Thursday, June 30, 2005

U.S. v. Zavala-Mendez (9th Cir. - June 15, 2005)

There are two things in this world about which I'm fairly confident. The first is that Judge Kleinfeld knows Alaska pretty well. The second is that he writes better than Judge Hall. This opinion demonstrates both of these realities.

Sure, this is a criminal immigration case. But -- fairly unusually -- it's a case where the defendant tried to come into the United States from the Yukon (in Canada) on the Alaska Highway. Brrrrr. Here's how Judge Kleinfeld sets the scene:

"Like all American border stations, the Alaskan facility is inside the United States, so by the time Zavala-Mendez got there, he was already across the survey line that delineates one country from the other. It was dark, and traffic is light on the Alaska Highway in January. . . . Zavala-Mendez's car was the first vehicle at the border in four or five hours. The American border station facility is up a hill, a quarter or half mile from the actual border, because permafrost prevented building the facility closer to the border. The actual border is at the start of the hill. It takes well under a minute to drive at the speed limit from the treaty line between Canada and the United States – marked by a concrete obelisk – to the American border facility where federal personnel are sheltered from the extreme cold. . . . As Zavala-Mendez's car approached, an inspector looked, as usual, through binoculars at the license plate, so that the licence plate number could be typed into the computer. Mud obscured the number. That got the inspector out of the station, because water is not a liquid in that part of Alaska in January and the highway does not throw up mud in winter. When the car arrived at the station, one inspector checked the license plate, and the other asked the driver for identifications. The driver, the driver's mother, and Zavala-Mendez all gave their driver's licenses. The computer flagged Zavala-Mendez, so he was taken into custody."

Judge Kleinfeld concludes that Zavala-Mendez isn't guilty of being "found" in the United States, even though he's -- of course -- actually there, and reverses his conviction. Before I read the opinion, I must admit that I thought that Zavala-Mendez was obviously guilty. But Judge Kleinfeld convinces me that there's indeed a difference between being "in" the United States and being "found" there. And his opinion regarding that issue is really quite good. It's also much, much better than Judge Hall's dissent, both linguistically and on the merits. Which is not all that surprising, since Judge Kleinfeld usually writes a fairly easy read.

So I'm glad that at least two truths that I hold to be self-evident continue to persist.