Sweeney v. United States, No. 13-1862 (8th Cir. 2014)Annotate this Case
Petitioner, convicted of charges related to the unauthorized interception of cable service and illegal currency structuring for which he is serving 70 months imprisonment, argued that his Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated when his attorney left the courtroom, with the permission of the district court, to go to the bathroom during the government's direct examination of a co-conspirator. The parties agreed that petitioner's Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated due to counsel's absence but disagree as to the degree of that error and whether harmless-error analysis can apply in light of Cronic v. United States. The court concluded that, although counsel's absence occurred at a "critical stage," the brevity of the absence - 3 minutes - distinguishes this case from the "complete denial of counsel" discussed in Cronic. The court agreed with the district court's reliance on Arizona v. Fulminante in concluding that counsel's brief absence constituted trial error and not a structured defect. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's ruling that the constitutional violation in this case was subject to harmless-error analysis.