Wake Forest Law Review

By John Van Swearingen

On Wednesday, October 26, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case United States v. Alvarado. The district court had issued an order precluding the government from calling upon two witnesses to testify about anything discussed during a grand jury proceeding for a post-superseding indictment; the order also excluded those witnesses’ grand jury testimony for all purposes at trial, including impeachment. The government appealed, arguing the district court abused its discretion by excluding this evidence. Further, the government argued that, in the absence of a finding of prosecutorial misconduct, evidentiary exclusion cannot be used as a remedy. The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s order, holding that the district court abused its discretion by ordering the exclusion of the evidence for two reasons. First, the district court did not provide any legal justification for determining how the scope of the government’s questions at the grand jury proceeding exceeded permissible grounds. Second, the district court did not explain how delay, cited by the district court as a reason supporting the exclusionary remedy, was appropriately related to the remedy. However, the Fourth Circuit refused to adopt a blanket policy forbidding district courts to enact exclusionary remedies regarding grand jury proceedings in the absence of prosecutorial misconduct.

Facts and Procedural History

On December 4, 2014, Maria Rosalba Alvarado McTague (“Alvarado”) and Felix Chujoy (“Felix”) were indicted by a federal grand jury for visa fraud and immigration charges. More specifically, Alvarado and Felix were accused of smuggling undocumented immigrants into the country to work, in horrendous conditions and for below minimum wage, in their Peruvian restaurant in Virginia. Alvarado and Felix were released on bond. Expecting a superseding indictment, the defendants and the government moved jointly for a continuance. The district court set trial for June 22, 2015.

The grand jury returned a superseding indictment on March 12, 2015. Alvarado and Felix were charged with additional counts of labor trafficking, Gladys Chujoy was added as a defendant, and all three Defendants were charged with witness tampering, conspiracy to witness tamper, and obstruction of justice. Because evidence suggested Alvarado and Felix were using third-parties’ phones to contact witnesses, their bonds were revoked by the magistrate.

The government continued investigating these matters by questioning individuals whose phone numbers appeared in the phone records of witnesses. Carolyn Edlind (“Edlind”) and Sheriff Donald Smith (“Smith”) were interviewed during this investigation in May 2015, and both were subsequently subpoenaed to testify at trial.

On June 21, 2015, the government moved to continue the trial because of a personal emergency. Defendants did not object and explicitly waived any speedy trial objection; however, Alvarado did have to retain new counsel. The district court set trial for October 26, 2015.

In August 2015, counsel for an inmate incarcerated alongside Felix contacted the government with an invitation to interview that inmate. The inmate advised that he and others had provided PINs to Felix in order to facilitate Felix making surreptitious phone calls. After obtaining the recorded conversations, the government discovered evidence that Felix, Edlind, and Smith were potentially engaged in a witness-tampering scheme.

On October 6, 2015, the government subpoenaed Edlind and Smith to testify before the grand jury regarding the post-superseding indictment tampering scheme. This information was disclosed to both the district court and Defendants.

On October 20, 2015, Felix, Edlind, and Smith testified before the grand jury about the scheme, and the grand jury returned a new indictment. Felix and Edlind were charged with new counts of witness tampering, conspiracy to witness tamper, and obstruction of justice. Edlind was also charged with an additional count of obstruction (based on her prior grand jury testimony) and perjury.

Alvarado thereafter filed a motion to continue in order to investigate the possibility of prosecutor misconduct. The court granted the motion, set trial for December 1, 2015, and invited all Defendants to join the investigation regarding prosecutorial misconduct.

On November 13, the Defendants filed a joint motion for dismissal of all indictments, alleging the government used the third grand jury proceeding with the primary intent of uncovering evidence for the charges on the March 12 indictment as well as determining the Defendants’ trial strategy. The district court found no prosecutorial misconduct and denied dismissal of the indictments. However, the district court forbade the government from calling Edlind or Smith to testify about anything covered in their testimony before the October 6 grand jury; the court also excluded that testimony for any use at trial, including impeachment.

The district court stated this exclusionary remedy was appropriate for two reasons. First, the district court stated the government’s questions during the October 6 grand jury proceeding delved too far into the original underlying charges. Second, the court stated, in the interests of fundamental fairness, the delay caused by the government’s June 21 continuance and Alvarado’s later continuance supported exclusion.

