Sunday, January 28, 2018

Case o' The Week: Ninth Digs "Other Dude" Dirt - Urias Espinoza, FRE 404(b), and Third Party Culpability Evidence

 As you SODDI, so shall you reap.
United States v. Espinoza, 2018 WL 493194 (9th Cir. Jan. 22, 2018), decision available here.

Players: Decision by Judge Paez, joined by Judges Berzon and Christen. Admirable win for AFD Michael Marks, Fed. Defenders of San Diego, Inc.  

Facts: Urias Espinoza, a Mexican national, was stopped as she tried to legally cross the border. Id. A search of her car revealed that the rear seats had been hollowed-out and filled with twelve kilos of meth. Id. 
  At the trial for importation charges, the government introduced messages on her cell about delivery of a “product.” Id. at *2. Urias Espinoza’s “blind mule” theory was that her neighbor in Mexico packed her car with meth without her knowledge. Id. She tried to introduce evidence that her neighbor was an admitted drug dealer, with a prior conviction for drug distribution, and a prior deportation (showing why he couldn’t reenter). Id. 
  Most of this proffered evidence of third-party liability was excluded by the district court. Urias Espinoza was convicted and sentenced to ninety months. Id. at *3.

Issue(s): “We consider whether the district court abused its discretion in excluding evidence of third-party culpability.” Id. at *1. “The case centers on the threshold requirement for the admissibility of third-party culpability evidence under the Federal Rules of Evidence.” Id. at *3 (emphasis added).

Held:We conclude that the district court necessarily abused its discretion by applying an incorrect legal standard to determine whether third-party culpability evidence should be admitted.” Id. at *3.

Of Note: The broad FRE 404(b) sweep in this case is great – for this defendant, trying to introduce bad acts committed by her neighbor. Judge Paez explains that the neighbor’s conviction should have come in, despite the fact that the neighbor’s prior was a decade old, was for pot (not meth), and was for distribution, not importation. Id. at *7. 
  Should we worry a “sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander” flip of this broad FRE 404(b) net against a defendant in future cases? Nope. Judge Paez carefully distinguishes this expansive FRE 404(b) analysis for third-party liability evidence, from the government’s limited use of 404(b) evidence against a defendant. The government faces a higher 404(b) hurdle – defendants deserve more protection than other potential witnesses from “bad acts” evidence. Id. at *7 (“We caution, however, that our ruling that the conviction documents were admissible here is not transferable to a situation in which the government seeks to introduce similar evidence with respect to a defendant's prior crimes under Rule 404(b). . . . This is because the standard of admissibility when a criminal defendant offers similar acts evidence as a shield need not be as restrictive as when a prosecutor uses such evidence as a sword.”)

How to Use: The Court here relies on its 1980 Armstrong decision, which had held that evidence of third-party culpability is relevant and admissible unless barred by another evidentiary rule. Id. Notably, the Court works through – and rejects -- the district court’s interpretation of latter Ninth authority reportedly constraining that broad Armstrong reading. Id. at *4. 
  A great outcome in this case, but beware that Urias Espinoza is deeply grounded in the Federal Rules of Evidence. For habeas folks eyeing state convictions, note that the Court carefully avoids the constitutional “right to present a defense” challenge in this case. Id. at *1 & n.1. (The Ninth also distinguishes – but does not reject – previous Ninth authority finding no constitutional bar to state limits on third-party culpability evidence). Id. at *4.   
For Further Reading: SODDI – “Some Other Dude Did It:” a time-honored defense. See Imwinkelried article here.
  When the “other dude” is dirty, shouldn’t a defendant be permitted to share that dirt with the jury? The Ninth in Urias Espinoza thinks so, and reverses this conviction despite the high "harmless error" bar. Id. at *10.
  The Ninth is spot on: old-school limitations on third-party liability evidence are outdated and unfair. For an interesting piece discussing this area of law, see Professor David Schwartz and Chelsey Metcalf, Disfavored Treatment of Third-Party Guilt Evidence, available here

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender, ND Cal. Website at


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