Proffer letter signed before defendant chose to go to trial doesn’t undercut firearm conviction, 7th Circuit rules

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A man challenging the proffer letter he signed during plea negotiations before ultimately choosing to go to trial failed to convince the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that he did not knowingly waive his rights in the initial agreement.

In April 2018, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Officer Matthew Minnis responded to a call from a woman claiming Byron Pierson had threatened to “come back and shoot the house up.” The woman told Minnis what car Pierson was driving and appeared very frightened.

During the investigation, Minnis learned that Pierson could be armed and that he had a criminal record. Minnis called for backup in case Pierson returned to carry out his threat.

Minnis saw the described car and, after briefly losing sight of it, other officers located it and initiated a traffic stop. A woman was driving the car with Pierson’s daughter in the front passenger seat and Pierson in the back.

Minnis recognized Pierson from photos and asked him to step out of the car. When Pierson stepped out, he pressed his right hip out and stated he had a knife on him.

Another officer removed the knife, and Minnis attempted to place Pierson in handcuffs, but Pierson struck him and fled on foot.

The officers pursued him into a nearby yard, and when he was blocked from further escape by dense brush and trees, Pierson looked back at the officers and reached toward his waistband. Minnis believed Pierson was about to pull a firearm from his waistband, so the officers deployed a taser and attempted to restrain Pierson, who had fallen to the ground.

During the struggle, one of the officers saw a firearm under Pierson, and Minnis was able to reach underneath him and remove the gun.

Pierson was then taken into custody, and he was ultimately charged with one count of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. While he initially began plea negotiations, he ultimately chose to go to trial.

Before trial, Pierson moved in limine to exclude statements he made during plea negotiations and asserted that admission of the proffer statements would violate his rights to due process, effective counsel and a fair trial. He also argued that he had not knowingly and voluntarily waived his rights, and that he had not understood that the proffer letter covered the second session in which he made an admission about possessing the gun.

The government responded with legal support for the enforceability of the proffer agreement and indicated that it did not intend to offer any of Pierson’s proffer statements as evidence in the absence of a triggering event, as outlined in the proffer letter.

The Indiana Southern District Court ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Pierson had been told that the terms of the proffer letter applied to the second proffer session.

But the government submitted a signed copy of the proffer letter, an affidavit from Pierson’s former lawyer, and email correspondence between government counsel and Pierson’s counsel indicating the parties’ understanding that the proffer letter covered the second proffer session. The court thus vacated the hearing and denied both of Pierson’s motions.

The government also filed a motion in limine to admit evidence regarding the course of the investigation, including testimony from the woman who made the initial 911 call.

Pierson opposed the motion, and the court ruled that the government couldn’t offer evidence that Pierson went to the woman’s home, damaged her vehicle or threatened her. But the court did allow the government to submit testimony from the officers who conducted the traffic stop and the officers who later arrived at the scene.

Following the government’s opening statement at trial, Pierson’s counsel objected and moved for a mistrial based on the government’s use of the word “likely” rather than “may” in reference to whether Pierson was expected to be armed.

The court admonished both government and defense counsel but denied the motion for a mistrial. Also, the court indicated that it intended to give a limiting instruction to address the proper use of the evidence, in addition to the instructions the jurors had already been given informing them that opening statements are not evidence.

Meanwhile, the government moved to reconsider its motion in limine on the course-of-investigation evidence, and the court determined that evidence was admissible as nonhearsay statements offered to explain why the officers took the steps they took when they pulled the car over and arrested Pierson.

The jury ultimately found Pierson guilty as charged.

On appeal, he argued that the district court abused its discretion in failing to hold a hearing to determine whether he knowingly and voluntarily waived his rights under Federal Rule of Evidence 410 and Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(f) when he signed the proffer letter.

“The district court did not abuse its discretion here,” Judge Ilana Rovner wrote. “An evidentiary hearing is necessary only if there is a disputed factual issue that will affect the outcome of the motion.

“… In this instance, Pierson provided the district court with nothing but conclusory statements that he did not sign the Proffer Letter knowingly and voluntarily,” Rovner continued. “He did not contend that he was coerced, and he offered no support for a conclusion that he did not understand the rights that Rules 410 and 11(f) confer.”

Pierson’s arguments against the proffer agreement challenged the way such agreements are designed to work, the 7th Circuit held. By authorizing the prosecutor to use his statements if he contradicted himself at trial, Pierson made his representations more credible and strengthened his hand in plea negotiations.

“Ultimately that means that a defendant who signs a proffer waiver and later withdraws from plea negotiations will not be able to mount a defense that factually contradicts his proffer statements,” Rovner wrote. “Pierson was still able to put the government to its burden of proof and robustly cross-examine the government’s witnesses. That is the bargain he struck with the Proffer Letter.”

Pierson also argued on appeal that the district court abused its discretion in allowing the government to submit the course-of-investigation evidence, including the woman’s statements to officers regarding threats he purportedly made to her.

“But we cannot say that the district court abused its discretion in this instance,” Rovner concluded. “The court allowed this testimony only after concluding that the defendant opened the door to it in opening statements, and the court also immediately gave a carefully crafted limiting instruction for the jury on the proper use of this evidence.”

The case is United States of America v. Byron Pierson, 21-3248.

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