Thursday, January 10, 2008

Alien Gets Obstruction & Loses Acceptance for Requesting Interpreter at Sentencing, After Not Asking for One at Earlier Hearings

United States v. Juarez-Duarte, No. 05-11394 (5th Cir. Jan. 4, 2008) (per curiam) (King, Barksdale, Dennis)

Juarez, a Mexican citizen, was arrested for illegal reentry. At his initial appearance, he told the magistrate judge that he could understand and speak English. Nevertheless, when the magistrate asked Juarez if he wanted an interpreter, Juarez answered "If she's here, yes." A few days later, Juarez participated in his detention hearing without an interpreter. "From this, the district court inferred that the magistrate judge and Juarez-Duarte's Spanish-speaking attorney had determined that Juarez-Duarte did not need an interpreter." Juarez did not have an interpreter at his arraignment.

Juarez later decided to plead guilty. At his rearraigment, he did not request an interpreter and answered "yes" when the district judge asked him if he could "read, write and understand and speak the English language proficiently." Juarez also answered, in response to the court's question, that he had read the factual basis for his plea before he signed it. At one point, Juarez said that he was confused about the indictment's reference to his prior conviction for cocaine distribution. "The district court determined that the distribution charge was surplusage in the indictment, and that the prior conviction would increase the applicable statutory penalty range."

At his sentencing hearing on September 30, 2005, for the first time, Juarez-Duarte requested an interpreter, claiming that he did not clearly understand everything that had happened during the rearraignment. The district court expressed concern about the expense and delay of using an interpreter when there is no need and inquired why he had not requested one at any previous hearing. Defense counsel said that Juarez-Duarte’s past experience before the district court led him to request an interpreter because although he understood the prior proceedings “fine,” he wanted an interpreter at his sentencing hearing to understand “well.” The district court opined that the interpreter was not necessary because Juarez-Duarte had not required one at his detention hearing or at either of his prior arraignments, and he seemed to communicate and understand English well when he pleaded guilty. However, due to concern that his request would raise an issue as to the validity of his guilty plea, the district court set aside the plea, warning Juarez-Duarte that an improper request for an interpreter could have an effect on his sentencing.

At the interpreter-assisted rearraignment, the district judge instructed the probation officer to include findings and recommendations in the PSR as to whether Juarez should receive an acceptance-of-responsibility adjustment or an obstruction enhancement.

After the PSR interview, which was conducted in English, the probation officer recommended a 2-level obstruction enhancement for "providing materially false information to a judge regarding his need for an interpreter," as well as denial of acceptance. The resulting 5-level swing raised Juarez's Guidelines range from 46 to 57 months, to 78 to 97 months. The district court adopted the PSR's recommendations, over Juarez's objection, and sentenced him to 87 months' imprisonment. The court found that Juarez willfully obstructed the administration of justice by "insisting that he needs an interpreter when in fact he does not," based on the facts outlined above as well as the court's conjecture that Juarez "might be creating a record to support a contention that he did not understand what he was doing when he pleaded guilty." As for materiality, the district court said that it had to "redo" Juarez's guilty plea "in an abundance of caution."

Juarez appealed, challeging the obstruction and acceptance findings. Surprisingly, the court of appeals found no clear error in the district court's findings. It acknowledged that the district court's actions in this case "might make other defendants hesitant to request an interpreter," but sanguinely expressed "trust [in] the district courts, in their discretion, to make sufficient factual findings of willful intent to obstruct justice, as well as sound credibility determinations regarding the legitimacy of the defendant’s request for an interpreter, to prevent impermissible chilling."

Juarez also challenged the reasonableness of his sentence, arguing that illegal reentry is analogous to a simple trespass. The court rejected that argument, too, concluding that Congress considers illegal reentry after conviction for an aggravated felony to be "an extremely serious offense punishable by up to twenty years in prison," and that Juarez had failed to rebut the presumption of reasonableness afforded his within-Guidelines sentence.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even Dennis signed onto this?!

1/10/2008 07:53:00 PM  

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