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United States v. Owen

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 19, 2017

United States of America Plaintiff-Appellee
v.
Ronnie Lee Owen Defendant-Appellant United States of America Plaintiff-Appellee
v.
Ronnie Lee Owen Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: February 6, 2017

         Appeals from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Springfield

          Before RILEY, [1] Chief Judge, SMITH and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

          RILEY, Chief Judge.

         Ronnie Lee Owen asserts the revocation of his supervised release and sentence of 24 months imprisonment were in error because his waiver of counsel and decision to proceed pro se were invalid.[2] We affirm, concluding the totality of the circumstances reflects Owen made a voluntary, knowing, and intelligent choice to represent himself at the revocation hearing. See 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (appellate jurisdiction).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Owen pled guilty in 2010 to knowingly making, uttering, and possessing counterfeit securities in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 513(a) and was sentenced to 66 months imprisonment followed by 36 months supervised release. In 2011, Owen pled guilty to identity theft in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1028(a)(3) and was sentenced to 36 months imprisonment with 36 months supervised release.[3]

         Owen found himself unable to keep out of trouble while on supervised release. Between August 24, 2015 and April 13, 2016, Owen's probation officer filed a violation report and four supplemental violation reports alleging over twenty violations of numerous conditions of Owen's release, including: pay the required fine and restitution in compliance with the scheduled payments; answer truthfully to his probation officer's inquiries; find lawful employment; refrain from incurring new debt unless in compliance with his installment payment schedule; refrain from associating with any person convicted of a felony; notify the probation officer of any changes in residence; provide the probation officer access to any requested financial information; and refrain from committing another federal, state, or local crime.

         The revocation proceedings on both cases were combined, and Owen had his first revocation hearing before the district court[4] on January 22, 2016. Owen's counsel informed the court Owen was "having some medical issues" and was "struggling to follow what [counsel] was talking to him about." According to Owen, he had a "low thyroid" problem and, despite his retained counsel and wife attempting to get him his medication, the jail where Owen was detained had not provided Owen his "medication for a number of months." Owen claimed this led to "vision difficulties, . . . headaches, and pain." The district court indicated it was having difficulty understanding Owen. The government reported the probation officer was unaware of Owen's need for thyroid medication, and Owen's counsel claimed it was "not uncommon" for his clients in that particular jail not to receive prescribed medication. The district court recognized it was in a "bind" because Owen would remain in jail waiting for the next hearing date and Owen's "probation might as well be revoked if he's just sitting" in jail. The revocation hearing was reset for February 16, 2016.

         At this second revocation hearing, Owen's counsel informed the court Owen was receiving his medication but, in Owen's opinion, the medication was not the correct dose and Owen "needed a few more weeks before the medication completely cycled through and stabilized him." The district court expressed its frustration with another continuance, noting because Owen was just sitting in jail "in essence he's giving himself a revocation." The government objected to the continuance, citing a worry that Owen "keeps making up these excuses and feigning an exaggerated illness or lack of medication." Nevertheless, the district court continued the hearing until April 19, and warned Owen "[t]here won't be any more continuances granted."

         Disregarding this warning, Owen again requested to continue his third revocation hearing, this time requesting more time to hire new counsel. Owen expressed he had sent "numerous letters" to his retained attorney, but had not seen or heard from him since the prior hearing. Owen stated he was frustrated that "every time [he] come[s] to court, there's an amended violation report and [he's] given no notice." Owen felt he was unable to prepare an adequate defense to the alleged violations, although Owen's attorney had reviewed the reports with him immediately before each hearing. The government indicated a concern Owen was using the request for new counsel as a delay tactic. Owen assured the district court he was only seeking "a proper defense." The district court told Owen's counsel, as "Mr. Trump would say[, ] You're fired" and set a fourth revocation hearing for May.

         Owen appeared before the magistrate judge for a status conference on May 16. Owen indicated he was aware he had a final revocation hearing set for May 26 and he wanted to obtain new counsel, but was unable to reach the new counsel he had identified to retain. The magistrate judge stated it was in Owen's "best interest" to "have counsel appointed to represent" him at his final revocation hearing, and the judge would appoint "someone who is very experienced in federal court who would be able to jump in and immediately begin working with [Owen]." The magistrate judge also expressed he believed "everybody would prefer that [Owen] have counsel representing" him and that "it's a bad idea to represent yourself. . . . [I]t doesn't usually end very well for the person who chooses to go that route."

         Owen then asked the magistrate judge if he would be able to proceed pro se if he did not like his appointed counsel. In response to this, the magistrate judge told Owen he would "probably have to make inquiry of [Owen] as to certain factors" yet he would "probably strongly urge [Owen] to not do that." The magistrate judge also quoted the "old expression that a person who represents themself has a fool for an attorney, " and said, if Owen wished to represent himself, the judge would allow him to do so if the judge made a finding Owen knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to counsel. Owen assured the magistrate judge he had "been through this once before" and was unhappy with his counsel's performance in a prior case. Concerned Owen would be resistant to appointed counsel, the magistrate judge advised Owen he "need[ed] to be prepared to move forward" on May 26, either with appointed counsel or on his own pro se.

         At this fourth revocation hearing, Owen appeared with appointed counsel. The appointed counsel reported to the district court Owen told him he had recently filed a bar complaint against the appointed counsel and "that creates an issue for" the appointed counsel regarding "if [he] [could] proceed or not." The district court considered this report a motion to withdraw as counsel. Owen declared his dissatisfaction with his appointed counsel, complaining his counsel declined to pursue any of Owen's suggested defense theories, and Owen claimed he had filed both a bar complaint and a civil suit against his appointed counsel. The district ...


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