Federal Appellate Court in Atlanta Issues Ruling Concerning an Individual’s Right to an Attorney

In a federal criminal appeal involving an individual’s right to counsel, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently ruled that the dual sovereignty doctrine applies in the Sixth Amendment context. Although the legal issue presented in the case was one of first impression, the underlying facts were fairly straightforward.

A federal grand jury in Florida indicted the defendant for a number of drug offenses. In his federal criminal case, the defendant moved to suppress statements that he had previously given to federal agents before the federal indictment was returned. At the time the statements were made, the defendant was represented by counsel on a pending state charge; the state charge was based upon the same facts that ultimately gave rise to the federal charges.

On appeal, the defendant argued that by questioning him while he was represented on the state matter, the federal agents violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The Court of Appeals disagreed. According to the Eleventh Circuit, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is offense specific. The court acknowledged that there is no question that the defendant’s right to counsel had attached to the state drug charge at the time the federal agents interviewed him. However, the court concluded that because the state and federal charges originated from autonomous sovereigns that each had the authority to define and prosecute criminal conduct, the defendant’s state drug charge was a different offense than his federal drug charges for Sixth Amendment purposes. Therefore, the court concluded that the defendant’s invocation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel for the state drug charge did not attach to the federal offenses which were uncharged at the time of the interview.