538 F.3d 868 (8th Cir. 2008), 07-2514, United States v. Fincher

Docket Nº:07-2514, 07-2888.
Citation:538 F.3d 868
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Hollis Wayne FINCHER, Appellant.
Case Date:August 13, 2008
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

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538 F.3d 868 (8th Cir. 2008)

UNITED STATES of America, Appellee,


Hollis Wayne FINCHER, Appellant.

Nos. 07-2514, 07-2888.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit.

August 13, 2008

Submitted: March 10, 2008.

Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc Denied Sept. 25, 2008.[*]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Quentin M. Rhoades, argued, Missoula, MT, for appellant.

Wendy L. Johnson, AUSA, argued, Fort Smith, AR, for appellee.

Before WOLLMAN, BOWMAN, and MELLOY, Circuit Judges.

WOLLMAN, Circuit Judge.

Hollis Wayne Fincher was convicted by a jury on one count of possession of a machine gun, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(o), 924(a)(2), and one count of possession of an unregistered sawed-off shotgun, in violation of 26 U.S.C. §§ 5841, 5861(d), and 5871. Fincher does not dispute that he possessed these guns or that he did so without a license. He appeals his conviction, however, arguing that he has the right to possess these weapons under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution because his possession has some reasonable relationship to the maintenance of a well regulated militia. Fincher also challenges the district court's determination that he is not eligible for court appointed counsel and challenges the district court's request to resentence him. We affirm the conviction and remand the issue of Fincher's eligibility for court appointed counsel to the district court for further inquiry.

I. Second Amendment

A. Background

Before Fincher's trial began, the government became aware of Fincher's intention

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to argue to the jury that his possession of guns was protected under the Second Amendment. Because that issue is a matter of law, the government filed a motion in limine asking the district court to prevent Fincher from arguing matters of law to the jury. After hearing oral argument on the motion, the district court granted the motion in part and denied it in part. In doing so, the district court stated that matters of law are “quintessentially within the province of the judge and not matters to be addressed to the jury." Nevertheless, the district court stated that it would allow Fincher to present evidence outside the presence of the jury that under United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 59 S.Ct. 816, 83 L.Ed. 1206 (1939), and United States v. Hale, 978 F.2d 1016 (8th Cir.1992), his possession of the guns was reasonably related to a well regulated militia.

At the close of the government's case, Fincher moved for judgment of acquittal. The district court denied the motion, stating that it was based on an attack on the law and not the evidence, and that under Hale, 978 F.2d 1016, the fact that a particular weapon may be susceptible to military use does not by itself establish a Second Amendment right to possess the weapon.

During his case-in-chief, Fincher presented his own testimony, which the district court heard in camera. Fincher testified that he possessed the guns as part of his membership in the Washington County Militia (“WCM" ), an organization he helped found in 1994. He testified that the purpose of the WCM is to ensure the militia can operate as effectively militarily as possible in a time of state emergency and that the WCM has regular meetings and training sessions for its members. Fincher testified that between seven and nine individuals attend any given meeting of the WCM, though it is not always the same individuals in attendance. The WCM does not maintain a roster of its members or an inventory of weapons.

The WCM is not a secret organization. In fact, along with the other members of the WCM, Fincher wrote and sent letters to federal agencies via certified mail informing them of the WCM's existence and attempting to put them on notice that the WCM was lawful under state law. Fincher also sent at least one letter to the governor of Arkansas, informing him about the WCM, seeking approval, and stating that the governor's failure to object to the WCM's declaration would provide affirmation that the state of Arkansas did not object to the WCM. Fincher denied receiving a letter from the governor stating that the state records did not contain any reference to the WCM and that no such organization was registered with, or sanctioned by, the office of the governor or the state of Arkansas.

In addition to sending written notice of the WCM to various governmental offices, Fincher invited local sheriffs to view the WCM facilities and weapons. Fincher also told state officials that the WCM possessed machine guns, which the public could observe at any one of the three annual picnics sponsored by the WCM, and he showed the machine guns to at least one sheriff. Fincher also testified about how the weapons used by the WCM were chosen and stored, some at the WCM facility and others at the individual members' residences.

