United States v. John Mostler ( 2011 )

  •                                                                  NOT PRECEDENTIAL
                           UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
                                FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT
                                          No. 10-3967
                               UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
                                      JOHN F. MOSTLER,
                         On Appeal from the United States District Court
                                 for the District of New Jersey
                                   (D.C. No. 3:09-cr-00176-1)
                            District Judge: Hon Anne E. Thompson
                           Submitted Under Third Circuit LAR 34.1(a)
                                       January 27, 2011
                 Before: FUENTES, CHAGARES, and ROTH, Circuit Judges.
                                    (Filed: February 11, 2011)
    CHAGARES, Circuit Judge
           John Mostler appeals from a final judgment of conviction by the United States
    District Court for the District of New Jersey. For the reasons set forth below, we will
    affirm Mostler’s conviction.
           Because we write solely for the benefit of the parties, we will only briefly recite
    the facts. From a young age, Mostler claims to have held the belief that the payment of
    federal income taxes was voluntary. Despite this belief, Mostler paid his income taxes
    from 1982 through 2000. Following some additional research, largely conducted on the
    Internet, Mostler decided not to pay his taxes from the years 2000 through 2005.
    Although he was contacted by IRS agents, their refusal to respond to his letters with an
    affidavit of authority to collect taxes led him to conclude that he still did not have to pay.
    When an IRS agent arrived at his home, however, it caused some familial strife, and
    Mostler agreed to pay his back taxes and to continue to pay his taxes going forward.
    Despite this agreement, he still maintains his belief that the payment of federal income
    taxes is entirely voluntary.
           Mostler was indicted on four counts of tax evasion, and was convicted by a jury on
    all four counts on January 7, 2010. At trial, his sole defense was that he had a good faith
    belief that he was not required to pay his federal income taxes, and that, therefore, he had
    not “willfully” violated the law, as required by 26 U.S.C. § 7201. Prior to the trial, the
    parties had a charge conference and worked together with the District Court to develop
    acceptable jury instructions. Although not all of defense counsel’s requests were granted,
    the District Court explained its reasoning and offered alternative language suggestions,
    which were accepted by defense counsel. No objection was ever raised to the jury
    instructions that were ultimately given.
           Following his conviction, Mostler filed a motion for new trial, arguing that he was
    denied his due process rights under the Fifth Amendment and his right to a jury trial
    under the Sixth Amendment because of the purportedly faulty jury instructions given by
    the District Court as well as its failure to answer properly a question from the jury
    relating to the good faith defense. This motion was denied, and Mostler was sentenced to
    18 months of imprisonment on September 22, 2010. Mostler appeals the District Court’s
    denial of his motion, and requests that we vacate his conviction and remand the case for a
    new trial.
           The District Court had jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3231 and
    this Court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We review unpreserved objections to
    jury instructions for plain error, United States v. Ozcelik, 
    527 F.3d 88
    , 96 (3d Cir. 2008),
    but when objections are preserved we apply an abuse-of-discretion standard to our
    review of the wording of instructions and the refusal to adopt specific language suggested
    by the parties. United States v. Jimenez, 
    513 F.3d 62
    , 74 (3d Cir. 2008). 1
      Although the parties disagree about whether the objections here were unpreserved, we
    believe that Mostler has not met the standard for preserving objections to jury
    instructions that is clearly set forth by this Court’s precedent. See, e.g., United States v.
    281 F.3d 123
    , 130 (3d Cir. 2002) (“[A]n objection must . . . be sufficiently precise
    to allow the trial court to address the concerns raised in the objection.”). Mostler never
    objected to the instructions given, but, instead, merely asked that additional language be
    included in these instructions. Further, the District Court did add language to attempt to
    alleviate Mostler’s concerns, and Mostler did not in any way communicate to the District
    Court that this additional language was insufficient. In sum, the District Court had no
    way of knowing that Mostler disagreed with the language of the instruction actually
    provided to the jury, and his actions, therefore, cannot be sufficient to preserve his
    objections to the formal instructions that were given.
           Mostler first argues that the District Court’s jury instruction on the issue of
    willfulness was confusing as a whole, although he concedes that no single statement by
    the District Court was incorrect. The District Court stated as follows:
           The third element the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt is
           that the defendant acted willfully. Willfully means a voluntary and
           intentional violation of a known legal duty. . . . Defendant’s conduct was
           not willful if he acted through negligence or a mistake or accident or due to
           a good faith misunderstanding of the requirements of the law. A good faith
           belief is one that is honestly and genuinely held. A good faith
           misunderstanding of the law or a good faith belief that one is not violating
           the law negates willfulness, whether or not the claimed belief or
           misunderstanding is objectively reasonable. A defendant’s views about the
           validity of the tax statutes are irrelevant to the issue of willfulness and need
           not be considered by the jury. However, mere disagreement with the law or
           belief that the tax laws are unconstitutional or otherwise invalid does not
           constitute a good faith misunderstanding of the requirements of law. All
           persons have a duty to obey the law whether or not they agree with it. Any
           claim that the tax laws are invalid, unconstitutional, or inapplicable is
           incorrect as a matter of law.
