Thank You For Submiting Feedback!
An appellate court remedies a district court's plain error only when the defendant shows that the error affected his substantial rights. Fed. R. Crim. P. 52(b). Put differently, there must be a reasonable probability that the error affected the outcome of the trial.
Between 2007 and 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") agents investigated a human smuggling operation near Nogales, Arizona. During the investigation, agents observed defendant Miguel Torralba-Mendia at Geuro Shuttle between twenty and twenty-five times. Through intercepted phone calls, agents overheard Torralba coordinate the pick up of migrants and organize their drive north. Agents listened as a person at GS told Torralba to charge $2100 to drive two people to Tucson. And agents observed Torralba pick up and deliver suspected illegal immigrants to locations in Phoenix. At trial, the government called Agent Burrola as an expert witness. He testified about the standard practices of alien smuggling organizations, including how they escorted people over the border, circumvented ICE checkpoints, and utilized safe houses. The government also called Agent Frazier as both an expert and lay witness. Like Burrola, he explained how smugglers evaded checkpoints and provided ways to distinguish between a guide and a migrant. During the trial, the government introduced I-213 immigration forms to prove the migrants detained during the investigation either voluntarily returned to their country of origin or were deported. The government redacted the agent's narrative detailing how people were apprehended, and all other statements made by the detainee. The jury convicted Torralba of conspiring to smuggle undocumented immigrants into the United States, in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(v)(I). Torralba appealed his conviction, contending there was insufficient evidence connecting him to the conspiracy. In addition, he contended that the district court erred in allowing the case agent to offer both lay and expert testimony without giving a curative instruction. Moreover, Torralba argued that the district court incorrectly admitted redacted I-213 immigration forms.
Should Torralba’s conviction be reversed based on the grounds he raised?
The court affirmed Torralba’s conviction, holding that, in light of United States v. Vera, 770 F.3d 1232 (9th Cir. 2014), the district court committed plain error by not instructing the jury on how to properly evaluate the testimony of ICE Agent Frazier, whom the government used as both an expert and lay witness; however, such error was not prejudicial because the government bifurcated Frazier's expert and lay opinion testimony, there was an adequate foundation for his observations, and sufficient evidence independent of his testimony linked the defendant to the conspiracy. The court further held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting ICE Agent Burrola's expert testimony about alien smuggling organizations. The panel held that the testimony helped the jury understand the defendant's role in the alien smuggling scheme, and that the testimony was not unduly prejudicial. According to the court, a rational juror could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Torralba joined the conspiracy with the intent to further it. The court also held that the redacted forms were admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 803(8) as ministerial records, kept in the regular course of Department of Homeland Security business, and not implicating the purposes animating the law enforcement exception to admissibility. The court held that admission of the forms did not violate Torralba’s confrontation rights because nothing in them suggested they were completed in anticipation of litigation, and they were not testimonial.