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United States v. Ruggiero


decided: December 16, 1987.


Appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. (Mark A. Costantino, Judge) holding defendant in summary contempt and fining him $10,000 pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 42(a) for a verbal outburst during a criminal trial. We affirm the contempt conviction but reduce the fine to $2,000.

Van Graafeiland, Winter and Mahoney, Circuit Judges.

Author: Winter

WINTER, Circuit Judge:

Angelo Ruggiero appeals from a July 10, 1987 order holding him in summary contempt and fining him $10,000 under Fed. R. Crim. P. 42(a). Ruggiero contends that Judge Costantino's finding of contempt was an abuse of discretion, or alternatively that the fine was excessive. We affirm the contempt conviction but reduce the fine to $2,000.

A United States judge has the power, under Rule 42(a) and 18 U.S.C. ยง 401 (1982), to punish summarily as contempt misbehavior which "'is in the presence of the judge and is known to him, and where immediate corrective steps are needed to restore order and maintain the dignity and authority of the court.'" United States v. Martin-Trigona, 759 F.2d 1017, 1024 (2d Cir. 1985) (quoting Johnson v. Mississippi, 403 U.S. 212, 214, 29 L. Ed. 2d 423, 91 S. Ct. 1778 (1971) (per curiam). These conditions were met in the instant case.

Ruggiero's outburst took place during a tense and volatile multi-defendant criminal trial, in which the district court had been forced on other occasions to warn the defendants to stop interrupting witnesses, using foul language, or otherwise showing their disrespect for the proceedings.*fn1 Just before the cited conduct occurred, the district court, in the absence of the jury, had granted a government motion to exclude two potential witnesses from the courtroom. Defense counsel - not for the first time - had continued to oppose the ruling after it had been made and had directed antagonistic questions to the district court. At that point, defendant Oscar Ansourian interrupted and was warned by the court to be silent. He obeyed. Ruggiero then intervened and accused the district court of infringing upon his constitutional rights. After Ruggiero's outburst, the district court warned his counsel to silence Ruggiero. Ruggiero nevertheless persisted in his comments and directed them personally at the court. A transcript of this colloquy is set forth in the margin.*fn2

Under such circumstances, the district court was free to conclude that the decisive action of holding Ruggiero in contempt was necessary to prevent the disruption of the trial. See, e.g., United States v. Lumumba, 794 F.2d 806, 811, 815 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 855, 107 S. Ct. 192, 93 L. Ed. 2d 125 (1986); United States v. Stratton, 779 F.2d 820, 836 (2d Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1162, 106 S. Ct. 2285, 90 L. Ed. 2d 726 (1986). Ruggiero's conduct was far more serious and less justifiable than the challenged conduct in the cases that he cites. Unlike In re McConnell, 370 U.S. 230, 235-36, 8 L. Ed. 2d 434, 82 S. Ct. 1288 (1962), Ruggiero did not comply with the court's order to be silent, and he was not an attorney attempting to preserve a client's legal rights. Similarly distinguishable are In re Little, 404 U.S. 553, 555, 30 L. Ed. 2d 708, 92 S. Ct. 659 (1972), where a pro se defendant had argued in summation that the court was biased and that the defendant was a political prisoner, and In re Williams, 509 F.2d 949, 958 (2d Cir. 1975), where a witness habitually volunteered information instead of answering the questions posed.

Ruggiero's claim that the district court did not provide him with an opportunity to be heard before holding him in contempt confuses Rules 42(a) and 42(b). Summary contempts under Rule 42(a) may be adjudicated without notice or hearing because of the need for an immediate adjudication and punishment of contumacious conduct. As a result, the granting of an opportunity to speak is within the district court's discretion. See Martin-Trigona, 759 F.2d at 1026.

Ruggiero also argues that he was entitled to a warning specifically directed to him. Even if the district court's admonition to his counsel to silence Ruggiero is not considered such a warning, the court's previous warning to the other defendant clearly served to place Ruggiero on notice that his conduct was contumacious. Multi-defendant trials might quickly descend into anarchy if each defendant were free to disregard warnings of general applicability albeit specifically directed to another defendant.

We agree with appellant, however, that the district court's imposition of a $10,000 fine was excessive under the circumstances. In view of the fact that the sanction was the first imposed upon anyone in these proceedings, we believe that a fine of $2,000 is sufficient to punish Ruggiero and to put the other participants on notice that disruptive conduct must cease. Accordingly, we exercise our "special responsibility," United States v. Gracia, 755 F.2d 984, 989 (2d Cir. 1985), to revise the excessive contempt sentence imposed in this case.

The judgment of conviction is affirmed, but the fine is reduced to $2,000.

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