United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667 (1980)

Author: Justice Stewart

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United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667 (1980)


A federal indictment was returned charging the respondent, who had previously been convicted of a felony, with unlawfully receiving a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(h)(1). Before the trial, the respondent filed in the District Court a motion to suppress various incriminating statements he had made to agents of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.{1} Pursuant to the Federal Magistrates Act (Act), 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1),{2} the District Judge referred this motion to a Magistrate, who held an evidentiary hearing and then recommended that the respondent’s motion be denied. Without taking further evidence, the District Judge accepted the Magistrate’s recommendation and denied the motion to suppress. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the respondent was constitutionally entitled to a hearing by the judge before his suppression motion could be denied. Today this Court reverses that judgment. I dissent, because I believe that the statute itself required a hearing before the judge in this case.

The statute provides that a district judge, in ruling on a motion to suppress,

shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the [magistrate’s] report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.

28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) (emphasis added). It is my view that the judge could not make the statutorily required "de novo determination" of the critically contested factual issues in this case without personally observing the demeanor of the witnesses.

At the hearing before the Magistrate, the respondent testified that he had made the incriminating statements to the federal agents only because they promised that he would not be prosecuted if he cooperated, and offered to employ him as an informer. The agents gave a different version of the relevant events. They expressly testified that at no time was the respondent ever told that he would not be prosecuted. Instead, according to the agents, he was simply told that any assistance he might provide would be mentioned to the United States Attorney. Their story also undermined the respondent’s testimony that he had been offered employment as an informer before he made the incriminating statements.

If the respondent’s testimony was true, his motion to suppress evidence of his incriminating statements should have been granted. See Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 7; Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532, 542-543. The Magistrate, however, did not believe him, expressly finding that "the testimony of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent[s is] more credible" and that the "Federal agents never advised Raddatz that charges against him would be dismissed, if he cooperated." In concluding for this reason that the motion should be denied, the Magistrate properly exercised the authority granted him by 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) "to submit . . . proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition" of the suppression motion. But the Act also empowered the respondent to object to these findings. He did so, and the responsibility then devolved on the District Judge to "make a de novo determination" of the contested issues of fact.

The phrase "de novo determination" has an accepted meaning in the law. It means an independent determination of a controversy that accords no deference to any prior resolution of the same controversy. Thus, in Renegotiation Board v. Bannercraft Clothing Co., 415 U.S. 1, 23, the Court had occasion to define "de novo proceeding" as a review that was

unfettered by any prejudice from the [prior] agency proceeding and free from any claim that the [agency’s] determination is supported by substantial evidence.{3}

And in United States v. First City National Bank, 386 U.S. 361, 368, this Court observed that "review de novo" means "that the court should make an independent determination of the issues" and should "not . . . give any special weight to the [prior] determination of" the administrative agency.{4}

Here, the District Judge was faced with a transcript that contained two irreconcilable accounts of the critical facts. Neither version was intrinsically incredible or, for that matter, less plausible on its face than the other. Moreover, there was in the record no evidence inherently more trustworthy than that supported by human recollection. In these circumstances, the District Judge could not make the statutorily mandated "de novo determination" without being exposed to the one kind of evidence that no written record can ever reveal -- the demeanor of the witnesses.{5} In declining to conduct a hearing in this case, the District Judge thus necessarily gave the Magistrate’s prior assessment of credibility the kind of "special weight" that the "de novo determination" standard does not permit.

Contrary to the Court’s assertion, nothing in the legislative history of the 1976 amendments to the Federal Magistrates Act compels a different conclusion. Congress, to be sure, explicitly rejected a version of the ultimately enacted bill that would have required a district judge always to "hear de novo" those aspects of the case whose proposed resolution by the magistrate dissatisfied one or more of the parties. Compare S.Rep. No. 9625, p. 2 (1976) (hereinafter S.Rep.) (bill as reported by Senate Committee on the Judiciary), with S. 1283, 94th Cong., 1st Sess. (1975) (bill as originally introduced by Senator Burdick). Moreover, as the Court points out, the Report of the House Judiciary Committee says that "[t]he use of the words `de novo determination’ is not intended to require the judge to actually conduct a new hearing on contested issues." H.R.Rep. No. 91609, p. 3 (1976) (hereinafter H.R.Rep.).