The government appealed pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3731 and 28 U.S.C. § 1291, arguing two points. First, the district court’s exclusionary remedy was an abuse of discretion. Second, an exclusionary remedy could never apply without prosecutorial discretion.

Exclusion of Evidence Based on the Government’s Questioning, Where the Questioning Had the Dominant Purpose of, and in Fact Did, Produce New Indictments, Was an Abuse of Discretion

The Fourth Circuit held the district court abused its discretion in excluding the grand jury evidence. Absent compelling evidence that the grand jury process was abused – for example, finding that the dominant purpose of a grand jury proceeding was building evidence against a defendant already charged – district courts are generally guided to refrain from intervening. See United States v. Moss, 756 F.2d 329, 331­–32 (4th Cir. 1985).

Also, grand jury proceedings have a presumption of regularity that is bolstered when those proceedings result in new indictments. Id. The function of those proceedings, gathering evidence for an indictment, requires broad latitude in questioning witnesses. See id. at 332. Investigating additional crimes, for example, does not require the government to ignore previous ones.

Here, the district court did not find any improper purpose behind the October 6 grand jury proceedings. Additionally, the district court did not explain its legal basis for determining that the government’s lines of questioning in the October 6 proceeding ­– given the regularity of grand jury proceedings and the fact that new indictments were, in fact, issued – merited an exclusionary remedy. Rather, the court based its remedy on incidental benefits to the government’s case as a result of the proceeding, as well as the court’s determination that some questions seemed too far removed from the new allegations. Lacking a finding of bad faith or improper purpose, the district court essentially excluded the government’s evidence as punishment for not being clairvoyant. The Fourth Circuit therefore held the district court abused its discretion by issuing an exclusionary remedy.

Exclusion of Evidence Based on Delay Without a Supporting Legal Basis Was an Abuse of Discretion

The Fourth Circuit also held the district court’s exclusion of evidence based on delay was an abuse of discretion. The district court never explained in its order why the continuances it once granted later justified exclusion of evidence. The district court did not find bad faith on behalf of the government; further, the court did not state that the government did anything other than conduct a good-faith investigation into the new witness tampering and obstruction charges.

If a district court is going to exclude evidence on the basis that the evidence was attained due to a bad-faith continuance, grand jury abuse, or other prosecutorial misconduct, then the court must clearly state so in its order. Failing to do so – yet ordering exclusion of evidence – was an abuse of the district court’s discretion.

Strict Categorical Limitations on District Courts’ Powers to Issue Remedies in Grand Jury Proceedings Rejected

The Fourth Circuit rejected the government’s argument to categorically limit a district court’s available remedies regarding grand jury proceedings. As argued by the government, if a grand jury proceeding is found to have a proper dominant purpose, the district court will be unable to issue any remedies regarding evidence and testimony obtained during that proceeding. Such is the case in the Eleventh Circuit – a district court may only issue an exclusionary remedy if grand jury proceedings were conducted with the improper dominant purpose of obtaining evidence for existing charges. See United States v. US Infrastructure, Inc., 576 F.3d 1195, 1215 (11th Cir. 2009).

The Fourth Circuit did not want to exclude the availability of a remedy for lines of questioning that skirt the limits of permissibility but do not go beyond them. In certain situations, the court held, remedial actions may still be justified despite a proper dominant purpose for grand jury proceedings.

However, the district court here failed to justify its exclusionary remedy. The district court failed to state any findings of bad faith or prosecutorial misconduct in its order. The government’s lines of questioning did not support a finding of improper purpose. The delays were not connected to reasons for the district court’s exclusionary remedy. For those reasons, and not – as the government proposed – due to a blanket prohibition on available district court remedies, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s order.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s order excluding evidence and testimony from or relating to the October 6 grand jury proceedings. The court remanded the case back to the district court with instructions to either (a) admit the excluded evidence or (b) issue a new order specifically stating how the exclusion of the evidence is narrowly tailored to the court’s concerns regarding the government’s conduct.

