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Media Alerts - United States v. Quinn - Third Circuit
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August 15, 2013
  United States v. Quinn - Third Circuit
Headline: Third Circuit, sitting en banc, overturns previous decision that allowed trial courts to grant testimonial immunity.

Area of Law: Testimonial Immunity, Due Process, 5th Amendment

Issue(s) Presented: Whether a trial court has inherent authority to grant testimonial immunity on its own to a witness.

Brief Summary: Keenan Quinn and Shawn Johnson were convicted for a bank robbery. Quinn was the get-away driver while Johnson went inside the bank with a gun. After the two were caught, Johnson pled guilty and Quinn went to trial. Quinn wanted Johnson to testify at his trial that Quinn had no prior knowledge of the planned robbery. The government refused to grant testimonial immunity and Johnson did not take the stand, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Quinn appealed to the Third Circuit, arguing that the District Court erred by failing to find prosecutorial misconduct and by failing to grant Johnson testimonial immunity on its own. The Third Circuit, overturning its earlier ruling in Smith, held that trial courts lack the inherent authority to grant immunity to a witness and affirmed.

Extended Summary: Keenan Quinn drove Shawn Johnson to the National Penn Bank at King of Prussia. While Johnson went inside and robbed the bank at gunpoint, Quinn stayed in the car which was parked around the back of another store. As a result of a GPS hidden within the cash handed by the bank teller, the police were able to quickly apprehend the two. Johnson pled guilty and was awaiting sentencing at the time of Quinn's trial. The government moved to postpone Johnson's sentencing until after the Quinn trial. Johnson responded that he was going to invoke the Fifth Amendment. The trial court denied Quinn's request that it immunize Johnson. Quinn was convicted of aiding and abetting an armed bank robbery.

Quinn appealed. He argued that he was unaware of Johnson's plans when he drove them to National Penn Bank on the morning of the robbery. Quinn hoped that Johnson would testify on his behalf at trial. Quinn argued on appeal that the District Court's refusal to grant Johnson immunity so that he could testify was error. Quinn also alleged that the government engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by postponing Johnson's sentencing until after Quinn's trial and refusing to grant Johnson testimonial immunity.

The Third Circuit, in Government of the Virgin Islands v. Smith, had previously recognized two instances where a defendant is entitled to have a witness receive immunity. The first is in instances of prosecutorial misconduct, where charges must be dismissed unless the prosecution grants immunity. Prosecutorial misconduct occurs when the government has taken steps, such as threats or intimidation, to interfere with the testimony of a witness who would otherwise be available to the defense.

The second is when the testimony sought is clearly exculpatory and essential to the defense and the government has no strong interest in withholding use immunity. Smith then allowed the trial court to grant immunity on its own. Smith held that a court could grant immunity to a witness if it was "[1] properly sought in the district court; [2] the defense witness [is] available to testify; [3] the proffered testimony [is] clearly exculpatory; [4] the testimony [is] essential; and [5] there [are] no strong governmental interests which countervail against a grant of immunity."

The Third Circuit in overturning Smith here noted that it had been the only circuit to allow courts to grant testimonial immunity on their own. The Court then overturned itself and held that immunity is a statutory creation and a core prosecutorial function that should be left solely for the prosecution. Congress granted the power to immunize to the executive branch and not to the judiciary. A trial court in the Third Circuit may no longer grant immunity on its own.

Although the Third Circuit overturned its previous ruling that allowed courts the inherent authority to grant testimonial immunity, the Court held that the Smith five factors test remains useful to determine whether the prosecution's refusal to grant immunity amounts to a due process violation. But a court may no longer grant immunity on its own but rather only order a retrial or choose to dismiss charges. The Court reasoned that the new remedies do not force the government to grant immunity, but rather leaves it the option to do so.

Under the new holding, in order to prevail under a due process violation for the government's failure to grant testimonial immunity, Quinn must still prove the above listed five factors. Under the clearly exculpatory requirement, the Third Circuit clarified its previous position that even if evidence is exculpatory on its own, it may lose exculpatory effect if it is overwhelmingly undermined or undercut by substantial prosecution evidence. Given the weight and the overwhelming evidence produced by the government showing that Quinn intentionally aided the robbery, the Third Circuit found that Johnson's testimony, even if elicited, would not be clearly exculpatory. Therefore, the Court found no due process violation. The Court rejected the argument of Quinn and the amicus curiae that the standard should be whether the proffered evidence was "materially favorable to the defense on the issue of guilt."

As to Quinn's other claim, that the government deliberated delayed Johnson's sentencing hearing to distort the fact finding process, the Third Circuit also found for the government. The prosecution argued that it chose to delay Johnson's sentencing until after Quinn's trial because it feared that Johnson, without anything to lose, would perjure himself to help Quinn. The prosecution wanted to have the ability to argue at Johnson's sentencing if he perjured himself. The Court rejected Quinn's argument because he provided no evidence to show that Johnson planned to testify on his behalf but was dissuaded by the government's motion.

The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision in this case because Quinn failed to show that the prosecution acted in a manner that deliberately distorted the fact finding process nor did the evidence show that the government's action influenced Johnson's decision to not testify. The Court also held that the government did not exclude clearly exculpatory testimony by not granting immunity.

The full opinion is available at:


Argument Date: February 20, 2013

Date of Issued Opinion: August 14, 2013

Docket Number: No. 11-1733

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Tien Cheng

Counsel: Peter Goldberger, Esquire, Pamela A. Wilk, Esquire, Edward C. Meehan, Jr., Esquire, Counsel for Appellant; Zane David Memeger, Esquire, Counsel for Appellee; Ellen C. Brotman, Esquire, Erin C. Dougherty, Esquire, Jenny Carroll, Esquire, Amicus Curiae Counsel for National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Author of Opinion: Judge Ambro

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor
: Susan L. DeJarnatt

Edited: 08/22/2013 at 03:23 PM by Media Alerts Moderator

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 08/15/2013 01:01 PM     3rd Circuit  

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