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United States v. Sanders

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

December 15, 2016

KEILON VIDAL SANDERS, also known as BIRD, Defendant-Appellant

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before ELROD, SOUTHWICK, and GRAVES, Circuit Judges.

          LESLIE H. SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judge.

         Keilon Vidal Sanders was sentenced to 120 months imprisonment after he pled guilty to one count of conspiracy involving 1, 000 kilograms or more of marijuana. Sanders now argues that his guilty plea was entered involuntarily and that the district court violated his right to self-representation. We AFFIRM as to the voluntariness of the plea but VACATE Sanders's sentence and REMAND for resentencing because the district court failed to honor his request for self-representation.


         Sanders was charged in an eleven-count indictment with involvement in a narcotics conspiracy with nineteen other defendants. He was initially represented by court-appointed counsel, Michael Ray Harris, but soon moved to dismiss his attorney. Sanders claimed Harris had little experience in federal court and had become angry when Sanders was unwilling to sign a plea agreement. At no point in his first motion did Sanders ask to represent himself. Instead, he asked the court to appoint new counsel.

         The district court granted Harris's motion to withdraw as counsel and substituted Brook Busbee. Shortly thereafter, Sanders pled guilty to the first count of the indictment. Before accepting the plea, the court asked Sanders whether he understood the charges against him. He responded affirmatively and waived a reading of the indictment. Even so, the court required the prosecutor to explain the elements of the offense with which Sanders was charged. After she did so, Sanders agreed he committed the essential elements. Sanders also told the court that he had gone over the plea agreement in "great detail" with his attorney and was satisfied with her representation. Later in the colloquy, the court inquired specifically as to voluntariness, and Sanders reported he had not been threatened or forced into pleading guilty. Further, no one promised him anything in exchange for his plea.

         The following month, Sanders sent a letter to the court seeking to rescind his guilty plea on the basis that Busbee had been working with the Government and not on his behalf. The court struck his correspondence from the record because he had an attorney who alone could make filings on his behalf. The court directed Sanders to convey his concerns to his appointed attorney. The court noted that Sanders was not entitled to "hybrid representation" - representation "partly by counsel and partly by himself." In response, Sanders filed a document asserting he should have control over his own defense and renewed his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Again, the court struck the pleadings from the record. At no point during this correspondence did Sanders explicitly request to represent himself.

         Two weeks later, Sanders moved to dismiss Busbee as his attorney. His motion did not explicitly reference his right to self-representation but cited Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), to support his right to waive the assistance of counsel. The court did not rule on his motion until roughly eight months later, when it removed Busbee as counsel and substituted Jeffrey A. Ansley. In the interim, Sanders argues, the judge "got very upset" after he requested permission to proceed pro se during a status conference. Sanders's handwritten account reveals he sought to remove his attorney and requested being allowed to choose between having counsel and proceeding pro se.

         After Ansley's appointment, Sanders filed a "Petition to Represent Self Under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution [of] the United States of America." The Government characterizes this correspondence as part of Sanders's "slew of indecipherable pro se pleadings." Perhaps, but the motion clearly expresses Sanders's desire to "exercise his right to defend himself." As a result, Ansley filed multiple motions to withdraw as counsel, confirming Sanders's desire to proceed pro se. The court did not formally grant Ansley's request until after Sanders's sentencing hearing.

         Ansley was present with Sanders at that hearing. Initially, the court warned Sanders of the dangers of self-representation: the judge analogized Sanders's request to "cutting [himself] open and taking [his own appendix] out." The court encouraged Sanders again to speak with his attorney, after which Ansley reiterated Sanders's desire to proceed without assistance. The court then denied Ansley's request to withdraw but agreed to allow Sanders to speak on his own behalf with Ansley acting as standby counsel. The court later noted that if counsel had objections to its ruling, Ansley and the Government could "take [them] to the Fifth Circuit."

         At the hearing, the presentence report (PSR) became an issue. It assigned a base offense level of 32, a two-level increase for possessing a dangerous weapon, a three-level increase for having a managerial role, and a three-level decrease for his acceptance of responsibility. The court asked Sanders to argue his previous attorney's objections to the PSR. Sanders explained he had not received a copy of those objections and had received the PSR only two days before the hearing. After a somewhat sharply worded exchange between Sanders and the court, Sanders informed the court he needed more time to read the PSR and develop his own objections. The court apparently believed Sanders was attempting to delay the proceedings, so it required Sanders to consult with Ansley before proceeding any further.

         Finally, the court discussed the guidelines calculation. Before closing argument, the Government stated it was not opposed to removing the two-level enhancement for possession of a firearm. Following that reduction, Sanders's guidelines range was 121 to 151 months with a 120-month mandatory minimum. The court adopted the mandatory minimum sentence and imposed a five-year term of supervised release. Before the hearing formally concluded, the judge stated, "I want the record to reflect I did ...

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