Monday, October 27, 2008

Defendant's Stipulation to Offense Elements In Bench Trial Renders Harmless Any Error In Denial of Suppression Motion

United States v. Garcia-Ruiz, No. 07-51269 (5th Cir. Oct. 27, 2008) (Jones, Garwood, Smith)

Although nominally about harmless error in the appeal of a denied suppression motion, this case is really more about sentencing. More specifically, how do you preserve a suppression issue for appeal and still get credit for acceptance of responsibility at sentencing? Although it doesn't guarantee acceptance, a conditional plea is the obvious option. But what if the Government or the court won't agree to proceed that way, forcing you to go to trial?

Here Garcia, who was charged with illegal reentry, sought to suppress all evidence obtained as a result of his warrantless detention and arrest. After the district court denied the motion, Garcia proceeded with a bench trial at which he stipulated to facts sufficient to establish all of the elements of illegal reentry, including facts supported by the evidence that he tried to suppress. The district court found the stipulation sufficient to prove the offense, and found Garcia guilty.

Garcia appealed the denial of his suppression motion, but the court didn't address the merits, instead holding that "even if, arguendo, the district court erred in its ruling, the error is rendered harmless by the fact that Garcia-Ruiz stipulated to facts that easily established his conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, as the district court found." As the court explained,
To convict Garcia-Ruiz under § 1326(1), the government needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was an alien at the time of the indictment, that he had previously been removed from the United States, that he was found in the United States after his removal, and that he had not received the consent of the Attorney General or Secretary of Homeland Security. Garcia-Ruiz stipulated to all those facts, and he and his attorney signed the stipulations and a waiver of jury trial. With such stipulations in place, any decision by this court regarding the suppression hearing could not affect Garcia-Ruiz’s posture in the district court, because he stipulated to the elements needed for conviction. Thus, when Garcia-Ruiz and the government agreed to the stipulated facts that established all the elements of the offense, any eror on the suppression issue would have no effect on the legal soundness of the conviction. In other words, to establish Garcia-Ruiz’s guilt, the government no longer needed the evidence he claims should have been suppressed.

The court distinguished Garcia's appeal from United States v. Mendoza, 491 F.2d 534 (5th Cir. 1974), in which the court considered the merits of an appeal of a denied suppression motion after a stipulated bench trial. Garcia-Ruiz emphasized that, in Mendoza, the defendants '"sought to expressly reserve their right to appeal from the order denying the motion to suppress.'" (quoting Mendoza). A quick glance at Mendoza reveals that the defendants chose that approach for pretty much the same reason a defendant would want to in the Guidelines era: they wanted to preserve the suppression issue for appeal, but "[a]t the same time, all three defendants [did] not desire to unnecessarily prolong the proceedings." Id. at 536 (quoting signed stipulation).

You'll have to decide for yourself whether the Mendoza approach will still fly these days, as well as whether a "Mendoza stipulation" will get you acceptance. In making that decision, consider the fact that conditional guilty pleas were not allowed in the Fifth Circuit at the time of Mendoza. See id. at 536 (discussing United States v. Sepe, 486 F.2d 1044, 1045 (5th Cir. 1973) (en banc; per curiam)). Rule 11 did not expressly authorize conditional guilty pleas until 1983. See 1A Wright, Federal Practice and Procedure-Criminal § 174.

It's clear, though, that a "naked stipulation" without a reservation of appellate rights will not, as a practical matter, preserve your suppression issue. (In a footnote, the court opines, in dictum, "that Garcia-Ruiz’s decision to go to trial on stipulated facts can be viewed as waiver as an alternate ground to harmless error." The court declined, though, to characterize it as a mootness question, as an earlier unpublished Fifth Circuit opinion had done.) So you'll need to weigh that in the preservation/acceptance calculus.

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