Last week in United States of America v. Gabriel Llanez-Garcia, the Sixth Circuit vacated sanctions imposed against an assistant federal public defender and dismissed the sanctions proceedings against her. In a strongly-worded repudiation, the panel found no indication of the bad faith required to warrant sanctions under a court’s inherent authority. Noting that “[a]n attorney’s reputation is her most valuable possession,” the Sixth Circuit pronounced that its opinion “closes the book on a regrettable chapter in [the public defender’s] career, clears her of all claims that her conduct in this matter was sanctionable, and removes any taint of public censure on her reputation.”
At issue in the sanctions proceedings was the public defender’s use in discovery of Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 16 and 17(c). Squire Sanders represented the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in their amicus in support of the public defender on the interplay between Rules 16 and 17(c). Representing a man arrested and deported after a vehicle stop by the Ohio State Highway Patrol (“OSHP”), the public defender first made a general discovery request to the government under Rule 16. Next, she caused subpoenas to issue to the OSHP and the Border Patrol under Rule 17(c) for records relating to the stop, including the dash-cam video. Contending that the Rule 17(c) subpoenas were improper, the assistant U.S. attorney on the case moved to quash and to sanction the public defender. The government later withdrew its request for sanctions.
Nonetheless, the district court issued sanctions on three grounds. First, the court found that the public defender improperly issued Rule 17(c) subpoenas without first making a sufficiently specific request to the government for the information under Rule 16. Second, the court faulted the public defender for issuing an early-return subpoena, meaning that the date for return of documents or appearance did not correspond to any scheduled hearing. Third, the court found sanctionable that the Rule 17(c) subpoena was issued without court approval.
Reversing, the Sixth Circuit emphasized repeatedly that, to justify inherent-authority sanctions, the sanctioned attorney must have engaged in bad-faith conduct. Setting out the inherent-authority standard, the court explained in a key passage: “Our analytical goal is not to determine whether [the public defender] was right or wrong on the merits. . . . Concluding that [the public defender] engaged in bad-faith conduct . . . requires finding that the claims she advanced were meritless, that she knew or should have known it, and that she had an improper motive for doing so.” Under this standard, the Sixth Circuit found no indication of bad faith.
The panel declined the invitation to provide controlling guidance concerning Rule 17(c) procedures, but did hold that a defendant need not first ask the government for discovery under Rule 16 before subpoenaing evidence under Rule 17(c). The court reached similar conclusions on the other two grounds for sanctions – whether correct or not, there was no support for the conclusion that the public defender’s issuance of an early-return subpoena, and her failure to get court approval of the subpoena, were done in bad faith. In reaching its conclusion, the Sixth Circuit highlighted conflicting authority and the practice of other attorneys that was consistent with the public defender’s actions.