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United States v. Emery

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 17, 2019

SONJA EMERY, Defendant.



         Defendant Sonja Emery stands charged with four counts of mail fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341; two counts of wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343; one count of corrupt endeavor to obstruct the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7212(a); and four counts of tax evasion, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7201.[1] This matter is presently before the Court on a stipulated order for an evaluation of Defendant's competency to stand trial. (ECF No. 58.) The Court held a competency hearing on November 20, 2019. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds Defendant competent to stand trial in this action.


         On February 4, 2019, “based upon Defendant's representations and discussions with her counsel, ” Defendant's former counsel moved the Court for a judicial determination of Defendant's mental competency to stand trial pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4241. (ECF No. 50 at Pg. ID 269-71.) The motion claimed that counsel, “during numerous discussions with [Defendant], ha[d] been informed [that] the Defendant is currently suffering cognitive impairment” resulting from an August 10, 2018 fall and attendant head injury. (Id. at Pg. ID 269-70.) The motion further explained that “Defendant has stated to counsel that she does not fully comprehend or understand the proceedings against her” and that “she does not feel . . . that she has the mental and cognitive abilities to adequately evaluate a potential resolution.” (Id. at Pg. ID 271.) The United States of America (“Government”) expressed skepticism regarding Defendant's claims of incompetency but agreed that an evaluation was appropriate. (ECF No. 51 at Pg. ID 275). On March 25, Defendant withdrew her motion and the Court issued a stipulated order for an evaluation of Defendant by Dr. Mikel Matto. (ECF Nos. 57, 58.)

         On July 1, Dr. Matto conducted an in-person evaluation of Defendant and, on or around August 7, submitted a written report to the Court. (ECF No. 80-8.) In his report, Dr. Matto stated and explained his four conclusions: Defendant (i) “does not meet [the] diagnostic criteria for a disorder related to cognitive impairment or mental health”; (ii) “has an adequate ability to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings”; (iii) “has an adequate ability to assist counsel properly in the conduct of a defense in a rational manner”; and (iv) “[b]ased on the above considerations, . . . is currently competent to stand trial.” (Id. at Pg. ID 609-15.)

         One week later, Defendant and her former counsel moved the Court to enter an order allowing for withdrawal of counsel. (ECF No. 68 at Pg. ID 406.) The Court granted the motion and, on September 12, Mark Magidson accepted the appointment to represent Defendant.

         On November 20, the Court conducted a competency hearing pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4247(d), which was attended by Defendant, Dr. Matto, Mr. Magidson, as well as counsel for the Government. After the Government and Mr. Magidson questioned Dr. Matto regarding the report, the Court gave Defendant the opportunity to present additional evidence for the Court's consideration.


         “[T]he Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the criminal prosecution of a defendant who is not competent to stand trial.” Medina v. Cal., 505 U.S. 437, 439 (1992) (citations omitted).

         Under 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a), a defendant or the Government “may file a motion for a hearing to determine the mental competency of the defendant, ” and such a motion must be granted “if there is reasonable cause to believe that the defendant may presently be suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.” 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a). Prior to the hearing, the court may order that a psychiatric or psychological examination of the defendant be conducted, and that a report be filed with the court. 18 U.S.C. § 4241(b). During the hearing, a defendant “shall be afforded an opportunity to testify, to present evidence, to subpoena witnesses on his behalf, and to confront and cross-examine witnesses who appear at the hearing.” 18 U.S.C. § 4247(d).

         Following the competency hearing, the court must, based on a “preponderance of the evidence, ” make a determination as to the defendant's competency to stand trial. 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d). “[T]he bar for incompetency is high: a criminal defendant must lack either a ‘sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding' or ‘a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.'” United States v. Miller, 531 F.3d 340, 350 (6th Cir. 2008) (quoting Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 172 (1975)). The Sixth Circuit has further explained that:

In making this determination, the district court must consider several factors, including the defendant's demeanor, any prior medical opinion regarding competency, and evidence of irrational behavior. Miller, 531 F.3d at 348; Williams v. Bordenkircher, 696 F.2d 464, 466 (6th Cir. 1983). An attorney's opinion about his client's competency is likewise a relevant factor. United States v. Tucker, 204 Fed.Appx. 518, 520 (6th Cir. 2006) (citing Owens v. Sowders, 661 F.2d 584, 586 (6th Cir. 1981)); United States v. Jackson, 179 Fed.Appx. 921, 933 (6th Cir. 2006). . . . In short, “[t]here are . . . no fixed or immutable signs which invariably indicate the need for further inquiry to determine fitness to proceed; the question is often a difficult one in which a wide range of manifestations and subtle nuances are implicated.” Williams, 696 F.2d at 466 (quoting Drope, 420 U.S. at 180).

United States v. Willis, 362 Fed.Appx. 531, 534 (6th Cir. 2010) (second and third alterations in original).

         Ultimately, “[t]he determination of whether a defendant is mentally competent to stand trial is a question left to the sound discretion of the district court, with the advice of psychiatrists [or other mental health professionals].” United States v. Abernathy, No. 08-20103, 2009 WL 982794, at *3 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 13, 2009) (alternation in original) (quoting Fed. Proc. § 22:549, Hearing and Determination as to Competency). But, “[t]he medical opinion of experts . . . is not binding on the court, since the law imposes the duty and responsibility for making the ultimate decision of such a legal question on the court . . . .” Id. (quoting Fed. Proc. § 22:549, Hearing and Determination as to Competency).


         After careful consideration of Dr. Matto's opinion, counsels' statements, Defendant's statements and behavior, and other evidence, the Court concludes that the record overwhelmingly establishes that Defendant is competent to stand trial.

         Awareness and Understanding of the Proceedings

         First, during her evaluation with Dr. Matto, Defendant demonstrated awareness and understanding of (i) the charges against her-she correctly stated that she is charged with “tax evasion, ” (ECF No. 80-8 at Pg. ID 633); (ii) the potential penalties-she stated that she will go to jail if sentenced to incarceration, will be “supervise[d]” if placed on probation, or “the charges go away” if she is found not guilty, (id.); (iii) court procedures-she discussed a defendant's right to not testify, a defendant's obligation to tell the truth if she chooses to testify, and the prosecutor's goal of ascertaining evidence of guilt when questioning a defendant (id. at Pg. ID 634); and (iv) the role of a public defender, prosecutor, judge, jury, defendant, as well as witnesses, (id.). See Miller, 531 F.3d at 348 (considering medical opinion when determining defendant's competency).

         During the competency hearing, Mr. Magidson questioned Dr. Matto about the three neuropsychological exams conducted on Defendant and made much of several tests that Dr. Matto did not conduct. Dr. Matto explained that his decision to administer the three tests as opposed to others was of no great moment, particularly because the three tests were not required to answer the competency question. Even if ...

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