New opinion: Third Circuit affirms a criminal conviction despite concerns

U.S. v. Diaz—criminal—affirmance—Rendell

The Third Circuit today affirmed a man’s conviction and sentence despite expressing concern about the district court’s handling of the man’s requests for new counsel and despite holding that the court erred in admitting a police officer’s expert testimony. I suspect both issues will have future application.

As to the new counsel issue, the man complained to the court before trial that his counsel wasn’t communicating with him and wasn’t letting him see discovery, requesting appointment of new counsel. The court directed counsel to file a response, which counsel didn’t do. But the lawyer later told the court that the issue was resolved and the client wanted him to remain on the case, and the client didn’t renew his new-counsel request at trial. The Third Circuit observed that additional steps by the district court “would have been appropriate and advisable,” but held that the district court didn’t abuse its discretion given the evidence that counsel was paying attention to the complaints, together with the fact that at trial the client didn’t request new counsel or complain about his counsel.

As to the expert-testimony issue, the man was prosecuted for conspiring in a drug operation and the police officer testified as an expert witness that the man worked as an underling in the operation. This testimony “obviously” violated FRE 701(b) because it gave the officer’s opinion an issue the jury had to decide. The officer also testified about that various recorded statements referred to drug activity—for example, that a text to the man that said “u got me waitin” meant waiting for a drug delivery. This testimony also violated Rule 701 because the statements contained no coded terminology requiring interpretation and the officer simply added his conclusion that they referred to drug dealing. The court said, “We find this testimony quite problematic and have no trouble concluding that the District Court should have excluded it.” But defense counsel (the same counsel about whom the man complained before trial) did not object to the Rule 701 violations, so the Third Circuit reviewed for plain error only and affirmed. The defendant wasn’t prejudiced enough by them given considerable valid evidence of guilt and effective cross-examination. And the error didn’t impact the integrity of the proceedings because the prosecutor didn’t rely on any of the improper testimony at closing.

Joining Rendell were Jordan and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Sean Camoni of the MDPa. U.S. Attorney’s office for the government and Jacob Schuman of the EDPa. Federal Community Defender’s office for the defendant.