543 F.2d 1247 (9th Cir. 1976), 76-1317, United States v. Harris

Docket Nº:76-1317.
Citation:543 F.2d 1247
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. John Michael HARRIS, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:September 23, 1976
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

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543 F.2d 1247 (9th Cir. 1976)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,


John Michael HARRIS, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 76-1317.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

September 23, 1976

Eugene D. Seligmann (argued), of Fishel & Seligmann, Seattle, Wash., for defendant-appellant.

Peter Mair, Asst. U. S. Atty. (argued), Seattle, Wash., for plaintiff-appellee.

Before ELY and CHOY, Circuit Judges, and ORRICK, [*] District Judge.

ORRICK, District Judge:

The only issue raised in this appeal is the propriety of the long-standing administrative practice of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of routinely destroying rough interview notes taken by agents in the course of a criminal investigation after the information contained in the

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notes is incorporated in a more formal interview report. We reject the contention of the government that the good-faith destruction of rough notes in accordance with normal agency procedure is justifiable. Notes taken by FBI agents in interviews either with prospective government witnesses or, as in this case, with the accused, constitute potentially discoverable materials. See, United States v. Harrison, 524 F.2d 421 (1975); United States v. Johnson, 521 F.2d 1318 (9th Cir. 1975); United States v. Lewis,167 U.S.App.D.C. 232, 511 F.2d 798 (1975). Since the routine disposal of potentially producible materials by the FBI amounts to a usurpation of the judicial function of determining what evidence must be produced in a criminal case, we hold that such original or rough interview notes must be preserved. However, under the circumstances of this case, we conclude that the destruction of the rough notes of an FBI agent's interview with the appellant herein, John Michael Harris, was harmless error. Accordingly, we AFFIRM the conviction below.


Appellant was convicted after a jury trial of making a threat by use of the telephone in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 844(e). 1 The facts adduced at trial indicate that a threat to bomb the Federal Building in Seattle, Washington, was made by a male caller at about 1:30 a. m. on September 23, 1975. The call was made to a telephone operator who traced the call to 824-3091. An earlier hostile call had also been placed from the same number to another operator shortly before the bomb threat was received. Appellant resided at the house to which the calls were traced. The testimony of several witnesses placed appellant at the house at the time the threatening calls were allegedly made. 2 Harris took the stand in his own behalf. He stated that he was out drinking on the night in question and returned home intoxicated. He denied making any threatening calls, but he indicated that he did attempt to call his mother upon his return home.

An FBI agent who interviewed Harris on the afternoon of September 23 also testified as to certain statements made by the appellant at the interview about his activities on the night of the telephone calls. None of the statements could be regarded as incriminating. However, the testimony of the agent did contradict the testimony of other witnesses, including appellant, as to the timing of the events in question. The recollections attributed to Harris by the agent also differed from testimony of the appellant and several defense witnesses as to what happened on September 23. 3 The

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agent further testified that he took rough notes at the interview with Harris. These notes were incorporated into a more complete report of the interview on the FBI's Interview Report Form FD-302 (302 report) and then discarded pursuant to FBI policy. The 302 report was turned over to the appellant prior to trial.


The only issue pressed on appeal is whether the destruction of the interview notes made by the FBI agent in an interview with the appellant following the incident in question violates the Jencks Act (18 U.S.C. § 3500) and/or Rule 16 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The good faith of the FBI or any of its agents is not challenged herein. 4 Nevertheless, the appellant claims prejudicial error in the failure of the FBI agent to preserve and disclose his rough interview notes notwithstanding the fact that the agent's 302 report was supplied. Appellant contends that the destruction of the rough notes foreclosed any inquiry into possible discrepancies between the original impressions of the agent and the more studied description of the interview contained in the 302 report and, therefore, limited cross-examination of the agent as to any comments attributed to the appellant by the agent.

At trial, Harris objected to the destruction of the notes, and moved to strike the testimony of the agent on the ground that the government failed to comply with the Jencks Act when it failed to produce the notes made by the FBI agent during the interview with Harris. The motion was denied by the trial court.

