US v. George Brown
UNPUBLISHED PER CURIAM OPINION filed. Originating case number: 7:15-cr-00039-D-1 Copies to all parties and the district court/agency. .. [16-4157]
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UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Plaintiff – Appellee,
GEORGE ROYAL BROWN,
Defendant – Appellant.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, at
Wilmington. James C. Dever III, Chief District Judge. (7:15-cr-00039-D-1)
Argued: March 21, 2017
Decided: August 28, 2017
Before MOTZ, TRAXLER, and AGEE, Circuit Judges.
Affirmed by unpublished per curiam opinion.
ARGUED: Eric Joseph Brignac, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER,
Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. Phillip Anthony Rubin, OFFICE OF THE
UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF:
Thomas P. McNamara, Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC
DEFENDER, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. John Stuart Bruce, United States
Attorney, Jennifer P. May-Parker, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE
UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.
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After admitting hearsay evidence at a revocation hearing, the district court revoked
George Royal Brown’s supervised release and sentenced him to thirty months in prison.
On appeal, Brown challenges his sentence. We affirm the judgment of the district court
because we conclude that if there was error, it was harmless error.
Brown pleaded guilty to mail theft, bank fraud, and conspiracy to commit bank
fraud in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. At the time he
committed these offenses, he was on supervised release for his conviction in the U.S.
District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania for conspiracy to commit check
fraud. He was sentenced in July 2009 to a prison term of sixty-three months with five
years of supervised release, and he was also ordered to pay more than $100,000 in
restitution. The terms of his supervised release included notifying his probation officer
before any change in residence, submitting to drug testing, and making monthly
Brown was released from prison in October 2013, and his
supervised release was transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of
North Carolina in April 2015.
In June 2015, Brown’s probation officer filed a motion to revoke his supervised
release, charging Brown with three violations. First, during a visit to Brown’s home the
previous April, the officer learned that Brown was no longer living there and “had not
been seen or heard from in several weeks.” J.A. 14. The officer was unable to contact
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Brown to discuss the violation. Next, Brown failed to participate in the drug testing
program from January 2015 onward.
Finally, Brown ceased making his monthly
restitution payments after March 2015. In February 2016, the probation officer filed an
amended motion which charged Brown with committing bank fraud and mail theft in the
Northern District of Ohio, in addition to the three prior violations.
Prior to the revocation hearing, the Government gave notice that it intended to
introduce hearsay evidence through a postal inspector regarding the Ohio bank fraud and
mail theft violation.
That hearsay evidence consisted of statements given to law
enforcement and the postal inspector by four men that Brown allegedly recruited to cash
stolen and altered checks.
The Government asserted that three of the men were
unavailable to testify because they were incarcerated in Ohio for unrelated crimes. After
conducting a search, the Government failed to locate the fourth man, and the available
information suggested that he was transient. Furthermore, the Government averred that,
because the men giving the statements had not entered into any plea deals with the
Government for their roles in the check cashing scheme, they could exercise their Fifth
Amendment privilege upon questioning, although none had indicated any intention of
doing so. Brown objected to the introduction of the hearsay evidence on the grounds that
the statements were unreliable and the witnesses were not truly unavailable.
At the revocation hearing, Brown admitted to all violations except the bank fraud
and mail theft allegations. After allowing Brown to present his arguments in opposition
to the hearsay evidence and discussing the test to determine whether to admit such
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evidence in a revocation hearing, the court ruled that it would permit the Government to
present the evidence and then determine its admissibility.
The Government first called postal inspector Lauren Cajuste, who testified that she
investigated several instances of fraud in Ohio, where checks were stolen from the mail
and then altered to reflect new payees and sometimes new amounts. In conjunction with
local law enforcement agencies, Cajuste identified four individuals who cashed the
checks: Sean Cifra, Jordan Bugg, Dustin Stevens, and Charles Webb.
witnesses were arrested, all provided materially similar statements regarding the scheme.
