United States v. Michael Heinrich (3rd Cir. June 2020)

The Federal Docket

Appellate Procedure/Evidence – On appeal in cases where the record fails to include an explicit Rule 403 analysis, a reviewing court can either conduct its own balancing test under a de novo standard of review, decide the trial court implicitly performed the required balancing test and review its analysis for abuse of discretion, or remand to the district court to explain its reasoning

Michael Heinrich appealed his conviction after pleading guilty to producing child pornography. On appeal, the Court considered whether the district court had erred in excluding Heinrich’s expert after Heinrich proffered the expert’s proposed testimony. After discussing the issue under Federal Rules of Evidence 704(b) and 403, the district court’s law clerk conducted an unrecorded and un-transcribed telephonic status conference with the attorneys, informing them that the judge intended to exclude the proposed expert testimony under Rule 403, with an opinion coming at a later date.  No formal ruling, order, or opinion was ever docketed.

Rather than proceed to trial, Heinrich pleaded guilty under a conditional plea that allowed him to appeal the district court’s decision.

The Court acknowledged that, in cases where the record fails to include an explicit Rule 403 analysis, it could conduct its own balancing test under a de novo standard of review or decide the trial court implicitly performed the required balancing test and review its analysis for abuse of discretion. Instead, the Court chose to vacate the defendant’s conviction and remand the case back to the district court for an explicit ruling on the exclusion of the defendant’s proposed expert witness.

The Court held that it would refrain from conducting its own balancing test for three reasons: 1) its ability to otherwise review for abuse of discretion was limited by the record, which failed to reflect the district court’s rationale, 2) a district court judge is better positioned “to engage in a thorough Rule 403 analysis” given its exposure to a broader array of the evidence and legal issues in a trial, and 3) the court could not review for abuse of discretion where there was no exercise of discretion by the judge because he failed to issue an actual ruling. The Court noted in a footnote that it has remanded other cases for more thorough Rule 403 analysis when the district court’s analysis was “a mere token effort.”

The Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the District Court for an explicit ruling and documentation of its conclusions and findings. The Court admonished district courts to “articulate their Rule 403 reasoning on the record” and was critical of the district court delegating this task to its law clerk. The Court added that “it is also the responsibility of counsel to ensure that the record is accurate and complete” and stated that counsel in this case “should have insisted” on a formal ruling.

Appeal from the Western District of Pennsylvania

Opinion by Smith, joined by Chagares and Porter

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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