EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Unlawful Entry: 8th Circuit Finds 2 References To Defendant Being Illegal Alien Don't Require Reversal

In United States v. Sanchez-Garcia, 2012 WL 2913255 (8th Cir. 2012), no less than two witnesses for the prosecution improperly made reference to the fact that the defendant was an illegal alien. So, why didn't the Eighth Circuit reverse his conviction?

In  Sanchez-Garcia, Torrance Bunch and Fernando Sanchez–Garcia were each convicted by a jury of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine. After he was convicted, Sanchez–Garcia appealed, claiming, inter alia, that two witnesses for the prosecution improperly made reference to the fact that he was an illegal alien.

Specifically, he first pointed to the testimony of Miguel Hugo Munoz–Gonzales, one of Bunch's methamphetamine suppliers. When asked by the prosecutor if he had any information about Sanchez–Garcia's involvement with Bunch in the distribution of methamphetamine, Munoz–Gonzales responded as follows: 

I asked [Sanchez–Garcia] where he was from—he told me from Mexico, Puebla, so we were just talking, and then I asked him about he had been in the newspaper, that I had seen him in the newspaper. I asked him what had happened, and he told me that it was a mistake, that he was leaving the—that he was only here for a re-entry charge.

The district court denied Sanchez-Garcia's motion for a mistrial based upon this testimony, and the Eighth Circuit agree, finding that

The remark by Munoz–Gonzales was plainly unsolicited. It was nonresponsive to the government's reasonable line of questioning about Sanchez–Garcia's involvement with Bunch in methamphetamine distribution. Sanchez–Garcia declined a limiting instruction and deliberately chose to withhold a contemporaneous objection so as to avoid drawing attention to the statement. There is no evidence of bad faith by the government, and the statement was only a small part of the evidence against Sanchez-Garcia.

Second, Sanchez-Garcia pointed

to a statement from witness Ann Marie Porta on redirect examination. On cross-examination, Sanchez–Garcia's counsel impeached Porta by eliciting testimony that she sustained a prior conviction for fleeing police. On redirect, the prosecutor asked Porta what had happened that led to the conviction and who had been with her at the time of the incident. In response, Porta testified that she was pulled over for speeding, "[a]nd Fernando [Sanchez–Garcia] was in the car with me and he is illegal, so we decided to take off." The district court immediately directed the jury to disregard the statement. Sanchez–Garcia renewed his motion for a mistrial, and the district court again denied the motion.

The Eighth Circuit concluded that Porta's testimony was

more problematic, because the remark was solicited by the prosecutor. The rules of evidence permitted Sanchez–Garcia to impeach Porta with a prior felony conviction,...and it is questionable whether the circumstances of the offense, including Sanchez–Garcia's involvement and his immigration status, were relevant to rehabilitating Porta's credibility.....But the district court acted promptly to strike the portion of Porta's testimony concerning immigration status, and the comment must be considered in the context of the entire trial

And, according to the Eighth Circuit, the context was that there was substantial evidence of Sanchez-Garcia's guilt, which prompted it to conclude that the district court did not err.



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