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By Eric Jones

On June 16, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil removal case Yanez-Marquez v. Lynch.  Maria Yanez-Marquez (Yanez) was petitioning to the Fourth Circuit for review of a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decision dismissing her appeal from an order for her removal from the United States.  The Circuit Court held that the violations of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights were not egregious, and thus denied her petition for review.

 

The Execution of the Search Warrant

In June of 2008, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were granted a search warrant for 402 Harbor Drive, Annapolis, Maryland, because it was suspected that the landlord was harboring illegal aliens.  The warrant was to be executed between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., and described the residence as a “single-family home.”  The warrant was broad and authorized agents to seize “illegal aliens, travel documents, financial records, and photographs of harbored aliens.”  At approximately 5:00 a.m. on June 30, ICE agents knocked on the door of the residence and entered to begin the search.  According to Yanez, the agents burst into the bedroom where she and her partner were sleeping, and pointed guns at them while demanding that they “don’t move” in both English and Spanish.  Upon being informed that Yanez was pregnant, the agents called a female agent to assist and reassure her.  Yanez was never handcuffed or led outside of the dwelling, but was questioned for 5-10 minutes about her identity.  As a result of the search, the agents arrested Yanez’s partner, and had her sign several forms indicating that Yanez had been illegally present in the United States since April of 2007.  The agents also seized Yanez’s pay stubs, tax returns, and photo albums as they left at 9:15 a.m.  The ICE contested Yanez’s statements regarding the timing of the search as well as the force used during the search.

 

The Removal Proceedings

Yanez was issued a notice to appear before an Immigration Judge (IJ) for removal proceedings.  On February 10, 2010, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) filed a submission of intended evidence, including the forms Yanez signed during the search, the warrant itself, and the affidavit supporting the warrant.  Yanez filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that during the search, the agents “egregiously violated” her Fourth Amendment rights.  The IJ found that, accepting Yanez’s claims as true, her rights had not been “egregiously violated.”  Although the execution of a search warrant prior to the time it was granted would constitute a violation of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights, the IJ reasoned that being early by a single hour “does not amount to conduct that ‘shocks the conscience,’” and thus was not an egregious violation.  As to the force used, the IJ found that Yanez had made no showing of excessive force, noting that agents executing a search warrant are reasonably cautious about dangerous situations.  The IJ found that the agents had acted reasonably, had not brandished their guns for longer than necessary to assure their safety, and had gotten a female agent to aid and comfort Yanez as soon as was reasonable.  For these reasons, the IJ denied the motion to suppress the evidence.  On December 13, 2010, the IJ found that the DHS had satisfied their burden, and ordered that Yanez be removed from the United States and returned to El Salvador.

On appeal to the BIA, the BIA held that the exclusionary rule, which operates to exclude evidence obtained in violation of the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, does not apply in civil removal proceedings unless the violations were egregious.  The BIA then, relying on the reasoning of the IJ, held that the violations had not been egregious, and thus affirmed the IJ’s order.

 

The Applicability of the Fourth Amendment in Civil Removal Cases in the Fourth Circuit

Initially, the Fourth Circuit noted that the question of the applicability of the Fourth Amendment exclusionary principle was a matter of first impression for the Circuit.  The Court began by analyzing the Supreme Court of the United States’ ruling in INS v. Lopez-Mendoza, 468 U.S. 1032 (1984).  In Lopez-Mendoza, the Supreme Court held that the ordinary Fourth Amendment exclusion, which barred all evidence obtained through any violation of the Fourth Amendment, was inapplicable to civil removal proceedings because the costs of exclusionary principle, including dramatically increased complexity to the streamlined process of removal, outweighed the benefits of the exclusionary principle.  Additionally, because civil removal proceedings are not criminal and do not punish but merely prevent continued illegal activity, the Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment protections were not as critical.  Four Justices in Lopez-Mendoza vigorously dissented, and the majority opinion opined in dicta that “egregious violations” and “widespread” violations by officers may nevertheless render the exclusionary principle applicable in some instances.

In this case, the Fourth Circuit held that the exclusionary principle must apply to all egregious violations of the Fourth Amendment because “[t]o hold otherwise would give no effect to the language used by the Supreme Court in Lopez–Mendoza expressing concern over fundamentally unfair methods of obtaining evidence.”  The Circuit Court further held that refusing to apply the exclusion “would ignore the fact that eight justices in Lopez–Mendoza seem to have agreed that the exclusionary rule applies in removal proceedings in some form.”  Thus, in the Fourth Circuit, an petitioner in a civil removal case must show not only that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated, but also that those violations were “egregious.”

