United States v. Sandlin

Decision Date10 December 2021
Docket Number21-cr-88 (DLF)
Citation575 F.Supp.3d 16
Parties UNITED STATES of America, v. Ronald SANDLIN, also known as Ronald L. Sandlin, and Nathaniel DeGrave, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Kaitlin Ann Vaillancourt, Assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. Attorney's Office, Washington, DC, for United States of America.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

DABNEY L. FRIEDRICH, United States District Judge

The indictment in this case charges defendants Ronald Sandlin and Nathaniel DeGrave with obstructing an official proceeding of Congress on January 6, 2021, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2). Before the Court is defendant Sandlin's motion to dismiss count two of the superseding indictment, Dkt. 45.1 . For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny the motion.

I. BACKGROUND2

On January 6, 2021, at approximately 1:00 p.m., a joint session of Congress convened at the U.S. Capitol to certify the Electoral College results of the 2020 Presidential Election. Superseding Indictment ¶¶ 4, 7, Dkt. 46. That day, the Capitol building and its exterior plaza were closed to members of the public. Id. ¶ 6. As the Joint Session commenced, a large crowd gathered outside, and U.S. Capitol police attempted to keep the crowd away from the building. Id. ¶ 8. Individuals in the crowd forced their way over police barricades and into the Capitol by breaking windows, ramming doors, and assaulting Capitol police officers. Id. Other members of the crowd encouraged those actions. Id. At approximately 2:20 p.m., members of Congress and Vice President Pence were evacuated from their respective chambers. Id. ¶ 9. The Joint Session was suspended until shortly after 8:00 p.m. Id. ¶ 10.

Before this attack at the U.S. Capitol, Ronald Sandlin and Nathaniel DeGrave made plans to travel to Washington, D.C. together to "stop the steal." Id. ¶ 15. Sandlin asked DeGrave if he was "down for danger," and DeGrave replied that he was "bringing bullet proof clothing." Id. ¶ 16. They drove to the D.C. area on January 5, bringing with them "paramilitary gear, one Glock .43 pistol, an M&P bodyguard pocket pistol, two magazines of ammunition, knives, a handheld taser/stun gun, an expendable baton, walkie talkies, and bear mace." Id. ¶ 22.

On January 6, shortly before the Capitol attack, the defendants recorded a livestream video in which Sandlin said that "freedom is paid for with blood" and "there is going to be violence." Id. ¶ 24. He "urge[d] other patriots" to "take the Capitol." Id. He also said that "we are going to be there back by one o'clock when it is action time[;] it is game time." Id. ¶ 25. As Sandlin and DeGrave approached the Capitol, wearing protective gear and carrying two knives, they recorded another video discussing and encouraging the breach of the Capitol building. Id. ¶¶ 26–27.

Just after 2:00 p.m., the defendants "forcibly stormed past exterior barricades and law enforcement officers, and ignored building alarms, to breach the Capitol." Id. ¶ 28. They pushed several Capitol police officers guarding an exterior door to the Capitol rotunda, thus allowing the mob outside to breach the building. Id. ¶ 29. Sandlin attempted to rip the helmet off one of the officers. Id. They made their way to the Senate Gallery, where they wrestled officers in order to get inside; Sandlin struck one of the officers in the back of his head. Id. ¶ 30. In the Senate Chamber, DeGrave shouted at the rioters to "take laptops, paperwork, take everything." Id. ¶ 31

Sandlin and DeGrave were separately indicted on February 5, 2021. Indictment, No. 21-cr-88, Dkt. 6; No. 21-cr-90, Dkt. 4. On September 15, 2021, the grand jury returned a Superseding Indictment against both defendants on twelve counts. Superseding Indictment, Dkt. 46. Count Two charges the defendants with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2), which criminalizes "corruptly ... obstruct[ing], influenc[ing], or imped[ing] any official proceeding, or attempt[ing] to do so" in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2). Superseding Indictment ¶ 37. The Count also charges them with aiding and abetting that obstruction, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2. Id.

