Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Fare is Foul

United States v. Rodriguez, No. 08-2805-cr (2d Cir. November 30, 2009) (Newman, Calabresi, Katzmann, CJJ)

This interesting opinion concludes that a dispute over a taxi fare did not violate the Hostage Taking Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1203.


In 2005, Azucena Gonzalez Mendez was smuggled into the United States from Mexico. She was driven from Arizona to Las Vegas, then flew to Long Island, where her husband, Julio Perez, who lived in New Jersey, was to meet her and drive her home. When she arrived at the airport, however, Mendez, could not find her husband.

Defendant Rodriguez saw Mendez and told her that it was not safe for her to wait in the airport, because there were immigration officers present. Rodriguez pretended to call Mendez’ husband, telling her that there was no answer, then offered to give her a ride. He brought her to a van, which was driven by co-defendant Reynoso. While Mendez was waiting in the van, she saw her husband arrive at the airport, but Rodriguez told her not to get out because immigration officers were following them.

She then reluctantly agreed to let them drive her home. Reynoso drove off with Mendez, and Rodriguez met up with them later at a convenience store. In the meantime, he called Mendez’ family and said that he would bring Mendez home. The family told him not to, but Rodriguez insisted. Rodriguez then spoke directly to Perez, telling him that he was a Customs Service employee who had directed Mendez to car for her own safety. Rodriguez later told Perez that she was on her way to New Brunswick, New Jersey.

After several more conversations with Perez, Rodriguez told Perez to make a financial arrangement with the person driving Mendez, and they agreed to meet at a service area on the Garden State Parkway. Rodriguez, Reynoso and Mendez were the first to arrive there, and waited in an employee parking lot. Just after 9:00 p.m., Perez arrived. Mendez tried to leave the van, but Rodriguez would not let her, telling her that first the driver had to speak with her husband. Perez demanded that they let Mendez out, but they said they would not release her until Perez paid $475 for the ride.

When Perez said that he would not pay anything, Rodriguez threatened to call the police. Perez said that he would call the police himself, and did so, at 9:17. Ten minutes later, New Jersey state troopers arrived, released Mendez and arrested Rodriguez and Reynoso. At total of fifteen minutes elapsed between the demand for the $475 and Mendez’ release; during most of that time, they were all waiting for the police to arrive.

After a jury trial, the defendants were convicted of transporting an illegal alien, not challenged on appeal, and one count of violating the Hostage Taking Act.

The Circuit’s Ruling

On appeal, the defendants challenged both the applicability of the Hostage Taking Act to their conduct and the sufficiency of the evidence. The court agreed that the evidence was insufficient.

First, after a long discussion, the court concluded that § 1203 can be applied in cases that are not linked to international terrorism, even though the treaty that inspired the legislation was specifically direct to acts of terrorism. But the court went on to note that the statute’s original purpose should “serve as a frame of reference to caution against stretching the coverage of the Act.”

In concluding that the evidence was insufficient, the court noted that the statute required the government to prove that Rodriguez and Reynoso “detained” Mendez and continued to do so to compel her husband to pay the taxi fare. Moreover, the case law requires that the confinement be “for an appreciable period of time.” Here, the relevant period of time should not be measured from the moment that Mendez was first confined at the airport. While this is when the alien transportation offenses of which the defendants were convicted started, it was not the starting point of the hostage taking.

Here, the defendants did not try to compel Perez to pay money for his wife’s release until he arrived at the service area, and the confinement following the demand for payment “lasted at most fifteen minutes.” Rodriguez’ earlier efforts to get Perez to “make an arrangement” with Reynoso could not reasonably be deemed a demand for payment for Mendez’ release. Accordingly, the detention of Mendez for the purpose of compelling Perez to pay for the ride did not begin until the demand for payment was made at the service area.

The fifteen post-demand minutes that Mendez was confined in the taxi at the service area, without any injury or threat of injury, was not an “appreciable period of time,” and hence was “not sufficient to establish a Hostage Act violation.” This is particularly true since, for most of that time, Mendez, the defendants and her husband were all waiting for the police to arrive. In short, “confinement incident to a taxi fare dispute” was not “the confinement of a hostage proscribed by” § 1203.

The court accordingly reversed the defendants’ Hostage Act convictions and remanded the case for resentencing on the alien transportation convictions.

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