Monday, January 22, 2018

U.S. v. Espinoza (9th Cir. - Jan. 22, 2018)

Sometimes the law changes not because the underlying politics change, but rather simply because a group of smart people take a fresh look at things.

Today's opinion by Judge Paez is a good example of that.

There were two prior opinions by the Ninth Circuit.  Both of these cases upheld the exclusion of evidence in a "blind mule" drug importation case that someone other that the defendant allegedly stashed the drugs in the vehicle that was crossing the border.  So the district court here held that these cases similarly meant that the defendant didn't have a right to introduce such evidence here.

Not so fast.

Judge Paez's opinion is devastatingly accurate.  The first case the district court relied upon was a constitutional case arising from state law habeas.  But the present case is federal.  The basic minimum requirements imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment in a state case is often dramatically different than what the federal rules of evidence require.  Spot on.

That said, as Judge Paez forthrightly (and repeatedly) admits, the reasoning behind the second case is "less clear".  That one was a case from Guam.  The Ninth Circuit in that opinion seemed to be using the same sort of constitutional test applied in the first case.  But maybe that's because at issue was something akin to state law (Guam), maybe because the issue arose under the Guam Rules of Criminal Procedure (which are, admittedly, akin to the Federal Rules), or maybe just because the prior panel was confused.

But today's panel essentially says:  Whatever.  The prior panel applied a test that didn't follow from the prior case.  And it involved Guam.  We're not going to make the same mistake here.  And mistake it surely was.  You can't import a constitutional standard into an actual rule.  The two are different.

So it reverses and remands.  Because under the relevant federal rule, the district court got it wrong.

This is not a case in which the prior panels were conservative and now we have liberals who simply view the universe differently.  The panels in all of these cases were stacked with lefties (or, in some cases, moderates).

It's just that a prior panel thought the case was an easy one, since it seemed like there was a case that was on point.  One that, upon examination, actually wasn't.

And the subsequent panel doesn't make the same mistake.  Instead, it follow the usual rule established in regular-old federal cases that says that evidence like this is admissible.

Great catch.