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Court Rules That District Court Had Power to Adjudicate Supervision Violations Charged After Expiration of Supervision Term

In United States v. Edwards, the Court (Sack, Raggi, Droney) affirmed a judgment of the District Court (Chatigny, J.) revoking the supervised release of Defendant-Appellant Owen Edwards and sentencing Edwards to 24 months’ imprisonment based on four supervision violations.  Edwards had raised two issues on appeal:  first, whether the District Court had jurisdiction to revoke his supervised release based on violations charged after the scheduled expiration of his term of supervision; and second, whether the evidence was sufficient to support the particular charge that Edwards had committed a crime while under supervision.

Jurisdictional Challenge

The revocation of Edwards’s supervised release stemmed from a traffic stop that occurred in California on April 8, 2014, roughly 8 months before his supervised release was scheduled to terminate.  Conditions of Edwards’s supervision included (1) that he not leave his supervision district—in this case, the Southern District of New York—without his probation officer’s permission; (2) that he truthfully answer all inquiries from his probation officer; (3) that he not associate with convicted felons without his probation officer’s permission; and (4) that he not commit any federal, state, or local offense.  During the April stop, Edwards was found—with the assistance of drug-sniffing dogs—to be in possession of $700,000 in cash, gave conflicting explanations of that cash to police, and admitted that he had not secured his probation officer’s permission to travel.

On August 15, 2014, the Probation Office charged Edwards with a single supervision violation:  traveling outside his supervision district without permission.  This was a Grade C violation that triggered a Guidelines sentence of 5-11 months’ imprisonment.  Edwards pleaded guilty to the travel violation at his September 9, 2014 revocation hearing.  But at sentencing, notwithstanding that only the travel violation had been charged, the government argued that Edwards should be sentenced 24 months’ imprisonment because he “had ‘consistently’ violated supervision conditions ‘in the most flagrant ways.’”  (Op. at 13.)

With an eye to affording Edwards “adequate notice” of the suspected illegal drug activity that was truly the focal point of the government’s case (Op. at 14, 19), the District Court twice over the ensuing months directed the Probation Office to file amended reports.  The Probation Office filed its first amended report on December 23, 2014, after Edwards’s supervision term had expired.  It filed its second amended report on February 11, 2015.  These amended reports charged Edwards not only with (1) traveling outside his supervision district without permission but also—for the first time, but based on allegations related to the travel violation—with (2) failing truthfully to answer his probation officer’s inquiries, (3) associating with a felon, and (4) engaging in further criminal activity while on supervision.

Edwards argued that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to revoke his supervision based on the charges filed after his supervision term expired, citing 18 U.S.C. § 3583(i).  That statute provides that a District Court’s “power . . . to revoke a term of supervised release for violation of a condition of supervised release . . . extends beyond the expiration of the term of supervised release for any period reasonably necessary for the adjudication of matters arising before its expiration if, before its expiration, a warrant or summons has been issued on the basis of an allegation of such a violation.”  Edwards argued that the statute permits a Court to revoke supervised release after the expiration of a supervision term only on the basis of violations charged before the expiration of the supervision term.

The Court (without deciding that de novo review necessarily was warranted) concluded that Edwards’s challenge failed even on de novo review.  In the Court’s view, “the plain language of § 3583(i) empowers a district court to revoke supervised release based on . . . additional violations where, as here, [1] those violations involve conduct related to the violation charged in the timely warrant, which conduct was [2] disclosed to the defendant so as to afford adequate notice and opportunity to be heard.” (Op. at 32.)  The Court construed the statute’s “broad allowance for the ‘adjudication of matters’” “to permit a court exercising extended jurisdiction to base its revocation decision not only on the violation charged in the triggering warrant but on any other violations established by the adjudication of matters related to the initial charge.” (Op. at 39.)

In so ruling, the Court rejected, among other arguments, Edwards’s argument that the “violation” over which the District Court’s power extends is limited to the “violation” for which “a warrant or summons has been issued” “before [the] expiration” of the term of supervised release.  For guidance as to the bounds of the District Court’s power, the Court focused instead on language setting out the purpose for which the statute extends the District Court’s revocation power—that is, “for the adjudication of matters arising before . . . expiration” of the supervised release term.  The Court reasoned that the phrase “adjudication of matters” gives the District Court the power to decide, at the very least, “‘matters’ relevant to a timely warrant violation that reveal further violations.”  (Op. at 33-36.) 

Because the phrase on which the Court decided to hang its hat is so broad, there inevitably will be an inferential gap between the language in the statute and any comprehensive standard set out by the Court.  Here, the Court did not purport to fill that gap with a comprehensive rule, susceptible to application in future cases and by district judges.  The Court made clear that it was not deciding, for example,

(1)   whether conduct could inform a revocation decision even if not—as it was in Edwards’s case—formally charged (Op. at 39-40 n.13);

(2)   whether a District Court could revoke supervision based on violations charged after the conclusion of supervision when violations charged during supervision were not proven (Op. at 40);

(3)   the degree to which violations charged after supervision must relate to a violation charged during supervision (Op. at 40-41); and

(4)   what kind of notice and opportunity to be heard must be afforded at minimum (Op. at 44-46).

The Court’s treatment of the statute may reflect a looser approach for the process of adjudicating supervision violations than would be applied at a trial of an indictment, and indeed, the Court rejected an argument by Edwards analogizing to indictments.  (Op. at 36-38.)  One hopes that the issues left open by the Court will be resolved in a manner consistent with the statute and the interest in finality—typically something that courts strive for in the criminal law—that the statute is meant to advance.

Sufficiency Challenge

The Court also rejected Edwards’s sufficiency challenge to the Court’s finding that he engaged in narcotics trafficking or the laundering of narcotics proceeds.  Citing the ample evidence in support of the District Court’s finding—including the manner in which the seized money was bundled; the fact that it was uncovered by a drug-sniffing dog; and Edwards’s peculiar travel pattern—the Court easily concluded that the District Court had not abused its discretion in finding a violation by a preponderance of the evidence.

-By Kathryn S. Austin and Harry Sandick