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7th Circuit remands case for resentencing, pro se hearing

January 23, 2018

The Indiana Southern District Court must resentence an Indianapolis man convicted of possessing ammunition as a felon after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals determined the district court did not adequately inquire into whether the man wanted to proceed pro se.

In Unites States of America v. Ruben Mancillas, 17-1254, Ruben Mancillas and his girlfriend were engaged in a heated argument that involved gunfire in August 2015 when his neighbor called police. When officers arrived, they discovered ammunition on Mancillas’ person and in his home, though no gun was ever recovered.

Mancillas was then indicted on two counts of being a felon in possession of ammunition, and he was appointed a federal defender. However, Mancillas later filed a pro se “Motion for Withdraw of Counsel,” and his counsel was replaced without the district court’s intervention.

A jury convicted Mancillas, and one day before his sentencing, the court received a letter asking for a continuance because Mancillas and his attorney were not prepared. He also told the court he contested the pre-sentence investigation report’s application of a four-level enhancement to his federal base offense level in connection with the Indiana felony offense of criminal recklessness.

Mancillas’ counsel also objected to the enhancement, but Mancillas told the court in-person his counsel was ineffective and requested to proceed pro se. Judge William T. Lawrence of Indiana’s Southern District Court denied both of Mancillas’ motions, noting that he was on his third lawyer and that it would take too long to get a fourth lawyer up to speed.

Mancillas was then sentence to 100 months, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated that sentence Tuesday.

Judge William Bauer, writing for the appellate panel, first said that Mancillas’ multiple requests to proceed pro se should have triggered a colloquy under Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 819 (1975). Such colloquies are meant to ensure litigants understand the difficulties they will face while proceeding pro se, Bauer said.

“Even at sentencing, where the complexities of trial and the difficult strategic choices are past, a court must respect the wishes of a defendant who unequivocally wishes to exercise his or her right to proceed pro se,” the judge wrote. “This means undertaking a meaningful inquiry into a request for self-representation; summarily denying the request without any inquiry is error.”

Thus, the case was remanded for resentencing and an inquiry into whether Mancillas still wishes to represent himself.

Mancillas also argued the Indiana crime of strangulation – for which he was convicted in 2007 – is not a “crime of violence” under the federal Sentencing Guidelines. That previous conviction led to the enhancement of his federal base offense.

But the strangulation statute at the time of Mancillas’ Indiana conviction “explicitly contemplate(d) a degree of violent force,” Bauer wrote, making it a crime of violence.

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