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United States v. Hernandez - 476 F.3d 791 (9th Cir. 2007)

Rule:

Generally, a suspect's Miranda rights are triggered during custodial interrogation. Interrogation is express questioning by the police, or any words or actions on the part of the police that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the suspect. An individual is in custody if considering the circumstances surrounding an interrogation a reasonable person felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave. Relevant circumstances to the custody analysis include the language used by the officers, the physical characteristics of the place where the question occurs, the degree of pressure applied to detain the individual, the duration of the detention, and the extent to which the person was confronted with evidence of guilt. 

Facts:

Petitioner criminal defendant Marcos Alonzo Hernandez appealed his convictions for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and for importation of more than fifty grams of methamphetamine. Hernandez argued that his convictions must be reversed because the district court admitted testimony commenting on his silence during custodial interrogation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment, and because the district court erroneously denied his request for a jury instruction on the lesser included offense of simple possession. Hernandez also contended that his sentence should be vacated because either the mandatory language of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) renders the safety valve provision invalid after United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 125 S. Ct. 738, 160 L. Ed. 2d 621 (2005), or because § 3553(f)'s requirements are advisory after Booker, and the district court should have applied it in sentencing Hernandez. 

Issue:

Were convicted criminal Hernandez’s U.S. Const. amend. V rights violated when the district court admitted testimony regarding his silence?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

Because Hernandez was under custodial interrogation when he did not respond to the officer's question regarding the identity of the substance, the United States Court of Appeals held that the district court violated Hernandez’ U.S. Const. amend. V rights when it admitted testimony regarding Hernandez’ silence. Nevertheless, the error was harmless. However, the district court's refusal to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of simple possession was not harmless and was fatal to the conviction under 21 U.S.C.S. § 841(a)(1). A rational jury could have found that Hernandez possessed the methamphetamine for personal use. Finally, the court rejected Hernandez’ contention that the district court had discretion in determining safety valve eligibility under 18 U.S.C.S. § 3553(f) and that § 3553(f)(1) was rendered advisory by Booker. Accordingly, the Court affirmed defendant's conviction for importation of methamphetamine and his 120-month sentence, which was mandatory for that conviction. The Court vacated defendant's conviction for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute.

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