    Appendix (“App.”) at 425-26. Mostler asserts that this instruction left the jury confused
    because although the issue of whether the tax laws actually did apply to him is irrelevant
    for the jury, the issue of whether he believed that the tax laws applied to him is at the
    heart of his defense. He argues that a reasonable juror easily could have concluded from
    this instruction that she was required to convict even if Mostler had a good faith
    misunderstanding of the mandatory nature of the tax laws. This interpretation would
           In regard to the answer to the jury’s question, on the other hand, Mostler clearly
    communicated to the District Court that he believed that further instruction was necessary
    and that the District Court’s answer was insufficient, thereby preserving his objection.
    For these reasons, we will review the District Court’s initial instructions for plain error,
    but will review its answer to the jury’s question for abuse of discretion.
    effectively remove Mostler’s ability to present his good faith defense, as his
    misunderstanding was related to the applicability of the tax system as a whole rather than
    to any specific provision. In this way, Mostler argues that the District Court’s
    instructions allowed the jury to find the element of willfulness despite also finding that
    the failure to pay was the result of a good faith misunderstanding.
           We see no error in the District Court’s instructions to the jury. 2 Mostler did not
    have a good faith misunderstanding about any specific provision of the tax code or its
    applicability to him; instead, he merely claims to have a good faith misunderstanding
    about the mandatory nature of the federal income tax. This alleged misunderstanding,
    however, is predicated on his belief that a mandatory federal income tax is
    unconstitutional. To uphold Mostler’s view of the good faith defense would, therefore,
    allow a back door for the defense that the tax statutes are unconstitutional, which was
    explicitly foreclosed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Cheek v. United States, 498
      It is worth noting that the Government argues that Mostler has waived any objection to
    the jury instructions under the “invited error” doctrine. Ozcelik, 527 F.3d at 97 n.6
    (finding objections to jury instructions waived because the objecting party had previously
    made a joint motion to adopt those instructions); United States v. Stewart, 
    185 F.3d 112
    127 (3d Cir. 1999) (stating that objections to jury instructions are waived in situations
    where the instructions given were the result of the complaining party’s objection to the
    original proposed jury instructions); United States v. W. Indies Transp., Inc., 
    127 F.3d 299
    , 311 (3d Cir. 1997) (noting that failure to include a specific element in a party’s
    requested jury instructions waives that party’s ability to object to the provided jury
    instructions for failing to include that element). In this case, however, Mostler did not
    fail to request the instruction that he desired, did not suggest the language of the
    instruction actually given, and did not cause the final language through his objection.
    Instead, he merely participated in a charge conference at which some of his requested
    instructions were denied, and he did not object to the District Court’s final instructions.
    Although this does cause us to review only for plain error, it is insufficient for us to find
    that any objection is waived through the doctrine of invited error.
    5 U.S. 192
     (1991). Because of this, the applicability of the good faith defense was
    appropriately limited to true misunderstandings rather than extended to broad excuses for
    refusal to pay taxes. The District Court’s instructions were proper, and we see no
    grounds for vacating Mostler’s conviction based on the jury charge.
           Mostler then argues that the District Court erred in its answer to the question asked
    by the jury during its deliberation.   The jury sent a note to the District Court stating
    “Please provide more clarity regarding a good faith belief.” App. 478. Defense counsel
    requested that the jury be given the Third Circuit’s model instruction on the good faith
    defense, and also requested that the jury be reminded that the Government bore the
    burden of proof on all elements of the charged offense. App. 468-69. The District Court
    refused both of these requests and instead responded to the jury by stating:
                   I think we have tried as best we could to articulate a good faith belief
           on Page 22. The lawyers argued and spent most of their time in their
           summations today discussing good faith or willfulness, which is obviously
           the related concept.
                   I think I’m going to ask you to go back and discuss further Page 22,
           and, if you feel that there’s something more specific that you’re seeking,
           please advise me but I think you’re going to have to use your wisdom of 12
           jurors to discuss and analyze what has been presented to you and bring to
           bear your thoughts and analysis just as has been set forth in the charge.
           You might want to reread the charge.
                   So, thank you very much and, if you would like to be more specific,
           you may be so. Thank you.
    App. 469-70.
           Again, we find no error in the District Court’s response. Given the extremely
    broad and vague question, we are not prepared to state that the District Court abused its
    discretion in refusing to provide additional extensive instructions on the background of
    the good faith defense. This is especially true given that Mostler contends that the
    instructions were already overly long and complicated. The District Court made clear
    that the issue of good faith was already covered in a particular part of the jury charge, and
    invited the jury to ask a more specific question if it still needed further clarification. This
    decision was well within its discretion.
           For the foregoing reasons, we will affirm the judgment of the District Court.