Law School Case Brief
United States v. Pierotti - 777 F.3d 917 (7th Cir. 2015)
Before including an ostrich instruction, a district court must ensure that two preconditions are satisfied: first, the defendant must be claiming a lack of guilty knowledge; and second, there must be evidence in the record that would permit a jury to conclude that the defendant deliberately avoided learning the truth. The instruction should not be given lightly, lest it lead the jury to believe that it may convict the defendant solely on the basis of his negligence. Deliberate avoidance as described in an ostrich instruction comes in two forms: physical and psychological. The former is simple enough, as it involves a defendant's going out of her way to avoid seeing or learning something she knows will confirm that her actions are illegal. Psychological avoidance, in contrast, is often defined as the cutting off of one's normal curiosity by an effort of will; it does not encompass ordinary ignorance or lack of curiosity. The district court is permitted to investigate the context of a defendant's actions. That inquiry can inform its assessment of whether the evidence would permit the jury to infer that a defendant deliberately avoided the truth about her criminal activity, and hence acted "knowingly."
Defendant David Pierotti decided to buy a .243-caliber Remington rifle at his local Walmart. There, a clerk asked him to sit down at a computer to fill out an electronic version of ATF form 4473, a required step in the firearm-purchase process. The form asked whether the purchaser has ever been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. Pierotti's initial response to this question was "Yes," which was correct; in 2011, he was convicted in Wisconsin of misdemeanor battery against his then-fiancée. A window popped up advising him to review his answers. He then changed his response to only one question—the one about domestic-violence misdemeanors—and submitted the form again. Pierotti's incorrect answer prompted the government to prosecute him for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6), which makes it a federal crime knowingly to make false statements in connection with the purchase of a firearm. At the trial, Pierotti's incorrect answer prompted the government to prosecute him for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6), which makes it a federal crime knowingly to make false statements in connection with the purchase of a firearm. It included the ostrich instruction, which informs the jury that one way to find that the defendant acted "knowingly" is if he strongly suspected his statement was false and deliberately avoided the truth in making it. The jury found Pierotti guilty. On appeal, Pierotti argued that district court erred as a matter of law by giving the ostrich instruction and argued that the facts could not support a finding that he deliberately avoided knowledge in the manner the instruction described.
Did the district court abuse its discretion in providing the ostrich instruction, and was defendant entitled to a new trial?
The court affirmed the conviction of Pierotti. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in providing an ostrich instruction on the definition of the word "knowingly" in 18 U.S.C.S. § 922(a)(6). The court stated that before including an ostrich instruction, a district court had to ensure that two preconditions were satisfied: first, the defendant had to be claiming a lack of guilty knowledge; and second, there had to be evidence in the record that would permit a jury to conclude that the defendant deliberately avoided learning the truth. The court concluded that Pierotti’s admitted knowledge of his prior crime of misdemeanor battery, his initial "Yes" answer to a question regarding misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence, his decision not to read the readily available instructions, and his decision to change the answer to "No" provided an adequate predicate for the district court to give the instruction.
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