage in determining whether defendants knowingly and voluntarily waive their right to counsel and intelligently assert their right to self-representation at every stage of the proceedings.  The Court concluded, however, that a defendant must give the court an opportunity to make its preliminary inquiry as to whether he or she is knowingly and voluntarily waiving his or her right to counsel.  The Court found that by constantly objecting to the district court's jurisdiction over him, Pryor did not give the magistrate judge an opportunity to engage in this inquiry.  In summary, the Court found that, considering Pryor's actions in the case, the district court did not err in appointing counsel for Pryor during the proceedings and that he was not entitled to a "mulligan."

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