On September 13, 2021, Sandlin moved to dismiss this count. Sandlin's Mot. to Dismiss. On September 15, DeGrave was added as a defendant. And on October 15, he joined Sandlin's motion and filed a reply in support. DeGrave's Reply at 9. The Court heard argument on December 3. The motion is now ripe for resolution.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

Under Rule 7(c)(1), the indictment "must be a plain, concise, and definite written statement of the essential facts constituting the offense charged." Fed. R. Crim. P. 7(c)(1). "[A]n indictment is sufficient if it, first, contains the elements of the offense charged and fairly informs a defendant of the charge against which he must defend, and, second, enables him to plead an acquittal or conviction in bar of future prosecutions for the same offense." Hamling v. United States , 418 U.S. 87, 117, 94 S.Ct. 2887, 41 L.Ed.2d 590 (1974). A defendant may move to dismiss an indictment or count before trial. Fed. R. Crim. P. 12(b)(3)(B). When considering a motion to dismiss, the court "is limited to reviewing the face of the indictment," United States v. Sunia , 643 F. Supp. 2d 51, 60 (D.D.C. 2009), and it assumes the truth of the indictment's factual allegations, United States v. Bowdoin , 770 F. Supp. 2d 142, 145 (D.D.C. 2011). The question for the court is "whether the allegations, if proven, would be sufficient to permit a jury to find that the crimes charged were committed." Id. at 146.

III. ANALYSIS

Count Two of the Superseding Indictment charges Sandlin and DeGrave with obstruction of an official proceeding and aiding and abetting, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1512(c)(2) and 2. Specifically, it states that the defendants "did, corruptly obstruct, influence, and impede, and did, corruptly, attempt to obstruct, influence, and impede an official proceeding, that is a proceeding before Congress, by entering and remaining in the United States Capitol without authority and committing an act of civil disorder, and engaging in disorderly and disruptive conduct." Superseding Indictment ¶ 37. Both defendants move to dismiss Count Two on multiple grounds. They argue that it fails to state an offense, as Congress's certification of the electoral results did not constitute an "official proceeding" and that their alleged conduct did not "obstruct, influence, and impede" the proceeding within the meaning of the statute. Sandlin's Mot. to Dismiss at 2. DeGrave also contends that the term "corruptly" is unconstitutionally vague. See DeGrave's Reply at 7. The Court takes each argument in turn.

A. Failure to State an Offense Under § 1512(c)(2)

In 2002, following the collapse of Enron, Congress enacted a new obstruction provision in Section 1102 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-204, 116 Stat. 745, 807: "Tampering with a record or otherwise impeding an official proceeding." It was codified as subsection (c) of a pre-existing statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1512. Section 1512(c), in full, states:

Whoever corruptly—
(1) alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object, or attempts to do so, with the intent to impair the object's integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding; or
(2) otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so,
shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2).

In their motion, the defendants argue that Count Two fails to state an offense because they understand § 1512(c)(2) to be limited to proceedings that consider and actions related to evidence. In the defendants’ view, Congress did not "have the ability to make decisions based on witness testimony or evidence" during this Joint Session. Sandlin's Mot. to Dismiss at 26. They further argue that the government has not alleged that they did anything to affect "the state and content" of anything Congress might have considered at the Joint Session. Id. at 12. The Court disagrees that § 1512(c)(2) should be construed so narrowly.

1. The Congressional certification is an "official proceeding"

To determine the meaning of "official proceeding," the Court starts, as it must, with the text. See Robinson v. Shell Oil Co. , 519 U.S. 337, 340, 117 S.Ct. 843, 136 L.Ed.2d 808 (1997). Section 1515(a)(1) defines "official proceeding," for purposes of § 1512(c), as:

(A) a proceeding before a judge or court of the United States, a United States magistrate judge, a bankruptcy judge, a judge of the United States Tax Court, a special trial judge of the Tax Court, a judge of the United States Court of Federal Claims, or a Federal grand jury;
(B) a proceeding before the Congress ;
(C) a proceeding before a Federal Government agency which is authorized by law; or
(D) a proceeding involving the business of insurance whose activities affect interstate commerce before any insurance regulatory official or agency or any agent or examiner appointed by such official or agency to examine the affairs of any person engaged in the business of insurance whose activities affect interstate commerce;

18 U.S.C. § 1515(a)(1) (emphasis added).

Thus defined, the meaning of " ‘official proceeding’ depends heavily on the meaning of the word ‘proceeding.’ " United States v. Ermoian , 752 F.3d 1165, 1169 (9th Cir. 2013). The word can be defined broadly, in a "lay" sense, as "[t]he carrying on of an action or series of actions." Proceeding , def. 2a, Oxford English Dictionary (3d ed. 2007); Ermoian , 752 F.3d at 1169. Or it can be understood narrowly, in a "legal" sense, as "[t]he business conducted by a court or other official body; a hearing." Proceeding , def. 4, Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

Although no court has interpreted the phrase "proceeding before the Congress," as it appears in § 1515(a)(1)(B), numerous courts have interpreted the phrase "proceeding before a Federal Government agency...

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