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United States v. Pearce

June 12, 1986

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE
v.
RONALD T. PEARCE, APPELLANT



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Crim. No. 84-00149-01)

Author: Becker

Before WEIS, HIGGINBOTHAM, BECKER, Circuit Judges.

Opinion OF THE COURT

BECKER, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from a judgment of conviction for criminal contempt in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Appellant Ronald Pearce was convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment for refusing to comply with a court order compelling him to testify before a grand jury. Because Pearce was denied the opportunity to raise the invalidity of the underlying order as a defense, we vacate the conviction and remand for a new trial.

I.

On September 16, 1982, the government and Ronald Pearce executed a plea bargain agreement in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Pearce pled guilty to conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine, 21 U.S.C. § 846 (1982) and attempt to manufacture methamphetamine, id. In return for the plea, the government agreed to drop the charge that Pearce distributed methamphetamine and promised not to prosecute Pearce in the Middle District of Pennsylvania for related crimes. The government also promised not to call Pearce as a witness before a grand jury. Subsequent events reveal that the government understood that the promise not to call Pearce as a witness was restricted to grand juries convened in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, whereas Pearce believed that the promise covered the Middle District of Pennsylvania as well.*fn1 After a hearing pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 11, the district court accepted the plea agreement and, on October 26, 1982, sentenced Pearce to a term of 5 years' imprisonment.

In August 1984, during Pearce's prison term, the government called him to testify before a grand jury sitting in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Believing that Pearce might invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to testify, the government applied for an immunity order pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 6001 (1982). A hearing on the application took place on August 31 in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Pearce testified that the government had promised him that he would not be called to testify before any grand jury. The government countered by arguing that the terms of Pearce's plea agreement had been determined in the case of United States v. Drum, 569 F. Supp. 605 (M.D. Pa. 1983).*fn2

After Pearce's testimony and colloquy among the parties, the district court determined that the government's promise not to call Pearce extended only to the Eastern District. The court granted the immunity order and ordered Pearce to testify, warning him that he faced contempt charges if he defied the order. Later that day, Pearce appeared before the federal grand jury and refused to answer questions on the grounds that his plea arrangement stipulated that he would not have to testify.

On October 11, 1984, the government commenced criminal contempt proceedings against Pearce in the Middle District. Trial was set for November 29, 1984. On November 7, Pearce moved in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for "specific performance" of his plea agreement. On November 13, Pearce moved for postponement of his contempt trial pending a determination by Judge Fullam as to the actual terms of his plea agreement. The district court denied the motion on the grounds that the terms of Pearce's plea bargain were irrelevant to the charge of criminal contempt.

The criminal contempt trial commenced on November 29. The government's case consisted of reading into the record the transcripts of the immunity hearing and the grand jury proceedings. Pearce then moved for a judgment of acquittal. The motion was denied, and the defense rested its case. The jury convicted Pearce of criminal contempt and he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment.

Although Pearce raises several arguments on appeal,*fn3 we see potential merit in only one -- that the district court erred by precluding a defense at the contempt trial based on the invalidity of the underlying order compelling Pearce to testify.*fn4

II.

If the terms of the plea bargain protected Pearce from having to testify, then the order compelling him to testify was invalid. See United States v. Miller, 565 F.2d 1273, 1274 (3d Cir. 1977), cert. denied, 436 U.S. 959, 57 L. Ed. 2d 1125, 98 S. Ct. 3076 (1978) ("It is the rule of this Circuit that the Government must adhere strictly to the terms of the bargain it strikes with defendants."). We are not now faced with the question of the validity of the order. Rather, the question before use is whether Pearce should have been permitted to raise the ...


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