The Jencks Act prohibits the pretrial discovery of statements made by prospective government witnesses. If the witness testifies on direct examination at trial, however, the Act requires the government to produce any previously-made statement of the witness in its possession insofar as it relates to the testimony at trial. 5 The Jencks Act, by its terms, narrowly defines "statements" as writings signed or adopted by the witness and accounts which are "a substantially verbatim recital" of a witness' oral statements. 18 U.S.C. § 3500(e). 6

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The issue of whether handwritten or rough interview notes taken by a government agent during a criminal investigation constitute producible Jencks Act "statements" has been extensively litigated. See, United States v. Harrison, supra, 524 F.2d at 430-431 n. 25. This Circuit recently reaffirmed the view that notes and reports of government agents made in the course of a criminal investigation may be subject to production under the Jencks Act if the agent testifies at trial. United States v. Johnson, supra, 521 F.2d at 1319; see also, United States v. McSweaney, 507 F.2d 298 (9th Cir. 1974).

In Johnson, the trial court refused to order production of a government agent's handwritten notes of an interview with the defendant at the time of arrest. The agent had testified at trial and the defendant sought the notes the agent had taken at the interview, arguing that the notes constituted a producible statement of the agent himself under the Jencks Act because they had been "adopted or approved" by him. The trial judge ruled that the provision of the agent's case report was enough to satisfy the requirements of the Jencks Act. This Court held that the trial judge erred in refusing to make further inquiry into the producibility of the agent's notes. The Court stated that judicial inquiry into whether the notes constituted producible Jencks Act statements was warranted notwithstanding the agent's testimony that all the information contained in the notes was transferred to the case report. This Court emphasized that the notes would be producible even if it affirmatively appeared that the entire contents of the notes were included in a document which was turned over to the defense. Moreover, it stressed that it is a judicial function to determine the issue of producibility. United States v. Johnson, supra, 521 F.2d at 1319-1320.

In light of Johnson, we reject the government's contention that this case is controlled by Ogden v. United States, 323 F.2d 818 (9th Cir. 1963), cert. denied, 376 U.S. 973, 84 S.Ct. 1137, 12 L.Ed.2d 86 (1964) (Ogden II ). In that case, the court stated that the destruction of interview notes in accordance with normal administrative practice and for normal administrative purposes unrelated to the suppression of evidence does not justify sanctions, or a new trial, where the same material is made available to the defendant in the form of a signed statement by the witness or an interview report. 7 The Court left open the issue of whether sanctions would be appropriate where the destruction was in bad faith or the information was not preserved in some other form.

We do not believe that Ogden II marks a judicial imprimatur on the routine destruction

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of all rough interview notes. In the first place, Ogden II focused on the government's obligations to produce Jencks Act statements; it did not consider other independent bases requiring the preservation of evidence in a criminal case. See, United States v. Harrison, supra, 524 F.2d at 431. Moreover, it seems obvious that a court cannot perform the inquiry mandated by Johnson into whether the notes are producible if the notes are no longer in existence. Since Johnson clearly points out that the decision of what evidence must be produced rests with the court, not the prosecutor or the FBI, it compels a holding that the notes must be preserved. But see, Wilke v. United States, 422 F.2d 1298 (9th Cir. 1970).

Although the FBI practice of destroying rough interview notes has generally been sanctioned by the courts in cases involving Jencks Act issues, several opinions have been critical of such action. See, e. g., United States v. Thomas, 282 F.2d 191, 194 (2d Cir. 1960); United States v. Johnson, 337 F.2d 180, 201-202 (4th Cir. 1964), aff'd, 383 U.S. 169, 86 S.Ct. 749, 15 L.Ed.2d 681 (1966). 8 Indeed, the danger inherent in permitting the routine destruction of original notes was recently recognized by this Circuit in United States v. Carrasco, No. 75-3223, 537 F.2d 372 (9th Cir. 1976). There the Court noted that:

"It may be that the agent * * * who adapts a final report from preliminary memoranda will tailor his observations to fit his conclusions * * *." United States v. Carrasco, supra, at 7. 9

The shortcomings of the Ogden II approach were recently observed in the thorough opinion of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in United States v. Harrison, supra. In Harrison, the court refused to follow those cases where the...

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