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United States v. Jones

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

July 28, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
MICHAEL JONES, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Michael F. Urbanski, Chief United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the court on defendant Terrance Brown's pro se motion for recusal, ECF No. 439, and a related motion to change venue, ECF No. 431, based on his claim that the undersigned United States District Court judge is biased against gangs.[1] As there is no basis for Brown's assertion, the court will deny the motions.

         I.

         Brown faces charges for RICO conspiracy, drug conspiracy, assault in aid of racketeering, and firearms offenses in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d), 21 U.S.C. § 846, and 18 U.S.C. §§ 1959(a), 924(c), respectively. The government alleges that Brown is a member of the Mad Stone Bloods ("MSB") gang.

         Brown seeks disqualification of the undersigned United States District Court judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 455 and 144. ECF No. 439. He seeks to change venue on the same grounds. ECF No. 431. Brown contends that the undersigned is biased against gang members generally and him personally. He makes two allegations in support of his motion. First, Brown claims that his counsel, Paul Beers, told Brown during a July 9, 2017 consultation that "Judge Michael F. Urbanski does not like gang members, and that Judge Urbanski would hate to have a headline that read Judge Michael F. Urbanski acquits gang member.'" Brown Aff., ECF No. 439-1, at 1. According to Brown, these statements reflect "apparent bias and prejudice toward me, being that Im a documented gang member on a Rico Case." Id. Second, Brown states that in "every court hearing to date inside Judge Urbanski's courtroom, Judge Urbanski doesn't allow me to speak when I ask to. My counsel Mr. Beers wont speak on what I ask him too and Judge Urbanski doesn't allow me to have a voice during this vital time where Im fighting for my freedom against the government." Id. at 1-2.

         II.

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 455(a), a "federal judge is obliged to recuse himself if a person with knowledge of the relevant facts might reasonably question his impartiality." United States v. Cherry, 330 F.3d 658, 665 (4th Cir. 2003) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 455(a)). "This objective standard asks whether the judge's impartiality might be questioned by a reasonable, well-informed observer who assesses all the facts and circumstances." United States v. DeTemple, 162 F.3d 279, 286 (4th Cir. 1998). The standard "does not require a judge to recuse himself because of unsupported, irrational, or highly tenuous speculation." DeTemple, 162 F.3d at 287 (citations and quotations omitted). To require recusal on such speculative grounds "would allow litigants to exercise a negative veto over the assignment of judges." Id.

         In this case, a reasonable, well-informed observer who has assessed all the circumstances would not question the undersigned's impartiality. Brown's allegation that the undersigned "does not like gang members" lacks any foundation in fact. Apparently, it is based upon a private conversation between Brown and his counsel about Brown's ability to obtain a bench trial.

         Brown and Beers have differing recollections of their conversation. Beers recounted at the July 19, 2017 hearing that he told Brown that he had no right to a bench trial because the government was not going to consent. Beers added:

But I said, anyway, what difference would it make? The jury is going to hear very disturbing evidence about a gang called the Bloods and they're not going to like it. Judge Urbanski is not going to like the evidence where - or a finder of fact either. I don't see what difference it makes.

         Brown disagreed, stating at the July 19, 2017 hearing the following:

But Mr. Beers was saying that it wasn't like that at all, that he said, in actuality, Mr. Urbanski is a great judge but he doesn't like gang members. And with him not liking gang members, he would hate the headline that says "Mr. Urbanski acquits gang member." Those were his exact words.

         Conflicting recollections of a private conversation between Brown and his counsel provide no basis for judicial recusal. Under these circumstances, no "reasonable person would have a reasonable basis for questioning the [undersigned's] impartiality." Cherry, 330 F.3d at 665.

         Brown's second set of allegations likewise do not require recusal. During pretrial hearings the court has on occasion instructed Brown to consult with his counsel rather than speak on the record. "A judge's ordinary efforts at courtroom administration-even a stern and short-tempered judge's ordinary efforts at courtroom administration-remain immune and do not establish bias or partiality." United States v. Castner, 50 F.3d 1267, 1274 (4th Cir. 1995) (quoting Liteky v. United States,510 U.S. 540, 556 (1994)): cf. United States v. Piano. 62 F.3d 1180, 1193 (9th Cir. 1995) (Criminal defendants have "no absolute right to serve as co-counsel after electing to be represented by an attorney."). Directing Brown to speak to his lawyer during open ...


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