When asked about the procedures for activating the WCM in the case of an emergency, Fincher stated that if an emergency occurred while he was the commander of the WCM, he would contact “the sheriff if-if I was able, you know, depending on the emergency, or the governor, or probably any other-or maybe the mayor of a city or any-anyone or no one. If there was an emergency that had to be

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taken care of, we have the right to preserve life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. We have the duty to. You don't stand around and wait for someone to tell you you can protect your life or perform emergency medical assistance or put out a fire. These are natural offices of the people." He also testified that the state could call up the militia at any point, and that even though the written notices that WCM sent to various governmental offices did not contain any phone numbers or other direct contact information, the governor would know how to contact them.

The district court ruled that Fincher's proffered testimony would not be admitted because the WCM, despite its attempts to receive state recognition, was an unorganized and unregulated militia and therefore, as a matter of law, did not fall within the auspices of the Second Amendment. The district court also noted that even if the WCM was a state-sponsored or state-connected militia, there was no evidence that the person in charge of that militia would determine that possession of machine guns or sawed-off shotguns was necessary to the preservation of a well regulated militia.

B. Discussion

Fincher asserts that the district court erred by not allowing the jury to determine whether his possession of firearms was reasonably related to a well regulated militia and therefore protected by the Second Amendment. We review a district court's grant of a motion in limine for abuse of discretion, Robinson v. Potter, 453 F.3d 990, 995 (8th Cir.2006), and we accord it great deference on evidentiary rulings such as the admissibility of proffered testimony, United States v. Wilson, 103 F.3d 1402, 1406 (8th Cir.1997). We review de novo the district court's legal conclusions, such as whether possession of firearms in relation to membership in a non-state-sponsored militia is protected by the Second Amendment. United States v. Lippman, 369 F.3d 1039, 1043 (8th Cir.2004).

The role of the jury is to decide facts, not legal issues. United States v. Peck, 161 F.3d 1171, 1174 (8th Cir.1998). Accordingly, the district court did not err in prohibiting Fincher from arguing or presenting evidence regarding a question of law to the jury.

We turn to the question whether the district court erred by concluding that Fincher's possession of the guns did not fall within the protection of the Second Amendment. We conclude that the district court's determination that the WCM was not affiliated with the state militia and therefore not subject to the protections of the Second Amendment under Miller and Hale is well supported by the record.

Fincher contends that our decision in Hale, 978 F.2d 1016, established an affirmative defense to the charge of unlawful possession of firearms. In Hale, we stated that the possession of firearms is not protected unless the possession bears a reasonable relationship to a well regulated militia. 978 F.2d at 1020; see also United States v. Pfeifer, 371 F.3d 430, 438 (8th Cir.2004) (citing Hale ); United States v. Farrell, 69 F.3d 891, 894 (8th Cir.1995) (same). Although the WCM is not a secretive organization and has held relatively regular training sessions and meetings over the years, we stated in Hale that “ ‘[t]echnical’ membership in a state militia (e.g., membership in an ‘unorganized’ state militia) or membership in a non-governmental military organization is not sufficient to satisfy the ‘reasonable relationship’ test." Hale, 978 F.2d at 1020 (citing United States v. Oakes, 564 F.2d 384, 387 (10th Cir.1977)). In Arkansas, the state militia is defined as:

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(a) The militia shall be divided into two (2) parts: the organized, consisting of the active and inactive Army National Guard and Air National Guard; and the unorganized, consisting of all those persons of the militia not in the active or inactive Army National Guard or the Air National Guard.

(b) The militia shall consist of all able-bodied male residents of the state between the ages of seventeen (17) and forty-five (45) years who are, or intend to become, citizens of the United States, unless exempt by law, together with all other acceptable volunteers, waiving necessary requirements.

Ark.Code. Ann. § 12-61-101 (emphasis added). Thus, despite WCM's attempts to contact the governor's office and become an organized state militia, the district court correctly concluded that Fincher's testimony, even if believed by the jury, would not support his Second Amendment argument because Fincher is not a member of an organized state militia. Rather, Fincher's testimony established that the WCM was an “unorganized" militia because it is not the Army National Guard or the Air...

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