The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to consider two cases involving the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. The first, Smith v. United States, asks the justices to determine the proper remedy when a defendant is tried and convicted in the wrong venue. The second case, Samia v. United States, will decide whether a defendant’s rights under the Confrontation Clause were violated when his codefendant’s redacted out-of-court confession was admitted during his trial.
Smith v. United States
Defendant Timothy Smith is a software engineer and avid angler who obtained the coordinates of artificial fishing reefs in the Gulf of Mexico by allegedly hacking a website owned by StrikeLines, a business that sells those coordinates. Smith remained in Mobile, Alabama, during the relevant events, but he was tried in the Northern District of Florida, where StrikeLines’s office is located.
Citing the Sixth Amendment guarantee of the right to a speedy and public trial “by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed,” Smith argued that venue was improper because he resided in the Southern District of Alabama at all times during the relevant events, and the website’s servers stored the fishing coordinates in the Middle District of Florida. Nonetheless, a jury convicted Smith of two counts—one count of theft of trade secrets and one count of extortion—and the district court enhanced his sentence.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Smith’s conviction for theft of trade secrets and related sentencing enhancements for lack of venue. The appeals court further held that when the government fails to meet its burden of proving venue at trial, it can subject a defendant to a new trial in a different venue. In petitioning the Supreme Court to hear his case, Smith noted that the issue has divided the federal courts of appeal. While the Fifth and Eighth Circuits require a judgment of acquittal when the government fails to meet its burden of establishing venue, the Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits hold that a defendant can be re-tried for the same offense in other venues.
The justices have agreed to consider the following question: “Whether the proper remedy for the government’s failure to prove venue is an acquittal barring re-prosecution of the offense, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Fifth and Eighth Circuits have held, or whether instead the government may re-try the defendant for the same offense in a different venue, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Sixth, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits have held.”
Samia v. United States
Adam Samia was tried along with two codefendants for the murder of a real-estate agent in the Philippines. Both codefendants admitted that they had participated in the murder and disputed only the government’s jurisdiction over the crime. Samia was the only one to maintain his innocence. The district court denied petitioner’s motion to sever his trial and permitted the introduction of an out-of-court confession of petitioner’s codefendant that named petitioner as the person who pulled the trigger.
To address the Sixth Amendment concern, the district court required the government to redact Samia’s name and replace it with references to the “other person.” The government referred to the confession in its opening statement as some of the “most crucial” evidence that would prove Samia’s guilt. When introducing the confession through the testimony of one of its agents, the government proceeded to question the agent about the “other person,” eliciting additional details about that person’s role. Despite Samia’s objection, the district court held that the redactions were sufficient to avoid a Sixth Amendment violation.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, deepening a circuit split on how courts should address redacted confessions. The First, Third, Seventh, Ninth, Eleventh, and District of Columbia Circuits have held that redacted confessions must be considered in the context in which the government proffers those statements to determine if they implicate the defendant. Meanwhile, the Second, Fourth, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits have held that the redacted confession must be viewed in isolation, regardless of any inferences that might be drawn when considering other evidence introduced at trial.
The Supreme Court has agreed to resolve the split. The specific issue before the Court is “[w]hether admitting a codefendant’s redacted out-of-court confession that immediately inculpates a defendant based on the surrounding context violates the defendant’s rights under the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment.”
Oral argument dates have yet to be determined in either case. However, decisions are expected before the term ends in June.