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‘Irrelevant’ Immigrant Status Doomed Fair Trial

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A trial court judge irreparably damaged a man's workplace injury case by informing prospective jurors that the man was an undocumented immigrant, a California appeals court found on Friday.

Wilfredo Velasquez sued Centrome, Inc., which does business as Advanced Biotech, claiming that his workplace exposure to a chemical manufactured by the company caused his lung disease.

Ahead of trial, Velasquez filed motions to block Centrome from presenting any evidence about his citizenship or immigration status. He argued that since he was not claiming a loss of earnings or earnings potential, the fact that he was undocumented was irrelevant and inadmissible.

Centrome opposed the motions. The company argued that Velasquez intended to present expert testimony that he may need a lung transplant in the future, and that undocumented immigrants are barred from receiving organ transplants in the United States.

After an evidentiary hearing during jury selection with a member of the UCLA transplant team - who testified that he believed that the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) policies could bar Velasquez from receiving a transplant - Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr agreed to admit Velasquez's immigrant status into evidence.

Although Mohr acknowledged that the evidence was "highly, highly prejudicial," he denied Velasquez's request to certify the issue for immediate appeal since they were in the middle of jury selection. He also denied a mistrial request and immediately informed the prospective jurors that "Mr. Velasquez is not legally in the United States."

At trial, the same member of the UCLA transplant team testified that UNOS had since implemented a new policy barring doctors from considering residency and immigration status when making decisions about transplant approvals.

Realizing the potential damage to Velasquez's case, Mohr ordered that neither side should make further mention of the man's citizenship status. Days later, the jury found unanimously that Centrome had been negligent - but voted 9-3 that the negligence had not caused Velasquez's injury.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Second Appellate District found that Mohr made two errors that derailed Velasquez's chances for a fair trial: admitting his undocumented status into evidence in the first place, and denying his subsequent motions for a new trial.

"Even before the experts clarified the UNOS policy, we believe the trial court abused its discretion in determining Velasquez's alienage status was admissible under Evidence Code, and the jury should not have been informed of it," Presiding Judge Tricia Bigelow wrote for the panel. "From the start, the expert's testimony that he would have to find out whether UNOS and UCLA took alienage status into account was - at best - only nominally relevant. On the other side of the scale, the trial court correctly recognized the potential prejudice in admitting evidence of Velasquez's immigration status was very real, and very strong. The trial court noted more than once that, but for the probative value of the evidence of immigration status on the issue of the likelihood that he would receive a lung transplant, it would not admit what it considered 'highly prejudicial' evidence of Velasquez's immigration status."

Bigelow noted that courts in California and other jurisdictions have recognized "the strong danger of prejudice attendant with the disclosure of a party's status as an undocumented immigrant." In those cases, reviewing courts have found such evidence either completely irrelevant or only marginally relevant to the issue and that the error in admitting it required reversal - as is the case here, she said.

"The court overweighed the probative value of the evidence of immigration status on the question of whether Velasquez could feasibly argue he expected to require, and to receive, a lung transplant in the future," Bigelow wrote. "The evidence did not show that, because of his immigration status, Velasquez would be foreclosed from receiving a lung transplant, if one was necessary."

And Mohr compounded the error by denying Velasquez's many motions for mistrial when he realized the man's residency status was irrelevant, the panel found.

"Once the court determined that this counter-balancing reason for admitting the evidence did not exist, the only remaining weight on the scales was on the side of the strong inherent risk of prejudice from the evidence," Bigelow wrote. "Having already informed the jurors that Velasquez was an undocumented immigrant we are amply satisfied that, at this juncture, the trial court should have declared a mistrial."

Because the jury would probably have returned a more favorable verdict for Velasquez if it hadn't known about the man's immigration status - given its unanimous finding of Centrome's negligence but its split vote as to causation - reversal is warranted, the panel concluded.

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