United States v. Esparza

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Law
  • Date Filed: 06-29-2015
  • Case #: 13-50033
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Nguyen for the Court; Circuit Judge Schroeder and District Judge Zouhary
  • Full Text Opinion

Hearsay violates the Confrontation Clause if the declarant’s statement is testimonial, if the declarant is unavailable, and the defense has had no prior opportunity to cross-examine the declarant.

On February 19, 2011, Arturo Esparza was arrested for attempting to drive a car with a large amount of marijuana from Tijuana, Mexico to San Diego, California. After Esparza’s arrest, Diana Hernandez, the registered owner of the vehicle, was notified of the seizure by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”). Several weeks later, Hernandez sent the DMV a Notice of Transfer/Release of Liability form containing her signed statement that she sold the car to Esparza. At trial, the United States relied heavily on the Notice of Transfer/Release Form, as well as a DMV printout that was consistent with Hernandez’s statement during the prosecution of Esparza. The prosecution informed the court of their intention to call Hernandez as a witness, but later elected not to do so, even though Hernandez was present in court when her testimony was expected. A jury subsequently convicted Esparza. Esparza appealed, arguing that the admission of Hernandez’s statements violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, because he was not given the opportunity to cross-examine Hernandez at his trial. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit first decided whether Hernandez’s statements were testimonial, and then the panel determined whether the error was harmless. The panel held that the admission of Hernandez’s statements did violate the Confrontation Clause, due to the statements having been testimonial because Hernandez made her statements under conditions that a reasonable witness would believe that her statements would be used at trial. Additionally, the panel found that the error was not harmless, given the government’s heavy reliance on the statements. VACATED and REMANDED.

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