Appellate Procedure,  Criminal Procedure,  Federal Procedure,  Standard of Review

Vindictive Prosecution Dismissal Gets De Novo Review

If you had been stopped twice at the U.S. – Mexican border trying to smuggle in illegal immigrants, told the customs officer both times that you had been paid to drive the vehicle across the border — and in one case admitted that you knew the compensation was for alien smuggling — and you weren’t prosecuted in either instance, you might figure that when you are prosecuted — this time, for trying to bring marijuana across the border — you’re better off explaining that you thought you were smuggling aliens instead of marijuana. That’s exactly how Sharon Ann Jenkins testified in her own defense at trial.

While the jury was deliberating on the drug smuggling charge, the government filed a complaint charging her with the prior two instances of alien smuggling, and she moved to dismiss the subsequent indictment on grounds of vindictive prosecution, claiming that the U.S. Attorney only prosecuted her for the alien smuggling because she exercised her right to testify in her defense on the drug charges. California Appellate Report has a nice write-up on that part of the case.

But before the Ninth Circuit could reach the merits in U.S. v. Jenkins, case no. 06-50049 (9th Cir. July 17, 2007, amended Sept. 25, 2007), it was faced with the unsettled issue of the appropriate standard of review:

The standard of review of a district court’s decision whether to dismiss an indictment for vindictive prosecution is unsettled in this circuit. [Citation.] We have reviewed vindictive prosecution cases de novo, for abuse of discretion, and for clear error. [Citation]

We conclude that the district court’s decision should be reviewed de novo because the issue presents a mixed question of law and fact. The trial court first determines whether the prosecutor’s course of conduct appears motivated by a desire to punish the defendant for exercising a legal right. The court then decides whether the prosecutor has come forth with sufficient evidence to dispel any appearance of vindictiveness. Because our review of these determinations “requires us to consider legal concepts in the mix of fact and law,” de novo review is appropriate. [Citations.]

Two points.

First, note how specifically the court identifies the issue for purposes of assigning a standard of review. The court doesn’t describe the decision under review merely as the dismissal of an indictment, but as the dismissal of an indictment for vindictive prosecution. Lesson: research and apply the standard for the most specific issue that has been previously articulated. And if the court has only identified the general issue before, perhaps you have an argument for a better standard of review to apply to your specific circumstance.

Second, note how succinctly the court settled this issue, compared to its recent resolution in U.S. v. Larson of a similar 3-way split on the standard of review to apply in confrontation clause challenges based on limitations on cross-examination, which I blogged about here and here. Both cases involved an unsettled question regarding the standard of review in a criminal matter. Perhaps the weight of the issue in Larson, where the defendant had already been convicted, seemed greater to the court than the mere dismissal of an indictment.