Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Valois: Upholding Title 46 Convictions and Sentences over Numerous Challenges

In United States v. Valois, et al., No. 17-13535 (Feb. 12, 2019) (Hull, Jordan, Grant), the Court affirmed the defendant's MDLEA convictions over numerous challenges.

First, the Court rejected the defendants' constitutional challenges to the MDLEA as foreclosed by circuit precedent.  Specifically, it rejected their arguments that Congress lacked authority to define and punish felonies on the high seas where there is no connection to the U.S.; that due process prohibited the prosecution of foreign nationals without a nexus to the U.S.; that the MDLEA violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendments by removing jurisdictional facts from the province of the jury; and admission of the Secretary of State certificate to establish jurisdiction violates the Confrontation Clause.

Second, the Court found no abuse of discretion in the denial of the defendants' motion for a mistrial based on the prosecutor's reference in closing arguments to a separate drug seizure.  The reference was not evidence and so did not violate Rule 404(b), and it was the defendant who interjected the prior seizure.  The prosecutor understandably sought to refute the defendant's reliance on that prior seizure.  And the defendants had not shown that the comment was prejudicial given the court's curative instruction to the jury.

Third, the Court rejected the defendants' argument that their Sixth Amendment rights were violated because their attorneys represented defendants involved in the separate drug seizure, and thus had a conflict of interest.  At the time counsel was appointed, there was no known connection between the two seizures; because a connection first arose during the trial, the court was not required to hold a conflict-waiver hearing before the trial began, and the court did hold such a hearing before sentencing.  Moreover, the defendants did not show that their attorneys had any actual conflict because they in fact tried to shift the blame on to the defendants involved in the other seizure.  The Court noted that, in the future, when two boat cases with cocaine are interdicted close in time and geography, and two indictments are filed on the same day, the magistrate judge should consider appointing separate counsel for each defendant because a conflict could have arisen had a defendant one on boat testified against a defendant on the other boat.

Fourth, and relying on prior precedent, the Court held that the defendants were statutorily ineligible for safety-valve relief, and this ineligibility did not violate equal protection.  The Court also suggested, without formally deciding, that the safety valve did not violate the right against self-incrimination by requiring defendants to provide the government with all the information they had, relying on circuit precedent rejecting a similar challenge to the acceptance of responsibility guideline.

Lastly, the Court upheld the denial of a minor-role reduction.