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March 6, 2019

Notable Eighth Circuit panel ruling finds due process right of confrontation violated in revocation of supervised release

I am expecting (and hoping) that the Supreme Court thought its pending Haymond case (basics here and here) will soon be adding to the constitutional procedural protections of federal defendants when facing significant punishment based on allegations they have violated their supervised release.  A helpful reader made sure I did not miss, while we await the Supreme Court's further guidance, a notable panel opinion from the Eighth Circuit in US v. Sutton, No. 17-3195 (8th Cir. March 5, 2019) (available here). Here is how the panel opinion in Sutton gets started and a key substantive passage:

Craig Sutton appeals the revocation of his supervised release based on the allegation that he committed assault in June 2016.  At the final revocation hearing, the government introduced videos and transcripts of police interrogations of three witnesses who had a connection to the assault.  None of the three witnesses appeared at the hearing to provide live testimony, and Sutton objected that introduction of their interrogations deprived himof his right to confrontation. The district court overruled his objection. Relying almost exclusively on the interrogations, the district court concluded that Sutton more likely than not committed the assault and revoked his supervised release. We conclude that admission of the interrogations was erroneous and accordingly reverse....

A revocation hearing is not a criminal trial, and a defendant on supervised release is not entitled to the full panoply of protections afforded by the rules of evidence. Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 480 (1972); United States v. Black Bear, 542 F.3d 249, 253, 255 (8th Cir. 2008).  Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(b)(2)(C) nonetheless gives a defendant the opportunity to “question any adverse witness unless the court determines that the interest of justice does not require the witness to appear.”  See Morrissey, 408 U.S. at 488–89 (“[T]he minimum requirements of due process . . . include . . . the right to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses (unless the hearing officer specifically finds good cause for not allowing confrontation).”).  This rule requires the court to balance the defendant’s due process right to confront and cross-examine witnesses during such proceedings “against the grounds asserted by the government for not requiring confrontation.” United States v. Bell, 785 F.2d 640, 642 (8th Cir. 1986).

Under Bell, the court must evaluate two factors to determine if good cause justifies limiting the defendant’s confrontation rights in a particular case.  First, “the court should assess the explanation the government offers of why confrontation is undesirable or impractical,” such as when “live testimony would pose a danger of physical harm to a government informant.” Id. at 643.  Second, the government must establish “the reliability of the evidence which the government offers in place of live testimony.” Id. To demonstrate good cause, the government must prove both factors; only if it shows “that the burden of producing live testimony would be inordinate and offers in its place hearsay evidence that is demonstrably reliable” will good cause exist. United States v. Zentgraf, 20 F.3d 906, 910 (8th Cir. 1994) (quoting Bell, 785 F.2d at 643).

Applying the Bell factors to the testimony of the three witnesses at issue in this case, we conclude that the government failed to meet its burden on either factor and that Sutton was entitled to confrontation.

As the panel explains in a footnote, according the the Eighth Circuit, "because 'a revocation of supervised release is not part of a criminal prosecution,' the right to confrontation afforded at such hearings comes from due process.  United States v. Ray, 530 F.3d 666, 668 (8th Cir. 2008)."  This point and the Sutton case more generally serves as a useful reminder of how impactful, doctrinally and practically, the Supreme Court's Haymond case could prove to be.

March 6, 2019 at 11:28 AM | Permalink

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