Friday, September 22, 2006

Convictions and Sentences for Alien Smuggling and Hostage-Taking Affirmed

United States v. Ibarra-Zelaya, No. 05-20115 (5th Cir. Sept. 20, 2006)

This case involves a number of issues raised by six defendants convicted at trial of alien smuggling (8 U.S.C. § 1324) and hostage-taking (18 U.S.C. § 1203(a)).

Here's a simplified version of the facts: Defendants abducted a group of aliens at gunpoint from the coyote who had originally smuggled them into the country. One the way to a new hide-out apartment, the defendants gave the aliens a cell phone and told them to tell their relatives to send the smuggling fee to the defendants rather than the original coyote. The defendants, who were armed all the time, took turns guarding the aliens. While at the apartment the defendants again had the aliens call relatives to get the smuggling fees sent to the defendants. They also had one alien who had already paid the original coyote to call a friend and ask for more money.

"At around 1:30 a.m. on March 12, 2004, Houston police dispatch received a call about a hostage situation with weapons at the apartment where the aliens and the appellants were staying. Uniformed officers arrived on the scene at around 2 a.m. They saw four people exit the apartment and get into a car with an expired registration. They stopped the car based on the traffic violation." None of the people in the car had ID, so the police detained them. One of the car's occupants said she had her ID in the apartment. She knocked on the door, but no one answered and she told the officer with her that she didn't have her keys. While waiting for someone to answer the door, the officer could hear people moving around inside the apartment.

Several minutes later the door opened and three men fled the apartment on the balcony. The officer went inside to do a protective sweep, and gathered all the aliens in the living room. While waiting for immigration agents to arrive, the officers saw what they believed to be suspicious activity in one of the bathrooms. An officer went into the bathroom and saw three loaded handguns in the toilet tank. A couple of the defendants started moving towards the front door, so the officers drew their weapons and moved the defendants to their patrol cars.

The defendants raised a number of issues on appeal, chief among them the sufficiency of the evidence on the hostage taking counts. The court found the evidence sufficient on all three elements of the offense, which are that the defendants "(1) seized or detained another person, and (2) threatened to kill, injure, or continue to detain that person, (3) with the purpose of compelling a third person or entity to act in some way as an 'explicit or implicit condition for the release of the person detained.'" Slip op. at 5-6 (citations omitted).

As to the first element, no threats of violence or actual violence are necessary. Here, it was sufficient that the aliens were frightened or deceived into staying with the defendants when they would have prefered to go elsewhere or to stay with the original coyotes. As to the second element, the fact that the defendants carried guns at the apartment was sufficient, even in the absence of an inference that the aliens would not be released until their relatives had sent money. Finally, as to the third element, a person does not have to communicate a threat to a third pary; instead, a person only has to intend to compel a third party to act. Also, a person does not have to communicate the demand personally; here is was sufficient that the aliens made the calls for money. And,
[e]ven if the appellants did not increase the amount of money requested by the original coyotes, they can still be convicted under the HTA. Just because the aliens were willingly with the first set of coyotes doesn’t mean they were willingly with the appellants. There is no requirement under the HTA that there be an increase in the amount of money requested for criminal liability to attach; instead, the test is when the relationship becomes non-consensual as it did here when the appellants abducted the aliens from the apartment where they were initially.

Slip op. at 8.

The court also:
  • affirmed the denial of a motion to suppress the guns and aliens, holding that 1) the traffic stop was valid, 2) entry into the apartment was a permissible protective sweep justified by exigent circumstances, and 3) the officers had probable cause to go into the bathroom where they found the guns;
  • rejected objections to comments the district court made during voir dire and when charging the jury;
  • managed to affirm some of the sentences as reasonable without (as near as I can tell) ever saying what those sentences were (the sentences must have been greater than 71 months, though, because the defendants "point[ed] out that someone with no criminal record who causes another to die during an alien smuggling offense would warrant at most 71 months in prison"); and
  • modified the sentence to five years on two 1324 counts against one of the defendants since the counts charged an aiding and abetting theory (a modification that did not affect that defendant's overall term of imprisonment).


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