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United States v. Holness, No. 11-4631

Decided: February 11, 2013

After a jury trial, Holness was convicted of interstate domestic violence and attempted witness intimidation. On appeal, Holness alleged that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress certain evidence flowing from jail cell conversations Holness had with Stephen McGrath. Holness alleged that this evidence was obtained in deprivation of his Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel.

McGrath was Holness’s cell mate when Holness was incarcerated in connection with a state murder charge. Holness contended that McGrath became an agent of the police as of August 31, 2009, when McGrath met with Sergeant Hall of the Maryland State Police homicide unit. Since Holness had retained the services of a public defender in connection with the state murder charge, he argued that his subsequent conversations with McGrath— which his lawyer was not present for—amounted to police interrogation in contravention of the Sixth Amendment. Subsequent to McGrath’s meeting with Hall, the state court charges were dismissed when the US Attorney charged Holness with interstate domestic violence, attempted witness intimidation, and two other counts that were ultimately dismissed. At that time, Holness moved to suppress all statements he made to McGrath and any evidence obtained as a result of those statements.

The Court of Appeals concluded that, since there was no involvement by the federal government in advance of the August 31, 2009 meeting between McGrath and Hall, no actions imputable to the state deprived Holness of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel with respect to the federal charges of which he was convicted. However, the Court went on to address whether those actions contravened Holness’s Fifth Amendment rights, noting that “although the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is offense-specific, the similar right derived from the Fifth Amendment is not.”

The Court presumed that the relevant evidence was obtained in contravention of the Fifth Amendment, but found that the evidence of Holness’s guilt went “far beyond mere sufficiency,” such that the lower court’s judgment could not have been substantially swayed by the improperly obtained evidence. Thus, the Court held that, under the circumstances of the case, any Fifth Amendment error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

In summary, the Court of Appeals found that the underlying facts failed to sustain Holness’s Sixth Amendment theory, but noted that the facts indicate a potential violation of Holness’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and right to counsel. However, the Court held that remand to further develop the record was unnecessary since any Fifth Amendment error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the Court affirmed Holness’s convictions.

Full Opinion

– Kassandra Moore