Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Neither AUSA Nor Lawyer Be: "Many Great Trial Lawyers Are...Outright Narcissists"

A criminal conviction has been affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

After wrecking his car, Joseph Ziegler falsely claimed to be an Assistant United States Attorney to avoid charges and retrieve his impounded car. The real United States Attorney prosecuted him for impersonating a federal officer. Though not a lawyer, Ziegler waived his right to counsel and represented himself at trial. The jury convicted him. Ziegler now claims that the district court erred in permitting Ziegler to represent himself because he was incapable of doing so and because the district court failed to make necessary inquiries into his mental competency to waive counsel. He also argues the evidence does not show that he “acted” as a federal officer. We review both issues deferentially and find no error. The district judge thoughtfully evaluated Ziegler’s request to waive counsel and represent himself. Having observed Ziegler firsthand, the district court did not abuse its discretion in permitting Ziegler to waive his right to counsel and represent himself. And the jury’s guilty verdict is supported by the evidence. So we affirm.

He had been seen speeding by a county deputy sheriff who pursued him until he had crashed. He refused a field test.

Ziegler said that he would rather go to jail than deal with the inquiries because the charges would be dropped. He explained this was inevitable because he was an Assistant United States Attorney working for Mike Stuart (the district’s United States Attorney). Ziegler claimed that the deputies did not have jurisdiction to detain him; that he did not need a driver’s license to drive in a state where he did not reside; and that he had been pulled over multiple times over thirty years and “gotten out of all of them” because he was an Assistant United States Attorney.

At the courthouse

At the courthouse, Ziegler told a magistrate assistant, “I’m an Assistant U.S. Attorney and I should not be here.” J.A. 481. Ziegler then spoke to the magistrate judge during his initial appearance, explaining that he was an “Assistant U.S. Attorney” and wanted to represent himself.

He posted bond

Ziegler then went to talk to the state prosecutor, who explained he could not speak to him without his attorney. Ziegler again claimed he was an Assistant United States Attorney working with Mike Stuart on special assignment and would represent himself. Despite the state prosecutor’s request to end the conversation, Ziegler continued to talk about his case and his constitutional rights. Ziegler also demanded help getting his car back from the impound. The state prosecutor interrupted several times to ask for his supervisor’s name, but Ziegler refused to answer beyond claiming he worked for “Mike Stuart.” The state prosecutor then contacted the United States Attorney’s Office and learned that Ziegler was not an Assistant United States Attorney.

On appeal

Ziegler raises two issues on appeal. And we affirm the district court on both. First, Ziegler argues that the district court erred in permitting him to waive counsel. But we find the district court properly addressed Ziegler’s request to represent himself. Second, Ziegler argues that he did not “act” as a federal official when he claimed to be an Assistant United States Attorney to several deputies and to the tow-shop owner to get his car back. But a reasonable jury could find sufficient evidence that Ziegler acted as an Assistant United States Attorney in both instances and thus find him guilty.

A passing grade

Ziegler’s performance during trial only confirmed his competency. Ziegler gave an opening and closing argument, conducted far-reaching cross-examinations, introduced evidence, including three witnesses, and won several objections. While Ziegler continued to make some bizarre statements and mistakes, those occurrences related more to a lack of training and experience, which is to be expected of any non-lawyer, than to concerns about  competency. In fact, Ziegler did quite well for someone proceeding pro se. His apparent ability to consider strategic choices, develop a defense strategy, and operate in the courtroom is all evidence of competence to both stand trial and waive the right to counsel.

Attention trial lawyers

Still, Ziegler contends that his grandiose statements about his legal acumen, his combative approach to witnesses, his bizarre questions and theories, and his arguments with the court should have raised red flags. We disagree. Many great trial lawyers are combative and a bit full of themselves, if not outright narcissists. And “persons of unquestioned competence have espoused ludicrous legal positions.” 

Ya think?

WSAZ3 had a story on the conviction

A Michigan man who falsely claimed he worked for U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart got an opportunity to meet the federal prosecutor in southern West Virginia for the first time, in court.

“This guy doesn’t work for me and is clearly not the type of person who could ever work for me. First – not smart. Second – an absolute fraudster. Finally – an absolute fake,” ” said Stuart.

(Mike Frisch)


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