Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Suarez: Alien Smuggling Convictions Affirmed

In U.S. v. Suarez, No. 08-13675 (March 31, 2010), the Court affirmed alien smuggling convictions and sentences.

The Court rejected the argument that the indictment should be dismissed because the government repatriated to Cuba the group of Cubans on the boat being smuggled to the United States – Cubans who would have testified that they forced their way onto a boat destined only for relatives of the defendant. The Court noted that the defendant never raised this defense during interviews with the Coast Guard, and was otherwise potentially able to present it at trial. Further, the government did not repatriate the Cubans in bad faith, but in accordance with “standard operating procedure.”

The Court also rejected the argument that the application for electronic surveillance was invalid because other investigative procedures were not adequately tried, as the statute requires. The Court cited evidence physical surveillance was used, and testimony that “pen registers and trap and trace devices were not entirely useful because of the probability of multiple subscribers to the previously identified phone numbers and the frequent use of aliases.”

The Court also rejected the argument that the government failed to minimize the interception of communications not subject to wiretap. The Court found that the small number of “minimized” calls was not evidence, standing alone, of unreasonable minimization procedures.

The Court rejected the argument that the defendant should have been able to introduce in evidence a government witness’ prior inconsistent statement made to law enforcement agent. The Court noted that the witness, when questioned about the statement, did not adopt it. Further, it was not admitted as an admission of the declarant’s state of mind, because the witness was not the declarant of the statement, and the statement was made after, not during, the incident.

The Court found that a prosecutor’s vouching for a witness in closing argument did not prejudice the defendant’s substantial rights, pointing out that the judge instructed the jury on how to evaluate witness credibility.

Turning to sentencing, the Court affirmed the imposition of a “special skills” sentence enhancement under USSG § 3B1.3. The Court found that “the average person could not operate a vessel . . . without the use of [the defendant’s] unique skills.” The Court also affirmed the enhancement for causing a substantial risk of death, because 36 individuals were on board a vessel designed to hold no more than 12, and no life jackets were available. It found no double counting occurred as a result of the additional enhancement for endangerment during flight, which was based on a two-hour high-speed chase.

Finally, the Court rejected the argument that a five-year statutory maximum applied to his offense, pointing out that convictions under 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(v)(I) carry a ten-year maximum.