In the meantime, if you’d like some hurricane reading, check out these two opinions by Judge Newsom. He is such a good writer that sometimes you forget that he is issuing some crushing opinions for criminal defendants. The first is USA v. Baptiste, where even the prosecution couldn’t defend the trial court’s admission of hearsay with a straight face. But the 11th won’t come out and say that it’s hearsay, instead holding that it doesn’t matter because ... you guessed it: harmless. After saying that, the court goes on to allow the hearsay at sentencing because it’s reliable hearsay. Hmmmm:
Although Baptiste raises a number of issues on appeal, we focus primarily on two questions related to the hearsay testimony of a government witness. The abridged version of the story: Francesse Chery was one of Baptiste’s key witnesses. The government countered with her brother, Anael Chery, who testified (among other things) that Francesse had told him that, in exchange for her (false) testimony supporting Baptiste’s narrative, Baptiste would give her a Mercedes. Baptiste argues that Anael’s testimony was inadmissible hearsay and that the district court’s error in allowing the jury to hear it tainted both his conviction and his sentence.Next up is United States v. Taylor, which involves some really interesting 4th Amendment issues and NIT warrants. Judge Newsom finds that the warrants were illegal, but no suppression is warranted because... you guessed it: good faith. I’ll post more about this case later, but the takeaway from these two cases — the doctrines of harmless error and good faith are being used in extremely aggressive ways by the 11th Circuit to send a clear message to district judges: don’t worry, we have your back if you rule for the prosecution, even if you err. Don’t worry about bad warrants in pretrial proceedings. Don’t sweat the hearsay at trial. Appellate review weighs heavily in favor of affirming convictions even where there are big problems with the ways in which prosecutors and judges are obtaining these convictions.
Baptiste’s challenge presents two questions. First, was Anael’s testimony indeed inadmissible hearsay? The district court admitted the testimony pursuant to the statement-against-interest exception to the general prohibition on hearsay evidence, and on appeal the government has offered a smattering of additional theories of admissibility. We conclude that we needn’t decide whether Anael’s testimony was inadmissible hearsay because even if the district court did err in allowing it, the error was harmless. There was more than enough compelling—and undoubtedly admissible—evidence to support Baptiste’s conviction.
Second, and (sort of) relatedly, did the district court err in relying on Anael’s testimony when it imposed a sentencing enhancement for obstructing justice? If you’re saying, “Didn’t they just say they weren’t going to decide whether the testimony was admissible?”—we hear you. As it turns out, though, thanks to a doctrine called (somewhat oxymoronically) “reliable hearsay” we can answer the second question without deciding the first. Under the reliable-hearsay doctrine, so long as certain preconditions are met, a sentencing court can rely on evidence that would be off-limits in the guilt phase. For Baptiste, this means that even if Anael’s description of his sister’s supposed deal was inadmissible hearsay (and we aren’t saying either way) the district court might not have erred in relying on that testimony for the obstruction enhancement—again, so long as the preconditions are met.
So, what are they? Well, our case law has arguably sent mixed signals about that. There is, though, a synthesis. We hold (and clarify) today that the Sentencing Guidelines permit use of hearsay testimony so long as the overall record provides “sufficient indicia of reliability”—and we conclude that the indicia of reliability here are sufficient.