U.S. v. Coleman, No. 16-3972 (SUHRHEINRICH, Norris, Griffin).
The defendant-appellant was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and sentenced to 36 months in prison. He appealed his conviction, arguing that the district court should have ordered sua sponte a competency evaluation because throughout the trial and other proceedings the defendant espoused sovereign citizen and other fringe legal theories. For instance, he referred to himself as a “flesh and blood living being,” contested the district court’s jurisdiction over him, listed his address as being in “Warren, Ohio Republic,” filed a “Common Law Copyright Notice” for his own name, and claimed he was present in court as a “third-party intervenor.” After the trial, he moved to dismiss his trial attorney. At a hearing on the issue, the attorney testified that the defendant was paranoid about his representation and believed that the attorney was working for the government and had been sent to sabotage the case. The attorney stated that it was difficult to communicate with the defendant because the defendant would not discuss the facts of the case with him.
The Sixth Circuit held that it was not error for the district court to fail to order sua sponte a competency hearing. The Court noted that a district court is required to hold a competency hearing sua sponte if there is “reasonable cause” to believe the defendant presently suffers from a mental disease rendering him unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings or to assist properly in his defense, but that the bar for incompetency is high. Drawing upon cases in the Ninth and Seventh Circuits, the Court held that “although Defendant expressed views that are fringe, he did not exhibit irrational behavior . . . or otherwise act in a way that called his competency into question.” The Court further found that the defendant understood the criminal nature of the proceedings because he challenged the district court’s jurisdiction, made legal arguments, drafted a detailed affidavit, cited case law and statutes, and tried to provide counter-incriminating facts in his trial testimony. The defendant also cooperated with the probation officer in preparing the presentence report, and at sentencing passionately asked the court to return him to his family.
As to the defendant’s ability to communicate with his attorneys and prepare in his defense, the Court found that he had the ability to communicate, but not the desire to do so. The Court relied on Circuit precedent to hold that “the decision not to speak to one’s lawyer is a defendant’s prerogative, not a sign of mental incompetence.” Finally, the Court noted that the defendant had no history of mental illness. Overall, the Court found nothing in the record to suggest that the district judge should have questioned the defendant’s competency to stand trial.