Monday, December 10th, 2018

Misleading Description of Circumstances Under Which Defendant Made Statement Leads to New Trial

In United States v. Vinas, the Second Circuit vacated a conviction and remanded for a new trial based on the government’s Rule 16 discovery violation.

 In Vinas, a courier case, the government’s Rule 16 notice disclosed that Vinas had made a self-incriminating statement during the “initial inspection” of his luggage, i.e., in a public area of the terminal at JFK Airport. Because the Circuit has held that routine questioning in the public area of an international terminal is non-custodial, the defense did not move to suppress, even though the statement was un-Mirandized. At trial, however, it emerged that the Rule 16 notice was not accurate (or, at least, ambiguous). Vinas had in fact made the statement only after four armed CBP officers took his passport and escorted him to a private search room, arguably a custodial setting. Defense counsel objected that the misleading disclosure caused him to forgo a meritorious suppression motion. The District Court (Block, EDNY) overruled the objection, Vinas was convicted, and the Court denied Vinas’s new trial motion.

On appeal, the Circuit (Koeltl by designation, joined by Carney; Hall dissenting) reversed. The Circuit held that the Rule 16 notice was misleading because it suggested that Vinas had made the statement in a non-custodial setting. The Circuit rejected the government’s argument that the disclosure was adequate because it had correctly set forth the statement. No, the Circuit said, the rationale of Rule 16 is to bring Miranda issues to light, and this disclosure did not: “[T]he government’s disclosure offered an accurate summary of the defendant’s purported statement, combined with a misleading description of the circumstances under which the defendant purportedly made it, and so misinformed defense counsel about the possible grounds for suppression.” Vinas was prejudiced because he lost the chance to make a non-frivolous suppression motion, and this affected his overall trial strategy. It did not matter that Vinas himself could have told counsel where he made the statement; the Rule entitles the defense to complete and correct disclosure from the government. Finally, the statement was critical evidence on the only disputed issue, knowledge, and the government itself had touted the statement in summation as “devastating” evidence of guilt.

NB:  The Federal Defenders represented Mr. Vinas at trial and on appeal.


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