Sunday, February 04, 2018

Case o' The Week: Low Marks for Gov't Semantic Gymnastics - Lidia Rodriguez and "Reckless Disregard" Jury Instruction

  Huzzah for the Heartland.
United States v. Lidia Rodriguez (9th Cir. Jan. 30, 2018), decision available here.

Players: Notable decision by the Hon. D.J. Mark Bennett, N.D. Iowa, joined by Judges Kozinski and Friedland. 
  Admirable win for AFPD M. Edith (“Edie”) Cunningham and FPD Jon Sands, Office of the Federal Public Defender, District of Arizona. 

Facts: Lidia Rodriguez, a citizen, was stopped at the border coming into the States: she and her passenger were questioned. Id. at *1. The passenger had a border crossing card, but was allegedly “ill at ease,” wore a new shirt (a purported sign of aliens who changed out of clothes after crossing the desert), and had an empty wallet despite his story that he was coming to the States to shop. Id. at *1-*2. The passenger later admitted in a depo (admitted at trial) that he was an undocumented alien with a false border-crossing card. Id. 
  Rodriguez was tried on a charge of transporting an illegal alien for financial gain. The government sought a “reckless disregard” instruction. Id. at *3. The reckless disregard instruction ultimately given to the jury did not require proof that Rodriguez was aware of the risk (a subjective component). Id. at *4. 
  After an Allen charge, and an alternate juror subbing in, Rodriguez was convicted. Id. at *3.

Issue(s): “Rodriguez seeks reversal of her conviction and remand for a new trial . . . . She contends a jury instruction incorrectly defined ‘reckless disregard.’” Id. at *1.

Held:We reverse.” Id. 
  “[A] correct definition of ‘reckless disregard,’ consistent with Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit law, would include the defendant’s disregard of a risk of harm of which the defendant is aware.” Id. at *7 (quotations and citations omitted) (emphasis added).

Of Note: Lidia Rodriguez is a terrific decision – both for its legal analysis, and for its holdings. In a careful deconstruction, Judge Bennet surveys the evolution of the “recklessness” mens rea requirement. He parses (and rejects) cases that relied upon in the commentary to the Ninth’s model instruction, and explains why the Eighth, Tenth, and Eleventh have it wrong in light of the Supreme’s 1994 Farmer opinion. Id. at *3-*8. 
  Along the way, the Ninth grumbles that it is “unable to follow or accept the government’s semantic gymnastics” arising from a recklessness definition that didn’t require a subjective awareness of risk. Id. at *6. 
  Rodriguez is now a lead opinion on the “reckless” mens rea standard – it is your starting point in any case where this instruction may loom. (Along these lines, dust off your Rolodex and start calling shrinks. We’ll need mental health experts to address our clients’ (subjective) capacity to appreciate the “risk of harm.” With “subjective” in play for this instruction, our clients’ various impairments become very real and relevant issues).

How to Use: Appellate advocates –read Rodriguez. The Court gives us a very favorable read on the preservation of objections for instructional error, id. at *4, sternly enforces the government’s waiver of its “harmless error” argument, id. at *8, and rejects that damnable “exceptional circumstances” trope that gifts the government a Mulligan on its harmless error whiffs, id. at *9-*11. 
  Our AOB’s will glitter with Rodriguez nuggets.
Hon. Judge Mark Bennett
For Further Reading: Who is this Hawkeye, this outspoken visiting D.J.? 
  The Honorable District Judge Mark Bennett is a jurist with views. He’s a brave critic of the grave injustices of mandatory minimum sentences. See NPR interview here. 
  He’s a brave visiting judge in the Ninth, cheerfully challenging incorrect majority opinions with dissenting dissertations. See United States v. Leal-Felix, 625 F.3d 1148, 1151 (9th Cir. 2010) (Bennett, D.J., dissenting), rev’d by 665 F.3d 1037 (9th Cir. 2011) (en banc). 
  And perhaps most notably, Judge Bennett is at the forefront of efforts to recognize the reality of implicit bias, and its pervasive impact on our criminal justice system. See, e.g., Judging Implicit Bias: A National Empirical Study of Judicial Stereotypes, available here
  Love those heartland values.

Image of the Honorable Judge Mark W. Bennett from

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender Northern District of California


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