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Appeal Court Criticizes Jury Instruction, Upholds Conviction

Ronald Charles Peppers appealed his jury-trial conviction for assaulting a federal officer under 18 U.S. C. Section 111(a)(1)1. Peppers was asleep when federal officers entered his darkened trailer to effectuate an arrest, and there was a struggle in which Peppers bit one of the agent's arms.

At trial, Peppers, who testified in his own defense, claimed that he "was resisting violent attackers, not law enforcement officers," according to the opinion, and that "he could not see anything in the darkened (area) and could not hear officers identifying themselves due to the general commotion associated with his arrest," and that he was therefore justified in defending himself when the officers were attempting to arrest him.

The district court's instructions at the close of evidence found that the government bore the burden of proof to prove the offense, but Peppers argued on appeal that the district court instructions were inadequate, citing the decision of U.S. v. Pierre, 254 F.3d 872 (9th Cir. 2001), which stated that there could be no conviction where there were no instructions as to the government bearing the burden of proof.

That case was distinguished by the Appeals Court, which stated that, "the jury instructions in this case correctly stated the government's burden of proof on the entire issue of self-defense.” The court then indirectly criticized the district court's instruction as to burden of proof, "by framing the absence of self-defense as an element of the charged offense in the jury instructions."

Nevertheless, "Although the preferred practice is for district court ... to follow model instructions and avoid unnecessary disputes like his one, 'a district court has substantial latitude to tailor jury instructions,'" U.S. v. Marsh, 26 F.3d 1496, 1502 (9th Cir. 1994), and the appellate court upheld Peppers' conviction. See: United States v. Peppers, 697 F.3d 1217 (9th Cir. 2012), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

United States v. Peppers