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Post-Arrest Silence Used Improperly at Trial

(CN) - Reversing a man's conviction for re-entering the country after deportation, the 9th Circuit found that prosecutors introduced testimony that violated his rights.

After several prior deportations to Mexico, Jose Angel Ramirez-Estrada found himself incarcerated in the United States in 2005 and sustained a serious jaw injury there.

During court proceedings in which evidence of the injury was presented, a federal judge recommended that the Bureau of Prisons treat Ramirez-Estrada's injury in custody. The injury went untreated, however, and Ramirez-Estrada was later deported to Mexico.

Ramirez-Estrada's subsequent arrest stemmed from his approaching of the San Ysidro Port of Entry on Jan. 4, 2011.

Matthew Ponce de Leon, who manned the primary inspection booth for Customs and Border Protection, testified that Ramirez-Estrada called himself a citizen born in Las Vegas whose his paperwork had been stolen.

Ponce de Leon said he looked up Ramirez-Estrada and learned about his prior deportations. He then referred Ramirez-Estrada to secondary inspection. Ponce de Leon testified that Ramirez-Estrada never complained of any physical ailments.

Ramirez-Estrada, on the other hand, testified that he approached the Port of Entry solely in search of help for his jaw injury. He claimed that his jaw had gotten worse, that he was unable to get it treated in Mexico, and that the federal judge's recommendation entitled him to seek treatment from U.S. officials.

Ramirez-Estrada said CBP told him to leave, but that he did not do so out of desperation for help with his jaw injury. He was then arrested and sent to the secondary inspection area. He claimed to have provided the officers with his Mexican identification card and disputed ever trying to pass himself off as a U.S. citizen.

No other witnesses testified directly as to what happened during the primary inspection, so it was up to the jury to determine the respective credibility of Ponce de Leon and Ramriez-Estrada.

The state called CBP Officer Gabriela Nicasio, who was responsible for booking Ramirez-Estrada following the primary inspection, to impeach Ramirez-Estrada's testimony. Over objections by defense counsel, U.S. District Court Judge John Houston allowed the testimony.

During the booking process, Officer Nicasio read Ramirez-Estrada his rights as required under the Supreme Court's 1966 decision Miranda v. Arizona. Ramirez-Estrada elected to wait for an attorney before answering any questions, and Nicasio then asked Ramirez-Estrada routine booking questions.

Nicasio testified at trial that she asked Ramirez-Estrada questions regarding his health. Specifically, she asked him if he any health problems, "like a heart condition, diabetes, or anything like that," according to the ruling.

Ramirez-Estrada answered no. Nicasio also said she asked him if he had any scars or tattoos, to which Ramirez-Estrada responded that he had two scars above his eyebrows and a broken nose.

In closing arguments, the prosecutor explicitly referred to Nicasio's testimony. He mentioned that Ramirez-Estrada claimed to have told everybody that he was hurt and needed help, but told Nicasio that he did not have any physical problems.

A three-judge panel in Pasadena reversed the conviction Friday, citing the Supreme Court decision in Doyle v. Ohio.

This ruling says that a defendant's silence after receiving Miranda warnings cannot be used to impeach him if he testifies at trial. Furthermore, in United States v. Caruto, the 9th Circuit held that Doyle rights are triggered when a defendant invokes his right to remain silent and the admission of an omission in post-Miranda statements contradicts trial testimony.

A direct inconsistency between post-Miranda statements, in and of themselves, and the trial testimony can be used, however, for impeachment purposes.

In this case, the 9th Circuit concluded that Ramirez-Estrada's responses to Nicasio's routine booking questions were not directly inconsistent with his trial testimony. Therefore, it was his omissions - in other words, his silence - that were used against him.

The asserted inconsistency is that Ramirez-Estrada failed to mention his jaw injury to Nicasio during the booking interview, yet testified during trial that he approached the port only to seek treatment for an injury.

"Had Ramirez-Estrada never invoked his Miranda rights, this kind of impeachment would have been permissible. His invocation of his Miranda rights, however, brings this case within the purview of Doyle," Judge Richard Clifton wrote for the panel.

Nicasio's first question related to health problems, specifically potentially life-threatening conditions such as a heart condition or diabetes. Asking this question made sense in that the location of Ramirez-Estrada's detention pending trial might have depended on whether he had any significant health conditions.

"It is therefore not directly inconsistent for Ramirez-Estrada to have answered 'no' despite his claim that he approached the Port of Entry to seek help for his jaw injury," Clifton wrote. "By that point, Ramirez-Estrada had been arrested and had invoked his right to remain silent. His answer is thus relevant only insofar as it demonstrates his failure to talk about the circumstances of his offense. In other words, the impeachment operated as a comment on Ramirez-Estrada's silence, which is impermissible under Doyle."

Likewise Nicasio's second question about tattoos and scars did not directly call for Ramirez-Estrada to mention his jaw injury.

"His statements, by themselves, are not arguably inconsistent with his testimony; it is only his failure to mention his jaw injury, in response to questions that did not directly call for that information, that arguably impeaches him," Clifton wrote. "Officer Nicasio's testimony is thus relevant only insofar as it highlights Ramirez-Estrada's silence regarding his jaw injury."

In addition, defense counsel had no way to effectively cross-examine Nicasio without eliciting from her the fact that Ramirez-Estrada had invoked his Miranda rights, which would have been more likely to damage his case than to help it.

Ramirez-Estrada's constitutional Doyle rights were violated, and the error was not harmless, according to the ruling.

Because there was very little evidence as to Ramirez-Estrada's guilt, the disputed issue of whether he intended to enter the United States and what he said to Ponce de Leon during the primary inspection boiled down to a credibility dispute.

"Their stories were inconsistent, and the credibility of each was attacked. Ramirez-Estrada's failure to mention his jaw injury to Officer Nicasio was offered by the government in rebuttal for the purpose of undermining Ramirez-Estrada's credibility, and if it persuaded the jury, it was very damaging to his defense," Clifton wrote.

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