United States v. Torralba-Mendia

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Evidence
  • Date Filed: 04-28-2015
  • Case #: 13-10064
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Judge Murphy for the Court; Circuit Judges Tallman and Rawlinson
  • Full Text Opinion

It is considered plain error when a district court fails to provide jury instructions for how to evaluate testimony that is admitted as expert and lay witness testimony, unless it can be shown that the error was not prejudicial.

Miguel Torralba-Mendia was charged with conspiracy to smuggle undocumented immigrants into the United States. At trial, the district court allowed the testimony of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) agent as both expert and lay testimony. The district court also rejected Torralba-Mendia’s argument that the I-213 immigration forms used to identify detainees contained inadmissible hearsay and violated the Confrontation Clause. On appeal, Torralba-Mendia argued that the district court erred by not providing specific jury instructions related to the ICE agent’s testimony, and by permitting the immigration forms into evidence. The Ninth Circuit noted, citing United States v. Vera, that failure to give instructions distinguishing the dual roles within a testimony is plain error. Despite the district court’s failure to provide jury instructions regarding the testimony, it was not prejudicial because lay witnesses may opine regarding a role in an organization if the opinion is based on their own perception, helps the jury, and does not need specialized knowledge. The panel noted that there was a reasonable foundation for the ICE agent’s opinion regarding the interpretation of different phrases, separate from his testimony about Torralba-Mendia and the conspiracy. There was also substantial evidence aside from the testimony to connect Torralba-Mendia to the conspiracy. In regard to the immigration forms, the panel held that public records are non-testimonial because they are created for the administrative purposes, not for the purpose of proving facts at trial. The panel determined that the forms would be admissible because other courts have found I-213 immigration forms admissible under Federal Rules of Evidence 803(8). Therefore, the panel found no reversible error, and affirmed the district court’s judgment. AFFIRMED.

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