SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The 9th Circuit on Wednesday shot down the Arizona Federal Court’s practice of taking pleas from 50 to 100 defendants at a time in illegal immigration cases, saying it violates federal procedures. “No judge, however conscientious, could have possessed the ability to hear distinctly and accurately fifty voices at the same time,” Judge John T. Noonan wrote, after acknowledging the “understandable” shortcuts that border-state courts have increasingly adopted to help manage their massive caseloads.
The three-judge panel called the group pleas “not only understandable but reasonable,” given the Tucson court’s 25,000 illegal immigration cases a year. But the judges said the shortcut flouts Rule 11, which requires the court to “address the defendant personally in open court” to determine if the pleas are voluntary or forced.
“We cannot permit this rule to be violated because it is too demanding for a district court to observe,” Noonan wrote.
“We act within a system maintained by the rules of procedure. We cannot dispense with the rules without setting a precedent subversive of the structure. Accordingly, on this challenge by an intrepid federal public defender to the Tucson court’s taking of pleas en mass, we hold the procedure to be contrary to Rule 11.”
The six Mexican citizens represented by assistant federal public defender Jason Hannan had been arrested by the Border Patrol for lacking documentation.
They appeared before Magistrate Judge Jennifer Guerin with large groups of other undocumented defendants.
Hannan asked Guerin to address his clients individually, so that “each of them has an opportunity to speak, to be addressed by the court personally and to allocate to the court with defense counsel.”
The judge continued the proceedings en masse, asking questions of the defendants and defenders that elicited either a “General ‘yes’ response” or a “General ‘no’ response,” according to the record. Each defendant then pleaded guilty individually, and Guerin sentenced them as a group.
Hannan appealed his client’s convictions to the district court, and the cases were assigned to four federal judges. One judge vacated the conviction, but the others found no Rule 11 violation with the group pleas.
Dissecting the language of the law, the San Francisco-based federal appeals court said the group pleas simply didn’t pass muster.
“To be specific, no judge, however alert, could tell whether every single person in a group of 47 or 50 affirmatively answered her questions when the answers were taken at the same time,” Noonan wrote. “No judge could have detected a mute response offered in the midst of a medley of voices saying ‘Si.’ No judge, however conscientious, could have possessed the ability to hear distinctly and accurately fifty voices at the same time. …
“Neither an indistinct murmur or medley of yeses nor a presumption that all those brought to court by the Border Patrol must have crossed the border is sufficient to show that each defendant pleaded voluntarily.”
Although the 9th Circuit rejected the en masse plea process, it upheld the five convictions and reversed Hannan’s sole victory for the sixth defendant, saying the defendants needed to show that the error deprived them of their “substantial rights.”
“None of these defendants has made such a showing or even attempted it,” Noonan concluded.