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Ninth Circuit Rules Judge “Abused Discretion” in Imposing Abstinence as Supervised Release Condition

Raymond Leo Jarlik Bell, convicted of filing false income tax returns to obtain fraudulent refunds, appealed his 97-month federal prison sentence on three grounds, including whether the judge committed Sixth Amendment error by failing to prompt him to present a closing argument; whether the government presented sufficient evidence to prove its case; and whether he could be ordered to abstain from alcohol and drug use, and enroll in substance abuse treatment, as a condition of his three-year term of supervised release.

Bell, who acted as his own attorney at trial and apparently subscribed to some variation of the “sovereign citizen” movement, failed to present a closing argument and did not preserve that issue for appeal. He argued that the district court judge’s failure to prompt him to make a closing argument violated his rights under the Sixth Amendment, but the appellate court found no “plain error” and held the 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 fraudulent tax returns was also unsuccessful, as the Ninth Circuit found that “a rational jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Bell assisted [his son] Steven Bell in preparing the latter’s fraudulent returns.”

However, Bell met with more success in his challenge to a court-ordered condition of supervised release that required him to “participate ... for treatment of narcotic addiction, drug dependency, or substance abuse,” and to “abstain from the use of alcohol and/or other intoxicants.” Those conditions were also reviewed under the plain error standard, as Bell did not object to them before the trial court.

The Court of Appeals 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 supervised release, if the court chooses to re-impose them.”

Accordingly, the district court’s judgment was affirmed in part, vacated in part and remanded. Bell filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, which was denied on April 20, 2015. See: United States v. Bell, 770 F.3d 1253 (9th Cir. 2014), cert. denied. 

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Related legal case

United States v. Bell