Friday, January 27, 2012

When unidentified witnesses may be okay

US v. Ramos-Cruz:  In this case, Israel Ramos-Cruz appeal his convictions for several offenses related to his activities with a gang. At issue was the jury instruction for the aiding and abetting witness-tampering murder, which was abrogated by the Supreme Court’s decision in Fowler v. United States after trial but while this appeal was pending; Ramos-Cruz challenged the denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal, in that he argued he was not in the country illegally; also, Ramos-Cruz challenged the district court’s decision to permit two unidentified witnesses to testify against him as violative of the Confrontation Clause; and finally, Ramos-Cruz took issue with the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence seized at his home during a search. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Fowler abrogated the Fourth Circuit’s instruction given here, rendering them incorrect, but the Fourth Circuit found that the error in giving this instruction was harmless. Fowler changes the burden of proof necessary to sustain a conviction under § 1512(a)(1)(C), in circumstances in which a defendant kills a victim in order to prevent that individual from talking to federal authorities. The government must now show that there was a reasonable likelihood that a relevant communication would have been made to a federal officer, as opposed to a possible or potential communication. The test that the Fourth Circuit had articulated here was similar to the 11th Circuit test that the Supreme Court overturned in Fowler; however, the Fourth Circuit found uncontroverted and overwhelming evidence of the reasonable likelihood of communication with a federal officer, and concluded any error in its instruction was harmless.

Next, Ramos-Cruz argued that he had a pending TPS ("temporary protected status") application at the time he was found in possession of a firearm, and thus he was not illegally in this country. Temporary protective status can provide some benefit to individuals from foreign countries where ongoing conflict or natural disaster prevents its nationals from returning in safety. El Salvador, where Ramos-Cruz is from, has been designated such a country, but at issue here was not whether Ramos-Cruz’s country of origin enabled him to apply for TPS, but whether his application had been pending here, as Ramos-Cruz asserted. The district court and the Fourth Circuit disagreed with Ramos-Cruz, however, finding evidence that Ramos-Cruz’s application for TPS had been effectively denied prior to the relevant events.

With respect to the two El Salvadorian witnesses which the district court allowed to testify anonymously in order to protect the safety of the witnesses and their families, Ramos-Cruz contended that this ruling violated his 6th Amendment confrontation rights, that he could not conduct independent research into the witnesses’ veracity. The government had the burden to prove an actual threat existed in order to protect the witnesses’ identities; the government submitted affidavits to the district court and it examined the two witnesses in camera, and concluded that "the threat to the witness [was] actual and not a result of conjecture." Defense counsel received details of these two witnesses prior to trial, so that they could be cross-examined without a threat to their safety. The Fourth Circuit did not find an abuse of discretion with the district court’s actions, as the witnesses were testifying only to background information on the internal workings of Central American gang activity, not Ramos-Cruz or his activities.

Finally, the search of Ramos-Cruz’s residence pursuant to warrant was held to have given the issuing judge sufficient facts upon which to provide a basis for determining the existence of probable cause. The Fourth Circuit did not disturb the district court’s decision here, considering the deferential standard of review given to the issuing judge’s finding of probable cause.

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