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Media Alerts - United States v. Williamson - Fourth Circuit
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March 5, 2013
  United States v. Williamson - Fourth Circuit
Headline: Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel Does Not Attach at Indictment

Area of Law: Criminal Procedure

Issues Presented: Whether the Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaches at the time of indictment. Whether the Appellant's Fifth Amendment rights were violated when a self-incriminating recording was produced post-indictment, but pretrial. Whether the Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaches to the filing of a Rule 33 motion.

Brief Summary: In 2007, Rodney Anton Williamson was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. At Williamson's trial, the government produced, without objection, a tape-recording on which Williamson incriminated himself. The incriminating tape was obtained through the cooperation of a government informant who communicated with Williamson after the grand jury indicted him, but before an arrest had taken place. Williamson alleged that the tape violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel and sought relief from the court. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel does not attach at the time of indictment, and that the incriminating statements contained on the tape, having not been coerced, were not admitted in error. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel only applies to critical stages of judicial proceedings, not collateral motions.

Extended Summary: On December 18, 2006, a grand jury returned a one-count sealed indictment for conspiracy to distribute cocaine against Rodney Anton Williamson. A warrant was issued for his arrest the following day. After six months on the run from law enforcement, Williamson was arrested in July 2007 and convicted of the charge against him. During the trial, the United States Government admitted into evidence a tape-recording of the defendant on which he incriminated himself of cocaine distribution. The judge gave Williamson and his counsel the chance to object to the tape's admission during the trial, but no objection was raised and the entirety of the tape was admitted into evidence.

The tape-recording in question was produced by the government with the help of a confidential informant with whom Williamson had previously conducted illegal activity. The two met for lunch in January 2007, after the warrant had been issued for Williamson, but before the arrest had actually taken place. During the course of the meal, the government recorded statements made by Williamson regarding his illegal distribution of cocaine. These statements were played for the jury during Williamson's trial.

Before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Williamson alleged that the tape-recording was created in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The constitutional right to representation, argued Williamson, attached once he was indicted and his arrest warrant had been issued. Since the incriminating statements were recorded post-indictment, Mr. Williamson claimed that the right to counsel attached, and that the tape-recording was erroneously admitted at trial.

Noting that Williamson had not raised a Sixth Amendment objection during trial, the Fourth Circuit reviewed the admission of the tape for plain error. An analysis of the trial proceedings against Williamson revealed that he failed to meet the stringent requirements to justify reversal for plain error. The Fourth Circuit noted that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaches only once judicial proceedings have commenced against a defendant. Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the admission of the tape-recording.

The Fourth Circuit faced two additional issues. The first was whether the recording of Williamson was a violation of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Seeing as Williamson made the recorded statements voluntarily and without any evidence of coercion, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court's ruling that his Fifth Amendment rights had not been violated. Lastly before the Fourth Circuit was the issue of whether the Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaches to a collateral motion for a new trial. The court reasoned that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel applies to all critical stages of a trial, and a Rule 33 motion filed collaterally did not qualify as a critical stage. Again affirming the lower court's ruling, the Fourth Circuit held that no Sixth Amendment violation against Williamson had taken place.

To read the full opinion, please visit:

Panel: Judges Gregory and Duncan, and Samuel G. Wilson, United States District Judge for the Western District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

Argument: 10/26/12

Date of Issued Opinion: 02/04/13

Docket Number: 08-4055

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Ian Anthony

Counsel: ARGUED: J. David James, SMITH, JAMES, ROWLETT & COHEN, LLP, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellant. Sandra Jane Hairston, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Ripley Rand, United States Attorney, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Wilson, J. (W.D.Va.)

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 03/05/2013 09:10 PM     4th Circuit  

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