Rogers v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: United States Department of State

DOCKET NO.: 96-1279
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 522 US 252 (1998)
ARGUED: Nov 05, 1997
DECIDED: Jan 14, 1998

Jonathan E. Nuechterlein - Argued the cause for the respondent
Javier H. Rubinstein - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

After searching his truck, Florida police arrested and charged George Rogers with knowingly possessing an unregistered firearm and a silencer. Rogers admitted during his arrest and trial that he knew he was in possession of a silencer. Nonetheless, he requested the District Court to instruct the jury to define the Government's burden of establishing "knowing possession" as proof that he deliberately possessed an item that he not only knew to be a "firearm," but that he knew such possession was illegal. Following the court's refusal of his instruction request, Rogers was convicted. On appeal from the Eleventh Circuit's decision to affirm the lower court's ruling, the Supreme Court granted Rogers certiorari.


Does a lower court's refusal to grant a jury instruction, the substance of which is confessed to and acknowledged by the defendant, grounds for a grant of certiorari to the Supreme Court?

Media for Rogers v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 05, 1997 in Rogers v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 96-1279, George C. Rogers v. The United States.

Mr. Rubinstein.

Javier H. Rubinstein:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The question before the Court in this case is whether the removal of an element by the trial court of an essential element of the crime with which a defendant is charged from the jury's consideration is the type of error that can be subject to harmless error scrutiny even if the defendant admitted the element by his testimony.

We urge this Court to hold that it is not.

In this case, it is undisputed that the trial court completely removed from the jury's consideration an element of the offenses with which petitioner was charged.

Although the court of appeals recognized that there was an incomplete verdict, it nonetheless held that the error was subject to harmless error scrutiny because the trial court removed only one element of the offense.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, when you say an incomplete verdict, you don't mean that the verdict formed was incomplete, do you?

Javier H. Rubinstein:

What we mean is that the jury... what the jury found, the elements that the jury found do not constitute a crime, that the jury did not render a verdict on every element.

William H. Rehnquist:

Let's take a look and... are you saying that the form of the jury verdict didn't comply with law?

Javier H. Rubinstein:

Well, in the sense that every element of the offense charged was not included.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, but that isn't in the form of a jury... that isn't in an ordinary jury verdict, that they find every element of the offense, is it?

They simply find a person guilty or not guilty.

Javier H. Rubinstein:

That is true.

William H. Rehnquist:

And that was done here, was it not?

Javier H. Rubinstein:

Yes, except that it was done in the context of jury instructions that did not instruct the jury--

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, yes, but that's a little different than saying the jury rendered a flawed verdict in the sense of some defect in the form of the verdict.

Javier H. Rubinstein:

--Our contention is not with respect to the actual form.

It is with respect to the fact that, as this Court held in Gaudin, a verdict of guilty necessarily means a verdict that the defendant is guilty of every element of the crime with which he is charged, and in this case it is undisputed that the... one of the elements of that crime was explicitly removed by the trial court from the jury's consideration.

It is in that respect, and as this Court explained in Gaudin, without an element... without a jury finding on each element of the crime with which the defendant is charged, there is no verdict within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment, and if there is no verdict within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment, as this Court held in Sullivan there is no object upon which the harmless error doctrine--

William H. Rehnquist:

In Sullivan the failure wasn't to give an instruction about reasonable doubt, was it not?

Javier H. Rubinstein:

--Yes, it was.

William H. Rehnquist:

And there, one could say that the jury had not found anything the way it should have.

Javier H. Rubinstein:

Actually, in our view the error in this case provides an even clearer example of the type of error that cannot be subject to harmless error scrutiny than was present in Sullivan.

As The Chief Justice Rehnquist pointed out in his concurring opinion in Sullivan, at least in that case the jury, there could be room for some argument as to whether or not the defective reasonable doubt instruction impacted the jury's deliberations, whereas... and in the concurring opinion, Your Honor drew a distinction with the case in which an element is explicitly removed.

In the case of an element that is taken away from the jury, there is no room for speculation, because it is clear that the jury did not, in fact, render a complete verdict within the meaning of the Constitution.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, I have trouble with your present articulation of the question, too.

You seem to be shoe-horning it into an incomplete verdict argument, but I thought the question presented related to the failure of the court to give an instruction, and all of a sudden we're hearing some new articulation.

I don't know why you're doing that.

Is it to try to get it into some other case or something?