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United States v. Arenburg

May 25, 2010

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE,
v.
JEFFREY ROBERT ARENBURG, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Appeal from a judgment of conviction entered in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York (Arcara, C.J.), following a jury trial at which defendant was found guilty of assaulting a federal official. We hold that the district court erred by failing to revisit the issue of defendant's competence to stand trial based on his behavior in the courtroom. We therefore remand the case in order to provide the district court with an opportunity to consider whether defendant was competent throughout the trial.

REMANDED.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Percuriam

Argued: April 20, 2010

Before: MINER, CABRANES, and WESLEY, Circuit Judges.

Defendant-Appellant Jeffrey Robert Arenburg, a Canadian citizen, asks us to vacate his conviction for assaulting a federal official, 18 U.S.C. § 111, on the ground that he was not competent to stand trial. The district court's competency determination was based principally on a magistrate judge's prior findings that defendant was competent to stand trial and to represent himself. On appeal, no party challenges the accuracy of the magistrate judge's findings at the time they were made, almost two months prior to the trial. Moreover, although defendant proceeded pro se, neither the government nor defendant's standby counsel asked the district court to reconsider defendant's competence during the two-day trial.

Nevertheless, district courts operate under an independent statutory obligation to revisit a defendant's competence, sua sponte, if there is "reasonable cause to believe that the defendant may presently be suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent." 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a). Because trial judges are in the best position to make these determinations, we afford district courts wide latitude to reach conclusions as to both "reasonable cause" and a criminal defendant's overall competence to stand trial. But this discretion is not unfettered. For the reasons set forth below, we hold that, notwithstanding the magistrate judge's pretrial competence findings, the district court erred by failing to revisit defendant's competence to stand trial in light of his behavior during the trial itself. We therefore remand the case in order to provide the court with an opportunity to consider whether defendant was competent throughout the proceedings that led to his conviction.

I. BACKGROUND

On November 29, 2007, while attempting to cross the United States-Canada border near the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York, defendant struck a federal border patrol agent in the face and caused a laceration to the agent's lip. Defendant was detained and the government filed a criminal complaint the next day, charging him with assaulting a federal official in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111.

At the initial conference on the afternoon of November 30, 2007, a magistrate judge appointed counsel for defendant and scheduled a bail hearing for December 7. After that hearing, the magistrate judge granted the government's motion to detain defendant. The judge also ordered, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §§ 4241 and 4242, separate evaluations of: (1) defendant's mental state at the time of the offense, and (2) his competence to stand trial.

A forensic psychologist examined defendant from January 17 through February 15, 2008. On February 27, 2008, the psychologist issued two reports in which she concluded that, although defendant suffered from paranoid schizophrenia,*fn1 he was capable of appreciating the wrongfulness of his conduct on November 29, 2007, and was competent to stand trial. The psychologist noted, however, that defendant seemed to be attempting to mask his symptoms in order to convince her that he was not suffering from a mental defect.

The magistrate judge conducted a conference relating to the psychologist's findings on March 24, 2008. At the conference, defendant used profane language in reference to the court and his appointed counsel. Based on this conduct, defendant's counsel indicated that he was "not so sure" about the psychologist's conclusions. The magistrate judge denied defendant's request to proceed pro se, explaining that he was "not of the opinion that [defendant was] capable of representing [himself]."

Defendant was indicted on April 2, 2008. At his arraignment on April 3, defendant informed the same magistrate judge that he had no objections to the psychologist's reports, and that he wished to represent himself but retain his appointed attorney as standby counsel. This time the magistrate judge took a different view of defendant's request. First, he concluded that defendant had "made a knowing and intelligent decision to accept the report and waive his right to contest the issue of competency." Next, the magistrate judge engaged in a two-hour colloquy with defendant in order to assess whether he was capable of waiving his right to counsel and representing himself. Following the discussion, the magistrate judge issued a series of verbal findings based on defendant's responses to the court's questions and his general demeanor. The judge concluded, inter alia, that defendant was competent to stand trial, and that he had "made a knowing and intelligent waiver of his right to the assistance of counsel."

Defendant appeared for the first time before the district judge on April 7, 2008. The district judge confirmed that defendant had not had "any change of position" with respect to the magistrate judge's competence findings, and he set a May 20, 2008 trial date. At the conclusion of the conference, however, defendant produced a signed note that contained several incoherent statements, such as "[o]n the radio stations airing my thoughts all over the world blaming me for being a drug trade," and "[a]iring my thoughts through the T.V. channels." (J.A. at 29.) He stated that the purpose of the note was to "tell [the court] who I am." (Gov't App. at 164 ...


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