 

The Standard for “Egregiousness” of a Fourth Amendment Violation

The Lopez-Mendoza Court stated “egregious violations of Fourth Amendment or other liberties that might transgress notions of fundamental fairness and undermine the probative value of the evidence obtained” might be reason to apply the exclusion. Despite the use of “and” by the Supreme Court, the Fourth Circuit held that a petitioner can succeed if she can show either (1) egregious violation or (2) a violation that undermines the probative value of the evidence.  To hold otherwise, the Circuit explained, would dramatically reduce the application of the rule because nearly all evidence obtained through egregious violations is physical evidence, which has the same probative value regardless of the manner of acquisition.  Examples given by the Circuit of egregious violations included “a stop based on Hispanic appearance alone,” “repeatedly ignor[ing a] detainee’s request for counsel,” and “a nighttime warrantless entry into the aliens’ residence.”

The Fourth Circuit rejected the Ninth Circuit’s standard for egregiousness, which focuses on the “bad faith” of the agents, and embraced the “totality of the circumstances” test used by the Second, Third, and Eighth Circuits.

 

Yanez’s Alleged Fourth Amendment Violations

Yanez’s first allegation of egregious violation of her Fourth Amendment rights was that the warrant listed her residence as a “single-family home,” when it was in fact a multi-unit dwelling.  The Fourth Circuit explained that the warrant is sufficiently tailored when an agent executing it can “reasonably ascertain and identify the intended place to be searched.”  In holding that the warrant used to search Yanez’s home was adequate, the Circuit emphasized that the premises had been under ICE surveillance and agents had no reason to believe multiple families dwelled there, it was a small single-story home, and the premises had just one mailbox.  Thus, because the outward appearance is reasonably identified by a description of a “single-family home,” the Fourth Circuit rejected Yanez’s first argument.

Yanez next argued that, upon entry, the agents should have known it was a multi-family dwelling because “the bedroom door was locked,” which transforms it into a separate dwelling.  However, because it is not unusual for a bedroom door to be locked and there was no other indication in the home that it was a multi-unit dwelling, the Circuit held that the ICE agents had not made any mistake in proceeding with the warrant, and even if they had, it was an innocent and reasonable mistake.

Yanez’s final argument was that entering the home at 5:00 a.m. constituted a “nighttime search,” which fell outside of the warrant and implicates higher scrutiny because of the heightened intrusion.  The Fourth Circuit agreed that because a daytime search is defined as between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., the search of Yanez’s residence was by definition a nighttime search.  The Fourth Circuit went on to hold that nighttime execution of a daytime warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, absent consent or exigent circumstances.  Thus, because there was no consent given by either Yanez or the judge who issued the warrant, nor were there any additional facts which may have constituted exigent circumstances justifying a nighttime search, the Fourth Circuit held that the ICE had violated Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights by executing the search.  However, when considering the totality of the circumstances, the Circuit held that this violation was not egregious.

Facts to support a finding of egregiousness included the fact that it was a nighttime search and the fact that the search was of Yanez’s home, where her privacy interests are strong.  Supporting the non-egregiousness of the search included the fact that no ICE agents threatened, coerced, or physically abused Yanez, nor did they offer or promise her anything in exchange for cooperation.  Additionally, Yanez was not handcuffed, nor was she removed from the home.  Furthermore, there was no evidence of diminished capacity, the questioning was not particularly lengthy, and there is no evidence that the agents were motivated by racial considerations.  Finally, the Circuit explained that presence of a valid search warrant for the premises reduces the harm of the intrusion, and the agents executing the warrant did not use force beyond that necessary to secure their safety.  The Fourth Circuit thus held that the nighttime search, while a violation, was nevertheless not an egregious violation of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment Rights.

 

The Fourth Circuit Denied Yanez’s Petition for Review

Because the alleged violations of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights were all either not violations at all or not egregious, the Fourth Circuit denied Yanez’s petition for review of the IJ’s order for her removal from the United States.