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Third Circuit: District Court’s Focus on Substance of Defendant’s Meritless Arguments in Denying Request to Represent Himself Resulted in Inadequate Inquiry Prior to Denial in Violation of Sixth Amendment

by Matt Clarke

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania erred when it denied a federal criminal defendant’s request to represent himself without first conducting an adequate inquiry.

Donte Taylor was serving parole after having been convicted of state drug crimes, imprisoned, and released. His probation officer conducted an unannounced home visit and found crack cocaine, marijuana, a firearm, and a large sum of cash. A federal grand jury indicted him for possession with intent to distribute controlled substances in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 84l(a)(l), 84l(b)(l)(B)(iii), 84l(b)(l)(c), and 84l(b)(l)(D). The district court appointed attorney Robert S. Carey to represent him.

Several months later, as Carey was preparing for a pretrial suppression hearing, Taylor filed two pro se motions for immediate release. A few days later, Carey filed a motion to withdraw as Taylor’s counsel, citing an irreparably damaged attorney–client relationship, which the court denied.

Carey filed a second motion to withdraw, “explaining that Taylor ‘had advised [him] that the attorney/client relationship was terminated’ and  ‘desires to proceed pro se.’” Over the next few days, during the lead up to the scheduled suppression hearing, Taylor filed five additional pro se motions.

During the suppression hearing, the court addressed the second motion to withdraw. Carey explained that Taylor wanted to represent himself, but he had “concerns of a substantive nature” about Taylor’s “legal competency.” Taylor told the court that he wanted to represent himself.

The court expressed concern that some of Taylor’s pro se motions were rambling and not based on rational legal principles. The court said this sent up a red flag that, “even though [Taylor] may be legally competent in that [he] understand[s] the nature of these proceedings, that’s a different standard as to whether [he is] able to effectively represent himself.”

During the suppression hearing, Taylor told the court he would ask questions when he did not understand the proceedings and asked the court to “deal with him commonly,” so he could speak regularly to the judge and prosecutor. The court advised him that it could not offer him legal advice and had already been explaining things “on a level” that he could “mentally assimilate.” The court then advised him to do some “basic fundamental research” about his request for immediate release.

Taylor asked the court to consider the jurisdictional issues raised in his motions. According to Carey, Taylor essentially maintained that the U.S. is not a country but rather a corporation, and Taylor is not a U.S. citizen because he is neither an agent nor employee of the corporation.

The court told Taylor it would not “allow [him] to turn his case into some strange journey with these theories that have absolutely no basis in law or logic.”  Nonetheless, Taylor persisted in bringing the theories up. The court warned him again not to pursue them. Taylor did so anyway. Eventually, the court declared, “No. I told you I’m not going to allow you to go down that path. And I can see—I can rule right from the bench right now. I don’t need any research. You are not going to be permitted to represent yourself.  No way.  No way.  I’m not going to let you represent yourself.”

The court eventually allowed Carey to withdraw but appointed another attorney to represent Taylor. He was convicted and sentenced to 264 months.

Aided by Lisa B. Freedland and Renee Pietropaolo of the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Pittsburgh, Taylor appealed solely on the issue of whether he had been improperly denied his right to represent himself.

The Third Circuit began by observing it “must indulge every reasonable presumption against a waiver of counsel.” United States v. Jones, 452 F.3d 223 (3d. Cir. 2006). It added that when a district court improperly denies a defendant’s request for self-representation, the court commits structural error,  so “we may not consider its error harmless.” United States v. Peppers, 302 F.3d 120 (3d. Cir. 2002).

The Court noted that the Sixth Amendment grants both the right to representation and the right to represent oneself. Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975). To exercise the right to self-representation, the defendant must relinquish the right to counsel, creating a tension between the two rights and requiring the “trial court [to shoulder] the weighty burden of conducting a sufficiently penetrating inquiry to satisfy itself that the defendant’s waiver of counsel is knowing and understanding as well as voluntary.” Peppers. “During this inquiry, the court must ascertain whether the defendant (1) has clearly and unequivocally asserted his desire to represent himself; (2) understands the nature of the charges, the range of possible punishments, potential defenses, technical problems that [he] may encounter, and any other factors important to a general understanding of the risks involved; and (3) is competent to stand trial.” United States v. Jones, 452 F.3d 223 (3d Cir. 2006). This inquiry must be more than “perfunctory questioning,” United States v. Welty, 674 F.2d 185 (3d Cir. 1982), or recitation of a “rote speech,” Virgin Islands v. Charles, 72 F.3d 401 (3d Cir. 1995).

Taylor asserted the trial court  “erred because it denied his request to represent himself based on its assessment of his understanding of the law rather than the potential risks and consequences of proceeding pro se.”  The Court agreed, explaining that the district court “appears to have misdirected its focus when evaluating Taylor’s request to represent himself” to the merits of Taylor’s “sovereign citizen” arguments rather than “his appreciation for the consequences of representing himself,” that is, the second requirement under the Peppers inquiry.

Although the Court agreed with the district court that Taylor’s “sovereign citizen” arguments were meritless, it determined that the district court should have probed  “whether Taylor understood the risks and consequences of representing himself” rather than focusing on the actual substance of the arguments he was making. Without conducting the required inquiry, the district court had no basis for its decision to deny Taylor’s request to represent himself, according to the Court. Consequently, the Court concluded that the district court “erred by failing to adequately investigate Taylor’s request to represent himself before denying his request.”

The Court explained that under its case law, it cannot treat the district court’s constitutional error as harmless. Peppers. Thus, because the district court denied Taylor’s self-representation request without conducting a sufficient inquiry of the relevant matters, the Court held that Taylor was denied his Sixth Amendment right to self-representation.

Accordingly, the Court vacated Taylor’s conviction and remanded to the district court for a new trial. See: United States v. Taylor, 21 F.4th 94 (3d Cir. 2021). 

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