According to Cajuste, Brown and another man would approach a given witness in
a public place, such as outside an employment assistance company, on a bridge, or at a
bus stop. 1 After confirming that the witness had two forms of identification, the men
would purchase clothing and a meal for the witness and then leave him for approximately
an hour. Brown would return with checks in the witness’ name and then drive the
witness to various banks to cash those checks. The witnesses were paid by Brown and
the other man between $50 and $680 for cashing the checks.
Later, each witness
identified Brown as one of the men after viewing a photograph lineup, with their
certainty varying from 70% to 100%. 2
Cajuste confirmed that Cifra, Bugg, and Webb were incarcerated in Ohio on
unrelated charges at the time of the hearing. She was unable to find Stevens using the
Brown did not approach Bugg, however. Instead, Webb introduced Bugg to Brown.
Cifra wrote down the license plate number of the car that the two men were driving.
Law enforcement officers later verified that the car with that license plate was rented by Brown
during this time.
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contact information that he had provided. After conducting a thorough investigation,
Cajuste concluded that Stevens was transient.
Brown’s probation officer then took the stand and testified that she was contacted
by Ohio police and informed that Brown was a suspect in a check cashing scam. She also
testified that Brown confessed he had rented the car that Cifra identified, although he
claimed he rented it for a friend.
After all this evidence was presented, the district court allowed each party to again
make their arguments regarding admissibility of the hearsay evidence. The court found
that the hearsay evidence was reliable because each of the individuals gave substantially
similar statements. The court determined that the unavailability of the witnesses was
largely irrelevant, that the paramount consideration was the reliability of the evidence,
although the court stated that, with three in prison and one missing, there was good cause
to find the witnesses unavailable. The court therefore admitted the evidence and found
that the Government had met its burden in proving the violations by Brown.
The district court stated that, pursuant to the United States Sentencing Guidelines,
the bank fraud and mail theft charges constituted a Grade A violation, while the other
violations were Grade C. Because Brown had a criminal history category of IV, the
suggested policy statement range was twenty-four to thirty months’ incarceration, with a
statutory maximum of thirty-six months.
Although Brown agreed that the policy
statement range was correct because he was found guilty of the Grade A violation, he
argued that, without the Grade A violation, he would be subject to a policy statement
range of six to twelve months. In that scenario, he would have requested a sentence of
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ten months. However, because the court admitted the hearsay evidence and found him
guilty of the Grade A violation, Brown requested a sentence of twenty-four months. The
Government requested the statutory maximum sentence of thirty-six months. The court
sentenced Brown to thirty months’ imprisonment. However, the court also stated that,
even if it were to consider only the three Grade C violations, it would still sentence
Brown to thirty months, above the policy statement range, because Brown “egregiously
breached the trust of the court again.” J.A. 142–43.
Brown filed a timely notice of appeal, and the Court has jurisdiction pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18 U.S.C. § 3742.
On appeal, Brown argues that the district court abused its discretion by relying
upon hearsay statements in revoking his supervised release and sentencing him to an
above-Guidelines thirty months’ imprisonment. Assuming for the sake of argument that
the district court erred, however, we find any such error harmless.
We generally review a district court’s decision to revoke supervised release, as
well as any evidentiary rulings at the revocation hearing, for abuse of discretion. United
States v. Padgett, 788 F.3d 370, 373 (4th Cir. 2015) (revocation decision); United States
v. Doswell, 670 F.3d 526, 529 (4th Cir. 2012) (evidentiary rulings). In certain cases,
however, circumstances may prompt the Court to “proceed directly to an assumed error
harmlessness inquiry,” in which we assume the district court erred and determine whether
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that error was harmless. United States v. Gomez-Jimenez, 750 F.3d 370, 382 (4th Cir.
2014); see also United States v. Hargrove, 701 F.3d 156, 163 (4th Cir. 2012) (“[T]he
assumed error harmlessness inquiry is an appellate tool that we utilize in appropriate
circumstances to avoid the ‘empty formality’ of an unnecessary remand where it is clear
that an asserted guideline miscalculation did not affect the ultimate sentence.”). 3 That is
the appropriate procedure in this case.
Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(b)(2)(C) provides that, at a revocation
hearing, the defendant “is entitled to . . . an opportunity to appear, present evidence, and
question any adverse witness unless the court determines that the interest of justice does
not require the witness to appear.” A district court’s failure to apply this rule correctly is
a non-constitutional error. United States v. Ferguson, 752 F.3d 613, 618 (4th Cir. 2014).
The Court determines whether a non-constitutional error is harmless by “ensur[ing] that
the error had no substantial and injurious effect or influence on the outcome.” Id. The
vacation of a revocation sentence “is reserved for more serious errors that affect
substantial rights or that directly affect the outcome of a case.” Id. at 619; see also 28
U.S.C. § 2111 (“On the hearing of any appeal or writ of certiorari in any case, the court
shall give judgment after an examination of the record without regard to errors or defects
which do not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”); Fed. R. Crim. P. 52(a) (“Any
error, defect, irregularity, or variance that does not affect substantial rights must be
disregarded.”). Specifically, any error related to a district court’s application of the
We have omitted internal quotation marks, alterations, and citations here and throughout
this opinion, unless otherwise noted.
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Guidelines to calculate a revocation sentence “is considered harmless if we determine
that (1) the district court would have reached the same result even if it had decided the
guidelines issue the other way, and (2) the sentence would be reasonable even if the
guidelines issue had been decided in the defendant’s favor.” Gomez-Jimenez, 750 F.3d at
The first element of the harmless error test is satisfied because the court explicitly
stated that it was announcing an “alternative variant sentence.” J.A. 144. Relying on
Gomez-Jimenez and Hargrove, the district court announced that it would sentence Brown
to thirty months’ imprisonment “even if [the court] only looked at the three Grade C
violations.” J.A. 142; accord J.A. 143 (“Even if I didn’t look at the criminal conduct, I
would impose the same 30-month sentence because I think it is the sentence that is
sufficient but not greater than necessary in this instance.”). The court noted that “the
other[ violations] are Grade C violations, but they’re all, in my view, serious.” J.A. 140;
accord J.A. 141 (recognizing that the violations of “absconding or failing to participate in
urinalysis, failure to pay monetary obligation, or engaging in criminal conduct” were
“very serious, each one a very serious breach of trust, particularly for someone who has
been through the process before and . . . gotten [their supervised release] revoked”).
Despite Brown’s argument that “[t]he vast majority of the revocation hearing focused on
the alleged criminal activity” rather than the Grade C violations, Reply Br. 10, the court
did focus on the circumstances surrounding the Grade A violation because they were in
dispute. Since Brown admitted the Grade C violations, the court had no reason to dwell
on those violations. Any disparity between the extent of the Grade A and Grade C
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violations discussions therefore does not undercut the court’s alternative variant sentence.
The court “made it abundantly clear that it would have imposed the same sentence . . .
regardless of the advice of the Guidelines” and explained its reasoning. Gomez-Jimenez,
750 F.3d at 382.
We therefore move to the second element and analyze the
reasonableness of the sentence. Id. at 386 (“Because the district court has explicitly
stated that it would have imposed the same sentences regardless of the advice of the
Guidelines, however, we can affirm as long as those sentences are reasonable.”).
The Court “will affirm a revocation sentence if it is within the statutory maximum
and is not plainly unreasonable.” United States v. Webb, 738 F.3d 638, 640 (4th Cir.
We review a revocation sentence for both procedural and substantive
reasonableness. Id. A court commits a procedural error by “failing to calculate (or
improperly calculating) the Guidelines range, treating the Guidelines as mandatory,
failing to consider the [18 U.S.C.] § 3553(a) factors, selecting a sentence based on clearly
erroneous facts, or failing to adequately explain the chosen sentence—including an
explanation for any deviation from the Guidelines range.” Gall v. United States, 552
U.S. 38, 51 (2007); see also United States v. Bennett, 698 F.3d 194, 200 (4th Cir. 2012)
(noting that the Court follows the instructions in Gall when reviewing a revocation
sentence). The Court will review the substantive reasonableness of the sentence by
“tak[ing] into account the totality of the circumstances, including the extent of any
variance from the Guidelines range.” Gall, 552 U.S. at 51.
