Eleventh Circuit Upholds Verdict Reached Without Defendant Present at Trial – U.S. v. Sterling

November 27, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

Criminal defendants have a right to be present at their own trials. This is part of everyone’s Sixth Amendment rights, and it’s an important part of our country’s guarantee of a free and fair trial. In U.S. v. Sterling, defendant Ronn Sterling argued that his right to be present at his trial was violated when the judge removed him from the courtroom, citing repeated outbursts that may be connected to the “sovereign citizens” movement. After Sterling was convicted of bank robbery, possession of firearm by a felon and use of a firearm during a robbery, he asked the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the convictions. He and an alleged accomplice, Cornell Brumfield, also argued that evidence of their prior convictions was not admissible. The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected both arguments, saying Sterling voluntarily waived his right to be present.

Sterling was accused of robbing a bank at gunpoint; Brumfield allegedly drove the getaway car. Both men had prior convictions stemming from the same 1995 bank robbery in Oklahoma; evidence of these was admitted over their objections. Sterling participated in the pretrial hearing but refused to have anything to do with the trial; he agreed to speak to the judge in an interview room. There, the judge explained that Sterling had a right to be present but would be removed as disruptive if he kept interrupting. Sterling continued to say “I do not understand what’s going on. I do not accept no offers of the court,” causing the judge to remove him and deem him to have waived his right to be present. Sterling watched via live video feed but “remained non-responsive” and wouldn’t testify. They were found guilty in the end; Sterling got 562 months in prison and Brumfield got 363. The court denied Sterling’s motion for a new trial based on his removal from the courtroom. Both men appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit started by noting that Rule 43 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure permits defendants to waive their right to be present after an initial appearance. Past decisions establish that the initial appearance can be at jury selection, before the trial has truly begun, the court said. The Eleventh also found that Sterling’s waiver of his right to be at trial was “voluntary” because he was repeatedly informed of the consequences of his repeated inappropriate remarks. The record shows that Sterling appeared to understand what was going on, the court said, and that he refused to respond to the court. Thus, the Eleventh concluded, Sterling “constructively waived” his right to be present. Indeed, Sterling repeatedly said he wanted no part of the trial. The court also ruled that both men’s prior convictions were properly included as evidence, saying the evidence’s probative value outweighed any prejudicial effect.

Whether a criminal defendant like Sterling waives his rights by being disruptive is an interesting and important issue. “Disruptive” is in the eye of the beholder, which means judges could abuse their power by deciding someone they don’t happen to like the looks of is disruptive. Waiving one’s constitutional right to be at trial must be voluntary, as the Eleventh pointed out—but Sterling would probably not agree that his “waiver” was voluntary. This is one reason why having an experienced attorney (and listening to that attorney’s advice) is so important. Even for defendants who don’t believe the court is legitimate, there’s value in working with someone who understands and knows how to use the system—because as Sterling’s sentence shows, criminal charges can land you in prison for decades.

If you’re charged with a crime in Florida, don’t wait to call Seltzer Law, P.A. to discuss your rights and how we can help. For a free consultation, you can send us a message online or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

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