Other passages in the legislative history, however, make clear that these indications of legislative intent comport with the plain language of the statute. As the Senate and House Reports emphasize, "the ultimate adjudicatory power over" suppression and other dispositive motions is to be "exercised by [a district] judge . . . after receiving assistance from and the recommendation of the magistrate." S.Rep. at 10; H.R.Rep. at 11. Thus, according to the House Report, a district judge, "in making the ultimate determination of the matter, would have to give fresh consideration to those issues to which specific objection has been made by a party." Id. at 3 (emphasis supplied). The Report describes this responsibility as follows:

Normally, the judge . . . will consider the record which has been developed before the magistrate and make his own determination on the basis of that record. . . . In some specific instances, however, it may be necessary for the judge . . . to take additional evidence, recall witnesses. . . .

Ibid. (emphasis supplied) . See also 122 Cong.Rec. 35182 (1976) (Rep. Railsback). It is thus evident that Congress anticipated that occasions would arise when a district judge could not make the requisite "de novo determination" without hearing the evidence himself.{6} Congress’ prime objective in 1976 was to overrule this Court’s decision in Wingo v. Wedding, 418 U.S. 461, which had interpreted the then existing Federal Magistrates Act as barring a magistrate from holding an evidentiary hearing on a petition for habeas corpus. See S.Rep. at 3, 9; H.R.Rep. at 5, 11. The 1976 Act thus granted magistrates the power to take evidence on matters like habeas corpus petitions and motions to suppress. By enacting such legislation, Congress obviously anticipated that hearings conducted by magistrates would, in many instances, obviate the need for district judges to take evidence as well.

It does not follow, however, that Congress told district judges that they need not conduct hearings in every case where an evidentiary hearing has been conducted by a magistrate, regardless of the circumstances. Instead, Congress expressly limited the "clearly erroneous" standard of review to pretrial motions that are termed non-"dispositive" in the Act’s legislative history, see S.Rep. at 7, 9-10; H.R.Rep. at 9, 111, and excluded habeas corpus petitions, motions to suppress, and other important motions from that category, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

The Court suggests that a plain reading of the statutory language would, as a practical matter, frustrate the Act’s objective of alleviating the increasing congestion of litigation in the district courts. But, as I interpret the statutory language, district judges need not always hold evidentiary hearings in order properly to dispose of suppression motions. Although many motions to suppress turn on issues of credibility, many do not. A suppression motion predicated, for instance, on the claim that a search warrant was not supported by an adequate affidavit could normally be resolved without the taking of any testimony.

More importantly, the "de novo determination" requirement of the Federal Magistrates Act applies to a much wider range of motions and applications than simply pretrial motions to suppress.{7} Some of these -- such as motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim, motions for judgment on the pleadings, and motions for summary judgment -- presume as a legal matter the lack of any need for an evidentiary hearing, even at the magistrate’s level. Others -- such as motions for injunctive relief, motions to dismiss or quash an indictment, motions to dismiss or to permit maintenance of a class action, motions to dismiss an action involuntarily, applications for post-trial relief made by those convicted of criminal offenses, and petitions by prisoners challenging conditions of confinement -- could often, as a practical matter, be granted or denied by a district court on the strength alone of the transcript of the magistrate’s hearing and his recommendation. Thus, contrary to the Court’s suggestion, the plain reading I would give to the pertinent statutory language would not equate "de novo determination" with "de novo hearing."

Since I believe that the plain language of the statute required the District Judge in this case to hear the conflicting factual testimony of the witnesses, I would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

1. The respondent also moved to suppress certain statements the Government claimed he had made to Chicago police officers shortly after his arrest. At the suppression hearing, the respondent denied having ever made such remarks. A Chicago police officer testified to the contrary, making the issue one for determination at trial by the trier of fact.

2. Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) provides:

Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary --

(A) a judge may designate a magistrate to hear and determine any pretrial matter pending before the court, except a motion for injunctive relief, for judgment on the pleadings, for summary judgment, to dismiss or quash an indictment or information made by the defendant, to suppress evidence in a criminal case, to dismiss or to permit maintenance of a class action, to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and to involuntarily dismiss an action. A judge of the court may reconsider any pretrial matter under this subparagraph (A) where it has been shown that the magistrate’s order is clearly erroneous or contrary to law.

(B) a judge may also designate a magistrate to conduct hearings, including evidentiary hearings, and to submit to a judge of the court proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition, by a judge of the court, of any motion excepted in subparagraph (A), of applications for postrial [sic] relief made by individuals convicted of criminal offenses and of prisoner petitions challenging conditions of confinement.

(C) the magistrate shall file his proposed findings and recommendations under subparagraph (B) with the court and a copy shall forthwith be mailed to all parties.

Within ten days after being served with a copy, any party may serve and file written objections to such proposed findings and recommendations as provided by rules of court. A judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made. A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate. The judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate with instructions.

3. In Renegotiation Board v. Bannercraft Clothing Co., the Court was construing the following language in the Renegotiation Act of 1951 as amended:

Any contractor . . . aggrieved by an order of the Board [of Renegotiation] determining the amount of excessive profits received or accrued by such contractor . . . may --

* * * *

file a petition with the Court of Claims for a redetermination thereof. . . . A proceeding before the Court of Claims to finally determine the amount, if any, of excessive profits shall not be treated as a proceeding to review the determination of the Board, but shall be treated as a proceeding de novo. . . .

65 Stat. 21, as amended, 50 U.S.C.App. § 1218.

4. In United States v. First City National Bank, the Court was construing 12 U.S.C. § 1828(c)(7)(A), which provides that, in an antitrust action brought under the Bank Merger Act of 1966, the court "shall review de novo the issues presented."

5. In other contexts, the Courts of Appeals have held that critical issues of credibility can be resolved only by personally hearing live testimony. See, e.g., Weahkee v. Perry, 190 U.S.App.D.C. 359, 370, 587 F.2d 1256 1267 (1978) (Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964); Hackley v. Roudebush, 171 U.S.App.D.C. 376, 427, and n. 202, 520 F.2d 108, 159, and n. 202 (1975) (same); Piglatello v. Attorney General, 350 F.2d 719, 723724 (CA2 1965) (Immigration and Nationality Act).

6. Nothing in the passage from the opinion of the Court of Appeals in Campbell v. United States District Court, 501 F.2d 196, 206-207 (CA9 1974), that is quoted in the House Report can be read to mean anything different. In Campbell, the court said that a district court "may, in the exercise of its discretion, call and hear the testimony of a witness or witnesses" when "it finds there is a problem as to the credibility of a witness or witnesses or for other good reasons." Nothing said in Campbell, however, implied that a district judge’s failure to call a witness or witnesses is invariably permissible.

7. Seen. 2, supra.


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Chicago: Stewart, "Stewart, J., Dissenting," United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667 (1980) in 447 U.S. 667 447 U.S. 688–447 U.S. 694. Original Sources, accessed June 3, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZ8B267YB11JQUZ.

MLA: Stewart. "Stewart, J., Dissenting." United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667 (1980), in 447 U.S. 667, pp. 447 U.S. 688–447 U.S. 694. Original Sources. 3 Jun. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZ8B267YB11JQUZ.

Harvard: Stewart, 'Stewart, J., Dissenting' in United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667 (1980). cited in 1980, 447 U.S. 667, pp.447 U.S. 688–447 U.S. 694. Original Sources, retrieved 3 June 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZ8B267YB11JQUZ.