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United States v. Bell

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 15, 2017

SHERIMA BELL, et al., Defendants.


          James K. Bredar Chief Judge.

         The Court held a motions hearing in this case on November 8. 2017. to address various pretrial motions, including those filed by Defendant Jocelyn Byrd seeking dismissal of the Superseding Indictment on speedy trial grounds (ECF No. 1043) or. in the alternative, severance from her codefendants to protect her right to a speedy trial (ECF No. 1041). The issues have been briefed and argued by the parties and are now ripe for resolution. Defendant Byrd's motions are not without merit: however, the Court ultimately concludes that neither her constitutional nor statutory right to a speedy trial has been violated given the totality of the circumstances present in this case. Moreover, severance is not warranted on speedy trial grounds. Accordingly. Defendant Byrd's motions will be DENIED.

         I. Background

         On September 29. 2016, a grand jury returned a two-count Indictment against Defendant Byrd and forty codefendants charging each of them with one count of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (''RICO") Act (18 U.S.C. § 1962(d)) and one count of conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute narcotics (21 U.S.C. § 846). That same day. the grand jury also returned a four-count indictment in a companion case. United States v. Bohl. et al., Case No. JKB-16-484 (D. Md. 2016). naming thirty-nine codefendants and alleging similar charges. As in this case, all of the defendants in Bohl were charged with one count of conspiring to violate RICO (18 U.S.C. § 1962(d)) and one count of conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute narcotics (21 U.S.C. § 846).[1] Thus, a total of eighty defendants were charged with racketeering conspiracy across the two closely related cases.

         The indictments alleged a wide-ranging conspiracy to violate RICO through an agreement to carry out racketeering acts at Eastern Correctional Institution ("ECI"). a medium-security prison operated by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. ECI houses more than 3.300 inmates and employs over 600 correctional officers, making it the largest state prison in Maryland. The facility is divided into two wings (east and west) on a 620-acre parcel of land near Westover, Maryland, in Somerset County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The indictments alleged that three categories of individuals-inmates, correctional officers, and outside facilitators-conspired to enrich themselves and corrupt the legitimate purposes of ECI through the distribution of drugs and contraband inside the prison. Additionally, the indictments alleged that various defendants engaged in bribery and money laundering in furtherance of the purported enterprise. Defendant Byrd, who was a correctional officer at ECI. is alleged to have participated in multiple racketeering acts in furtherance of the charged enterprise.

         On October 5. 2016. Defendant Byrd made her initial appearance before the Court. The last of her codefendants had his initial appearance before the Court on November 9. 2016. On December 16. 2016. the Government filed motions in both cases (Case No. 16-484. ECF No. 395; Case No. 16-485, ECF No. 413) to exclude time under the Speedy Trial Act pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(1), (h)(7)(A). The Government contended that, given the number of defendants in each case and the extensive discovery materials, additional time beyond the seventy-day period normally required under 18 U.S.C. § 3161(c)(1) was necessary to allow the parties to conduct plea negotiations and. in the event those negotiations were unsuccessful, to prepare pretrial motions. The Court granted the motions that same day, finding that "in order to allow the Government and defense counsel to pursue plea negotiations and in order to allow defense counsel to review discovery and prepare pretrial motions, the ends of justice served by continuing the trial of this matter outweigh the best interests of the public and the defendants in a speedy trial." (Case No. 16-484, ECF No. 396; Case No. 16-485. ECF No. 414.) Specifically, the Court ordered that "the time between the defendants' initial appearances and the trial in this matter is excluded in computing the time within which trial must commence.'' (Id.)

         After the Court had granted the Government's motion to exclude time. Defendant Byrd objected on several grounds. (Case No. 16-485. ECF No. 419.) On January 6, 2017, the Court held a hearing on Defendant Byrd's objections and ultimately denied her motion that time not be excluded because "plea negotiations between the Government and codefendants in both . . . cases ha[d] been ongoing from October 5, 2016, " the date of Defendant Byrd's initial appearance, and "for the other reasons stated in open court." (Case No. 16-485. ECF No. 427.) At the time of the Court's order to exclude time, the Government had obtained guilty pleas from three of Defendant Byrd's codefendants and from two defendants in the companion case. Since that time, an additional sixty-one defendants have pleaded guilty between the two cases-an average of more than one guilty plea per week over the last ten months.

