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But, You Have the Wrong Guy

Author: Jim Chapman

 

In United States v. Mitra-Hernandez, 2022 WL 205419 (3d Cir. Jan. 24, 2022), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a Mexican immigrant’s conviction for re-entering the United States illegally even though questions existed about the validity of the law enforcement officers’ stop and extended detention of Defendant. The relevant facts are as follows.


On December 18, 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) officers in Hanover, Pennsylvania, arrested and charged Defendant Leovijildo Mitra-Hernandez with illegal re-entry into the United States in violation of federal law. At that time, ICE officers were conducting a targeted operation in order to locate Juan Ramiro, a person known to immigration officials to be in the United States illegally. Ramiro had previously received a traffic citation in the area and had listed the address of 22 West Walnut Street, Hanover, Pennsylvania, as his residence. The ICE Officers knew that Ramiro was a Hispanic male and that he was approximately 5’7” tall. From the traffic citation, the Officers also knew that Ramiro’s date of birth was June 4, 1994, and that he was driving a black four-door Hyundai owned by a person by the name of Karina Perez at the time that he received the citation. Accordingly, the Officers began surveilling the 22 West Walnut Street residence at approximately 5:00 a.m. on the morning of December 18, 2018.


On that same morning, at 5:45 a.m., Defendant left his residence at 22 West Walnut Street, Hanover, Pennsylvania, where he lived with his wife, children, and sister-in-law. Defendant got into his car, a silver Chevy Traverse, and began driving to work. Believing that Defendant met the general description of Ramiro, the ICE Officers stopped Defendant about a mile and a half from his residence. Officer Cabrera approached the driver’s side of Defendant’s vehicle, and Officer Lutz approached the passenger’s side of the vehicle. Officer Cabrera identified himself and Officer Lutz as officers with ICE and requested that Defendant produce identification. When he inquired as to why he was being stopped, the Officers informed Defendant that they were conducting an investigation and asked him, again, for his identification.

Accordingly, Defendant produced his Mexican National Identification Card, which identified him as Leovijildo Mitra-Hernandez. Officer Cabrera inquired as to Defendant's citizenship, and Defendant responded that he was a citizen of Mexico. Officer Cabrera then asked Defendant if he had any documentation demonstrating that he had permission to be in the United States, and Defendant responded that he did not.


Thereafter, the Officers asked Defendant to exit his vehicle, and he complied. Officer Cabrera asked Defendant if he had ever been deported from the United States, and Defendant admitted that he had been. When asked whether he had applied for permission to re-enter the United States or if he had any immigration application pending, Defendant responded that he did not. Finally, the Officers asked Defendant if he had re-entered the country illegally, and he indicated that he had re-entered the country illegally.


Accordingly, the Officers arrested Defendant for being in the United States illegally. After his indictment, Defendant filed a motion to suppress with the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, arguing that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, in that, the Officers lacked a reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop and then to extend the stop for an investigative detention because there was no evidence of a traffic violation or any criminal activity. Defendant asked the District Court to suppress “all identity evidence, physical and testimonial, in accordance with the Fourth Amendment.” The District Court denied Defendant’s motion to suppress, and after his conviction and sentence, Defendant filed a timely notice of appeal to the Third Circuit.


The Third Circuit began its consideration of Defendant’s appeal by reiterating, that under the Fourth Amendment, when a police officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, he or she may conduct a “brief, investigatory stop.” Reasonable suspicion is not a difficult standard to meet and requires just a minimal level of objective justification.

Moreover, evidence obtained through unreasonable searches and seizures must, generally, be suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree. An exception to this suppression rule provides that evidence regarding a criminal defendant’s true identity and his prior deportation is not subject to suppression. But, there is an exception to the exception: when officers have committed “egregious” violations of the Fourth Amendment or other liberties that might transgress notions of fundamental fairness and undermine the probative value of the evidence obtained, even the defendant’s identity and immigration file may be suppressed.

Defendant argued on appeal that (1) his Mexican identification card and his statements to the ICE Officers during the stop should have been suppressed by the District Court because there was no reasonable suspicion for the stop and (2) that the District Court should have suppressed his identity and immigration file because the violation of his Fourth Amendment’s rights was egregious. For purposes of the appeal, the Third Circuit assumed that Defendant’s first argument was correct, but the Court disagreed with Defendant on his second argument.

According to the Third Circuit, even if there were a violation of Defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, the violation was not egregious. Evidence will be the result of an egregious violation if there was a Constitutional violation that was fundamentally unfair. To determine egregiousness, federal courts consider whether the violation was intentional; whether the seizure was gross or unreasonable (involving, for example, a particularly lengthy stop or an unnecessary and menacing show or use of force); whether the defendant’s home was illegally entered; whether the officers engaged in threats, coercion or physical abuse; and whether the arrest was based on race or perceived ethnicity. The Third Circuit noted that this list of factors was illustrative, not exhaustive, and the familiar “totality of the circumstances” guides the inquiry and determines its outcome.

Defendant argued that he was stopped based solely on his ethnicity and that this was enough to hold that the violation of his Fourth Amendment rights was egregious. But, the Third Circuit disagreed that ethnicity was the sole factor. In addition to his ethnicity, Defendant’s height matched Juan Ramiro’s; his age—38, versus Juan Ramiro’s 24—did not rule him out; and early in the morning, he left 22 West Walnut Street, which was given as Ramiro’s home address on the traffic ticket. Therefore, the Third Circuit concluded that the ICE Officers did not stop Defendant merely because he looked Hispanic.

According to the Third Circuit, no other factors pointed toward egregiousness. ICE Officers did not illegally enter Defendant’s home. The Officers did not threaten or coerce him or make any show of force. And by his own estimate, the Officers detained Defendant for only twenty to twenty-five minutes. The detention was described by all as a peaceful, businesslike roadside stop. Because the violation of Defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights was not egregious, the Third Circuit held that the District Court correctly declined to suppress the evidence of Defendant’s identity and immigration file.

The Third Circuit’s Opinion was not, however, unanimous as Judge Nygaard issued a dissenting opinion. According to Judge Nygaard, the initial stop of Defendant’s vehicle was lawful, but the justification for the stop ended when the officers saw Defendant’s Mexican identification card and realized that Defendant was not the man for whom they were looking.

The other two judges on the panel disagreed and relied upon an opinion from the Eleventh Circuit that held that officers may confirm the identity of an individual who is seen at pre-dawn hours leaving an address associated with a suspected immigration law violator and who could be the suspect. Put differently, the fact that the officers were presented with an identification card bearing a name that differs from the person for whom they are looking does not mean they are not permitted to verify the person’s identity. The Third Circuit agreed with the reasoning from the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion and concluded that the Officers acted reasonably in this case when they sought to confirm Defendant’s identity and that this confirmation process so was not egregious, particularly given the other facts that the Officers knew.


Accordingly, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Defendant’s motion to suppress and affirmed Defendant’s conviction and sentence.

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