In U.S. v. Powell, No. 09-11612 (Dec. 27, 2010), the Court vacated a conviction because the district judge declined to adopt a Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendation without holding a hearing.
Powell moved to suppress statements he made following his arrest, claiming that he was not read his Miranda rights after he requested counsel. A Magistrate Judge held an evidentiary hearing. After hearing the conflicting testimony of government and defense witnesses, the Magistrate Judge credited the defense accounts, and found the government’s witnesses “unconvincing.” The Magistrate Judge recommended a ruling in favor of Powell’s motion to suppress. The government filed objections with the district court. The district court, without holding a hearing, but after listening to a recording of the hearing before the Magistrate Judge, overruled the Magistrate Judge, and denied the motion to suppress.
The Court held that when a district court squarely rejects the credibility findings of a Magistrate Judge, it must hear the disputed testimony live. The Court therefore vacated Powell’s conviction, and remanded the case. The Court noted that the district court remained free to reject the Magistrate Judge’s determinations in whole or in part after holding a new hearing.