         On September 12, 2017. the grand jury returned a Superseding Indictment in each case. charging each of the remaining defendants with one count of violating RICO (18 U.S.C. § 1962(c))-that is. a substantive violation of RICO as opposed to the original RICO conspiracy that was charged. (Case No. 16-484, ECF No. 860; Case No. 16-485. ECF No. 975.) Defendant Byrd was also charged with one count of conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute controlled substances (21 U.S.C. § 841. 846) and one forfeiture count (18 U.S.C. § 1963).

         The Court held a scheduling conference on October 3, 2017. During that conference the Court set trial dates in both cases. Due to existing conflicts between the various parties' calendars and the Court's calendar, the earliest available date for trial was June 18, 2018. The Court set that date for trial in Case No. 16-485. Defendant Byrd's case, and has since transferred the remaining defendants in Case No. 16-484 to Judge Deborah K. Chasanow to preside over any remaining proceedings against them. The Court also granted the defendants in both cases an opportunity to file additional pretrial motions relevant to the Superseding Indictments handed down in September 2017. Defendant Byrd now seeks dismissal under the Sixth Amendment and the Speedy Trial Act or, alternatively, severance on speedy trial grounds.

         II. Analysis

         Defendant Byrd moves to dismiss the Superseding Indictment pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12(b)(3)(A)(iii) and 18 U.S.C. § 3162(a)(2). In other words, she contends that both her constitutional and statutory rights to a speedy trial have been violated. Alternatively. Defendant Byrd argues that her trial must be severed from that of her codefendants in order to protect her right to a speedy trial. Defendant Byrd's arguments are far from frivolous, and indeed, were the circumstances of this case (and its companion case) not what they are, she very well may be entitled to the relief she seeks. Under the totality of the circumstances present here, however, the delay is reasonable. Although close to crossing the line and becoming unreasonable, the delay is justified given the scale of the Government's investigation, the number of defendants charged, and the Government's diligence in prosecuting the case. More importantly. Defendant Byrd is not detained and there is no indication that her ability to present a defense has been or will be prejudiced by the delay. Thus, she cannot show a violation of her constitutional or statutory right to a speedy trial. And because the delay has not and will not infringe on Defendant Byrd's right to a speedy trial, severance is not necessary to protect that right.

         A. Sixth Amendment Speedy Trial Right

         The Sixth Amendment provides that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial." U.S. Const, amend. VI. A violation of the speedy trial right requires dismissal of the indictment. Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514. 522 (1972). "In order to prove a Sixth Amendment violation in this context, a defendant must show first that the Amendment's protections have been triggered by arrest, indictment, or other official accusation." United States v. Woolfolk. 399 F.3d 590, 597 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal quotations omitted). If the Sixth Amendment protections are triggered, and there is no dispute that they are here, a court next must consider whether dismissal is warranted based on the totality of the circumstances, paying particular attention to the four factors identified by the Supreme Court in Barker. Those factors are: "Length of delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant's assertion of h[er] right, and prejudice to the defendant." Barker. 407 U.S. at 530; accord Woolfolk, 399 F.3d at 597.

         The first of these, the length of the delay, serves a dual purpose: "In addition to being a factor, the first inquiry is also a threshold requirement, because "[s]imply to trigger a speedy trial analysis, an accused must allege that the interval between accusation and trial has crossed the threshold dividing ordinary from presumptively prejudicial delay."" Woolfolk. 399 F.3d at 597 (quoting Daggett v. United States,505 U.S. 647, 651-52 (1992)). If the delay is sufficient to trigger a full inquiry, then "the extent to which the delay stretches beyond the bare minimum needed to trigger judicial examination" is "one factor among several" to be considered by the court. Doggett, 505 U.S. at 652; see also United States v. Hall.551 F.3d 257. 271 (4th Cir. 2009) ("To prevail on [a] speedy trial claim.... Defendant[] [is] obliged, under Barker, to establish 'that on balance, [the] four separate factors weigh in [her] favor.'" (quoting United States v. Thomas,55 F.3d 144. 148 (4th Cir. 1995))). Ultimately, however, none of the four factors is "either a necessary or sufficient condition to the finding of a deprivation of the right of speedy trial. Rather, they are related factors and must be considered together with ...

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