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Ninth Circuit Upholds Convictions of Seven L.A. Sheriff's Deputies for Obstructing FBI Agents, Grand Jury

In a decision filed August 4, 2016, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions of seven Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies who obstructed an FBI and grand jury investigation into civil rights abuses at L.A. county jails.

In 2011, a federal grand jury began an investigation into allegations of use of excessive force and other civil rights violations in the L.A. jail system. A number of subpoenas were served by late August of that year, and the FBI assisted the grand jury with its investigation. At one point the FBI used an undercover agent to bribe a L.A. sheriff's deputy to smuggle a cell phone into a cooperating prisoner at L.A. Men's Central Jail. The phone was intended for the prisoner, Anthony Brown, to use to communicate with the FBI regarding civil rights violations.

Jail personnel soon found the phone, and discovered it was linked to the FBI investigation.

What happened thereafter led to the charges against the seven deputies -- Gerard Smith, Marciela Long, Gregory Thompson, Shane Manzo, Scott Craig, Stephen Leaving, and James Sexton. Thompson, a jail lieutenant, imposed severe restrictions on Brown, including no phone calls or visits, and instructed other defendants to prevent Brown from meeting with any law enforcement without his approval.

When FBI agents later went to interview Brown, a jail sergeant entered the room about an hour into the interview and yelled at the FBI agents that they did not have permission to be there, and ordered Brown to be taken away.

Brown was then moved to another jail to hide him from the FBI agents. The guards at the new jail were specifically told that no one, including law enforcement and the FBI, could visit him. Several of the defendants then interviewed Brown themselves in an attempt to swear out charges against one of the FBI agents for providing him with a cell phone.

Meanwhile, the FBI obtained a subpoena to interview Brown, but by that time Brown's was electronically "released" from jail and "rebooked" under another name. As a result, when the FBI attempted to locate Brown, uninvolved jail personnel informed them that no such prisoner existed.

The seven jail employees were later indicted for obstruction of justice and making false statements to the FBI. They were all tried and convicted on each count, and sentenced to prison terms. They all appealed, arguing that they did not have the intent to obstruct an investigation. They also asked the court to overturn their convictions because the federal statute under which they were charged prohibits obstructing a grand jury investigation and the jury may have convicted them of interfering with an FBI investigation.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed all convictions, initially observing that there was "little dispute about the conduct on which the ... convictions were predicated," noting there were tape recordings, documents, and witness testimony confirming their activities. The key issue, the court said, turned on the intent with which they acted.

The defendants claimed their intent was to follow orders, protect Brown from harm, and to conduct their own investigation into civil rights abuses. The government contended they acted with the unlawful intent to obstruct a grand jury investigation, and were therefore guilty.

The appellate court ruled there was no reversible error because the jury was presented with both viewpoints and chose to believe the government. The instructions to the jury required the government to prove that defendants' actions interfered with the grand jury investigation, and that they took their actions "for the purpose of obstructing justice." Since a jury is presumed to follow instructions, the court found no error and affirmed the convictions.'

The Ninth Circuit also rejected the defendants' claims that the statute itself was ambiguous, that they acted in "good faith," and/or had "innocent intent." The court also rejected a claim that the deputies were merely trying to prevent the FBI agents from violating California law by smuggling contraband into the jail. The court found that even if the FBI agent's actions of smuggling in the cell phone violated state law, "it is not a basis for overturning the verdicts." See: United States of America v. Smith, Long, Thompson, Manzo, Craig, Leavins and Sexton, Nos. 14-50440, 14-50441, 14-50442, 14-50446, 14-50449, and 14-50455.

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