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Ninth Circuit Rules Judge “Abused Discretion” in Imposing Post-Conviction Abstinence

Ronald Bell, arrested and convicted of filing false tax returns to obtain fraudulent refunds, appealed his district court sentence on three grounds, including whether the district court judge committed Sixth Amendment error in failing to prompt him to present a closing argument, whether the government provided sufficient evidence to prove its case, and whether he could be ordered to abstain from alcohol and drug usage and enroll in substance abuse treatment as a condition of his supervised release.

Bell, who had acted as his own attorney, failed to present a closing argument, and did not preserve the issue for appeal. Bell argued that the judge’s failure to prompt him to make such an argument violated his 6th Amendment rights, but the court found no “plain error,” and said the trial judge was under no obligation to do so.

Bell’s assertion that the government had failed to present evidence sufficient to convict him of filing of tax fraud also failed, the 9th Circuit held that “a rational jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Bell assisted (him) in preparing...fraudulent returns.”

However, Bell met with more success in his contesting the court-ordered condition of supervised release that Bell “participate for treatment of narcotic addiction, drug dependence, or substance abuse,” and that he also “abstain from the use of alcohol and/or other intoxicants.” These were also review for “plain error” because Bell did not object to these conditions at trial. The Court noted that “the present record contains no information about Bell’s substance abuse history because he refused to cooperate with the Probation Department during the presentence investigation... We vacate the challenged conditions and remand with instructions that the district court explain its reasons for imposing the special conditions for Bell’s for Bell’s supervised release, if the court chooses to re-impose them.”  See: United States v. Bell, 13-30163, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, October 22, 2014.

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Related legal case

United States v. Bell