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Case Summary: Carter; Authentication of Database Records discussed

Posted by rjbiii on March 8, 2010

United States v. Carter, 591 F.3d 656 (D.C. Cir. 2010)

Procedural History: Appeal by a criminal defendant of a of a 150-month sentence imposed by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia upon entry of his guilty plea to five counts of bank robbery.

Facts: At trial, Defendant plead guilty to charges associated with five robberies committed in the Washington, D.C. area. He was sentenced to 150 months in prison. The sentence was significantly affected by the district court’s finding that his criminal history included four theft convictions in Maryland. Carter appealed, challenging the admissibility of the evidence underlying the court’s finding.

Nature of the Dispute: At the sentencing hearing, the State produced Maryland state court records of the disputed convictions. These records were in the form of paper printouts of entries from the District Court of Maryland Criminal System Inquiry Charge/Disposition Display database. The entries for each conviction included Carter’s name, other identifying characteristics, the charge, the case number, the plea, the disposition, and the sentence. The Maryland court clerk’s office certified each printout. Carter objected to the sufficiency of the evidence, arguing that the possibility of data-entry errors rendered the computer records inherently unreliable. He suggested the government needed to produce a copy of the “actual court jacket” for each proceeding to prove the prior convictions. The district court offered to postpone the hearing to give Carter an opportunity to present contrary evidence. Carter declined. The district court then concluded that the printouts were reliable evidence of Defendant’s convictions in Maryland.

Issue at Appeal: When seeking a sentence enhancement, the government must prove a prior conviction by a preponderance of the evidence. Carter argued the printouts the government proffered were insufficient to meet this burden because they are unreliable.

Discussion: The court cited sec. 6A1.3 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual (2008) for the proposition that [e]vidence is competent to support factual findings at sentencing if it bears “sufficient indicia of reliability to support its probable accuracy.” The court stated that under the advisory’ committee’s notes for FRE 803(8), certified records of a state court are considered presumptively reliable. The reliability of public records is “found in the declarant’s official duty and the high probability that the duty to make an accurate report has been performed.”

In challenging the records’ reliability, Carter cited no case holding certified records from a state court’s disposition database insufficient to support a finding of a prior conviction by a preponderance of the evidence, and the court continued that it was unaware of any such holding.

Carter argued, however, that the records could not be reliable, because there was no assurance that they conformed to the official case files or signed judgments of conviction. The court acknowledged that there existed a possibility of human error. But this does not warrant the conclusion that these records were inherently unreliable. A defendant must have the opportunity to refute records, an opportunity offered to, and declined by, Carter.

For the first time on appeal, Defendant pointed to a discrepancy between the computer record corresponding to his 1998 theft conviction and the Presentence Investigation Report’s description of the same offense. Alleging no other inaccuracies in the records, Carter presented this discrepancy as demonstrative evidence of their general unreliability. The court was not convinced by this argument, reasoning that a single alleged inaccuracy does not introduce clear error into the district court’s holding in favor reliability.

The court noted that in this case, the discrepancy, even if it truly existed, would not have changed the result of the calculation upon which the sentence was based. Therefore, even in the event that the discrepancy exists, this single inaccuracy does not introduce clear error into the district court’s conclusion, or reversible error into its calculations for sentencing.

Carter attempted to discredit the records, noting that some information they contain were truncated. The records do not cite the statute under which Carter was convicted, and Carter suggested that these omissions render the records inadequate for the purposes for which they were used by the lower court. The court was not persuaded, reasoning that these records contained information sufficient for the district court’s need.

Carter also argued that the decision in United States v. Price, 409 F.3d 436, 366 U.S. App. D.C. 166 (D.C. Cir. 2005) precluded the district court’s conclusion that the records were reliable. The Price court concluded that this unadorned reference was insufficient to “demonstrate that the description in the [PSR] is based on a sufficiently reliable source to establish [its] accuracy.” The court, however, maintained that Carter had interpreted Price too broadly. The Price court did not have before it any specific documentation supporting the alleged convictions, unlike the case here. The court did not describe what information its hypothesized docket listing contained or whether the docket listing was an officially certified court record. Here, the sentencing court had before it certified records with information sufficient to identify the defendant and make the necessary criminal history calculation. It did not rely simply on an unadorned PSR reference to state court records; it had the records themselves.

Because the district court did not err in concluding the certified computer records of the Maryland courts were sufficient to prove his prior convictions, the appellate court affirmed Carter’s sentence.

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