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Media Alerts - United States v. Holness - Fourth Circuit
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March 6, 2013
  United States v. Holness - Fourth Circuit
Headline: Right to Counsel May Not Transfer With Defendant From State to Federal Court

Areas of Law: Criminal Procedure; Constitutional Law

Issues Presented: Whether the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is transferrable from state to federal court. Whether the Fifth Amendment rights to counsel and against self-incrimination protect suspects in prison against situations of coercive custody in the presence of an unknown police agent.

Brief Summary: After the discovery of additional evidence, Ryan Holness' pending state murder case was transferred to the federal system where a new indictment was handed down. In the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, Holness was tried and convicted on all counts. Holness appealed, arguing that his Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated by his cellmate's pre-trial (and pre-federal indictment) "interrogations." The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is offense-specific and did not attach to Holness' federal charges. Moreover, although Holness' Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was presumably violated by the communications with state authorities, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Extended Summary: Ryan Holness was charged in Maryland state court with first- and second-degree murder of his wife, Serika Dunkley. Following his arrest, Holness originally agreed to speak with police. However, he eventually invoked his right to counsel and was appointed a public defender. While in the county detention center awaiting trial on the state charges, Holness shared a cell with a man by the name of Stephen McGrath. Within weeks, McGrath wrote a letter to the prosecutor claiming that he (McGrath) had "unique information" regarding Holness' involvement in Dunkley's murder. After speaking with McGrath on a few occasions, the prosecutor provided McGrath with a recording device to take into Holness and McGrath's cell. Based on the information obtained through McGrath's cooperation, a search warrant was carried out, and further evidence implicating Holness was recovered from the cell clearly implicating Holness in Dunkley's murder.

Thereafter, Holness' case was transferred to the federal system, and his state charges were dismissed. Holness' federal indictment included four charges, none of which were first- or second- degree murder. Holness moved the United States District Court for the District of Maryland to suppress all statements made to McGrath and any evidence that was obtained as a result of those communications. The district court denied Holness' motion and Holness was convicted. Holness was sentenced to life imprisonment for the charge of interstate domestic violence. He received a concurrent 240-month sentence for a related charge of attempted witness intimidation.

Holness appealed to the Fourth Circuit, maintaining that the district court erred when it failed to suppress the evidence of his communications with McGrath. Holness argued that such communications flowed from McGrath's "activities after speaking with the police," which caused McGrath to become an agent of the police as a result of their in-person meeting, and qualified such communications for constitutional protection. Since no lawyer was present during the communications between Holness and McGrath, Holness contended that his Sixth Amendment right had been violated. The government maintained that McGrath simply served as a listening post within the cell, and that the communications between McGrath and Holness were not "interrogations."

The Fourth Circuit began by acknowledging Holness' Sixth Amendment rights may have been violated in state court. However, the Fourth Circuit found that the actions alleged to have contributed to the constitutional violation occurred solely within the state system. In the court's view, because Holness had not yet been indicted in the federal system at the time the interrogations occurred, his Sixth Amendment rights had not attached for purposes of the federal case. As the Court noted, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is offense-specific, and cannot be invoked for all future prosecutions. Thus, though Holness' right to counsel commenced once the state charges were filed, that right related only to the now-dismissed state charges and did not carry forward into the federal action. The Fourth Circuit further found that the Sixth Amendment rights that attached in the state system did not carry forward into the federal system because the federal and state crimes were not comparable offenses "no matter how identical the conduct they proscribe."

Although not raised by Holness, the Fourth Circuit also addressed whether Holness' Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was violated. The Fifth Amendment includes its own right to counsel, distinguishable from the "offense- specific" Sixth Amendment right because the right against self-incrimination protects a suspect whenever he is taken into custody and questioned. The Fourth Circuit conceded that Holness had invoked his Fifth Amendment right and that McGrath was acting as an agent for the police during the communications. However, despite the Fourth Circuit's presumption that McGrath's actions did equate to "interrogations," thereby violating Holness' Fifth Amendment right, the court maintained that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The court concluded that the error "did not contribute" to Holness' conviction, and that even without the evidence in question, the outstanding evidence was strong enough to convict Holness. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.

To read the full opinion, please visit:

Panel: Judges King, Keenan, and Thacker

Docket Number: No. 11-4631

Decided: 02/11/13

Case Alert Author: Samantha Spencer

Counsel: ARGUED: Jonathan Alan Gladstone, Annapolis, Maryland, for Appellant. John Francis Purcell, Jr., OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Rod J. Rosenstein, United States Attorney, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: King, J.

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 03/06/2013 03:58 PM     4th Circuit  

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