Monday, March 03, 2008

U.S. v. Mendoza (9th Cir. - March 3, 2008)

I don't know.

Yes, there was an eight year delay between when Paul Mendoza was indicted and when he was arrested. That's a long time. So I can see why the panel here -- Judges Nelson, Paez, and Bybee -- dismisses the conviction as a violation of his Sixth Amendment speedy trial rights.

But I gotta tell you that there's a big part of me that leans the other way. Mendoza embezzled a quarter million dollars from his employer and then got caught. Because he didn't pay taxes on his ill-gotten booty, eventually the IRS gets onto him, and in June 1995 an IRS Special Agent serves a subpoena on Mendoza's attorney for some handwriting exemplars and the like. At which point Mendoza undoubtedly realizes: "Shucks. The feds are after me. Time to make haste." Which he promptly does. He skips the subpoenaed meeting with the IRS and flees, moving from Los Angeles to Seattle. Shortly thereafter, the IRS tries to catch up with him in Seattle, but they're then told by his wife that Mendoza moved to the Phillipines back in June 1995. In other words, immediately after Mendoza skipped out on the subpoena, he not only fled the state, but fled the country.

Mendoza's wife gives the IRS a number for Mendoza's relatives in the Phillipines, the Agent leaves a message for him there, and Mendoza promptly does indeed call back. From a pay phone, of course. And refuses -- not surprisingly -- to give the IRS agent any contact information. Mendoza fabricates a cock and bull story about what he's doing in the Phillipines, and says he's coming back to Seattle soon, but the IRS agent hardly finds this information credible. And rightly so. So a couple of months later -- in April 1996 -- they indict Mendoza in federal court. And make sure to put out the warrant so that whenever Mendoza does eventually return to the United States, he'll be picked up in customs.

Eventually, in 2004, Mendoza does indeed return from his eight-year sojourn abroad, and gets arrested. At which point he boldly moves for dismissal of the indictment due to this eight-year delay. Judge Lew (in Los Angeles) says "no dice," but the Ninth Circuit reverses, concluding that the eight-year delay constitutionally compels dismissal of the resulting conviction.

As you can probably tell, I'm less than entirely persuaded. Yes, it was an eight-year delay between indictment and arrest. But that's because Mendoza had fled the jurisdiction. I'm quite confident -- certain, in fact -- that if he'd have stayed around, he'd have promptly been arrested. Indeed, that that's precisely why Mendoza left.

And, yes, I know that the IRS agent never told Mendoza that he'd have been indicted, even during the calls he had with him in the Phillipines. But I wouldn't have told him either. The guy's fled the country. The only way he's ever going to come back, I imagine, is if he thinks the heat's off him. That ain't going to happen if he knows there's an indictment out there and he'll be detained the second he steps off an airplane in the United States.

It seems reasonable to me to not tell a fleeing felon that he shouldn't step foot back on U.S. soil if he doesn't want to be arrested. Yes, I know, that may result in some delay. And, yes, maybe, if there's reason to believe that the defendant would have indeed come back if you'd have told him about the indictment, then that delay is on the government, and should result in dismissal.

But none of that seems true here. Mendoza's an embezzler who skipped out on a subpoena and promptly fled the country. The eight-year delay seems pretty much entirety on him, in my mind.

Yes, I know that even Judge Bybee signs on to reversing the conviction (albeit reluctantly), and who am I to be even more pro-prosecution? But my gut still tells me that Mendoza's conviction should be upheld. I just don't like how this one sits with me.