The district court has “broad discretion” in fashioning a revocation sentence and
may “impose a term of imprisonment up to the statutory maximum.” United States v.
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Crudup, 461 F.3d 433, 439 (4th Cir. 2006). When a district court imposes a revocation
sentence outside of the Guidelines range, the Court “may not apply a presumption of
unreasonableness.” Gall, 552 U.S. at 51. While the Court “may consider the extent of
the deviation,” we “must give due deference to the district court’s decision that the
§ 3553(a) factors, on a whole, justify the extent of the variance.” Id.
The second element of the harmless error test is also met in this case. Assuming
arguendo that the district court erred in finding Brown guilty of the bank fraud and mail
theft allegations, Brown would have been subject to a Guidelines policy statement range
of six to twelve months. Having received a sentence of thirty months, Brown argues that
the variance is too high at two-and-a-half times the upper end and five times the lower
end of his Grade C Guidelines range. The Supreme Court, however, has noted that
“deviations from the Guidelines range will always appear more extreme—in percentage
terms—when the range itself is low.” Id. at 47–48. Here, the district court’s thirtymonth sentence was less than the thirty-six-month statutory maximum. See 18 U.S.C.
§ 3583(e)(3). We have upheld revocation sentences with similar or larger variances than
the one here. See, e.g., Crudup, 461 F.3d at 440 (affirming a thirty-six-month revocation
sentence when the Guidelines suggested a sentence of five to eleven months). The
variance alone, therefore, does not render Brown’s sentence unreasonable.
Brown also argues that “the district court’s justifications for the variance sentence
do not substantively support it.” Reply Br. 11. Principally, Brown contends that the
court erred by focusing on his “breach of trust” because the Guidelines already account
for that breach in providing a policy statement range. Indeed, the focal point of the
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district court’s reasoning for its sentence was Brown’s breach of trust. See, e.g., J.A. 140
(noting that a court is entitled to “focus on the breach of trust”); J.A. 141 (stating that
each of Brown’s violations were “a very serious breach of trust”); J.A. 143 (concluding
that Brown “egregiously breached the trust of the court again”); J.A. 144 (ultimately
sentencing Brown to thirty months’ imprisonment “for the egregious breach of trust”).
The Guidelines state, however, that “at revocation the court should sanction primarily the
defendant’s breach of trust, while taking into account, to a limited degree, the seriousness
of the underlying violation and the criminal history of the violator.” See U.S. Sentencing
Guidelines Manual ch. 7, pt. A.3(b) (emphasis added). We have previously held that an
“egregious breach of trust[ is] a perfectly appropriate basis—and, in fact, the principal
basis on which the Guidelines encourage courts to ground revocation sentences.”
Bennett, 698 F.3d at 202. As in Bennett, “[o]ur review of the hearing transcript makes
clear that it was the brazen breach of trust inherent in [Brown’s violations] while on
supervised release . . . that drove the district court’s sentencing decision.” Id. at 200.
The district court therefore properly considered Brown’s breach of trust in crafting his
sentence. Accordingly, the sentence is both procedurally and substantively reasonable. 4
As the Government notes, we have held in an unpublished per curiam opinion that the
“admission of hearsay evidence for sentencing purposes is not improper,” distinguishing this
from the “admission of the hearsay evidence for the purposes of assessing whether [the
defendant] committed the charged violations.” United States v. Grier, 411 F. App’x 614, 616
(4th Cir. 2011). In fact, some of our sister courts have found that “[a] revocation defendant’s due
process right to confrontation does not apply in connection with the length of any resulting
prison sentence.” United States v. Williams, 847 F.3d 251, 254 (5th Cir. 2017) (emphasis
added); accord United States v. Ruby, 706 F.3d 1221, 1227–28 (10th Cir. 2013). Because we
find the sentence satisfies assumed error harmlessness review, however, we need not address the
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For these reasons, the judgment of the district court is
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