Court Ruling Deals Major Blow to San Diego Prosecutors’ Zero Tolerance Cases



San Diego’s federal courts have yielded under the weight of an increase in prosecutions of immigrants accused of entering the country illegally. This has led to delays in transporting immigrants to and from court, outbursts from frustrated judges, deprivation of some defendants’ rights and some cases abruptly being dropped.

However, a recent ruling might have frustrated current efforts toward zero-tolerance cases.Last June, Oracio Corrales-Vazquezwas found guilty of illegal entry in San Diego, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, paving way for far more convicted under similar circumstances to have their convictions overturned—as long as they can hire a professional San Diego appeals attorney.

The ruling deals a massive blow to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” approach to immigration. It will not only affectabout 400 other illegal entry cases in the Southern District of California—who appealed using the same grounds as Corrales—it will also grant those who never sought an appeal to have those convictions overturned. This would reversethe vast majority of illegal entry convictions secured by the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego.

The prosecutors in Corrales case had improperly charged him with a crime he hadn’t actually committed, determined the panel of judges.

The federal government separated illegal immigrants from their families last summer, justifying the act based on their decision to criminally prosecute virtually everyone caught entering the country illegally. Parents were being prosecuted for a crime and thus, the government decided that their children could not follow them during the process.

However, the increase in misdemeanour prosecutions caused havoc and numerous problems in San Diego’s federal courts.

Juveniles were accidentally charged with crimes in adult court and people ordered to be released have suffered in custody. Issues with witness testimony and other mistakes are being discovered in real-time, leading prosecutors to drop cases in the middle of hearing.

Also, agencies that detain and transport migrants being charged with misdemeanours have struggled to accommodate the heavy influx of people, resulting in allegations of poor living conditions and delays transporting people to court leading to more dropped cases amongst other issues.

Corrales, a Mexican citizen, was found in bushes by Border Patrol agents roughly 20 miles east of the Tecate, Mexico, Port of Entry, according to the initial complaint made against him. He effectively argued in his appeal that the government had charged him the wrong way.

There are multiple components that allow for individuals to be charged with illegal entry in a number of scenarios, according to the criminal statute. One is that a person enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than those designated by immigration officers. Another is that they elude examination or inspection by immigration officers. The third is that they enter or attempt to enter the United States by wilfully misleading an immigration officer or concealing information from them.

Since zero-tolerance commencedin April 2018, federal prosecutors in San Diego mostly charged people based on the second component above.

Corrales’ attorneys argued that since he did not enter the United States through a port of entry, he couldn’t be charged with that crime because eluding examination or examination could only occur at “places and times designated for examination or inspection by immigration officers,” like a port of entry—with the 9th Circuit concurring.

Though the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on the ruling, during arguments before the 9th Circuit, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Holley said there were two main reasons the office chose to use the component of the law in question. Firstly, prosecutors felt that activities that people like Corrales had done just to enter the U.S.—such as scaling over the border fence or sneaking in—did, in fact, constitute eluding inspection because the individual evaded officials by avoiding a port of entry.

Secondly, a more practical reason according to Holley was that regardless of which component of the illegal entry statute was used in prosecuting immigrants, the Federal Defenders of San Diego—the group behind Corrales’ appeal and which handles a large chunk of pro-bono federal criminal defence cases in the Southern District of California—would still challenge the convictions.

The Federal Defenders, Holley said, “to their credit are very creative in coming up with ways to challenge these statutes.”

San Diego prosecutors argued, they’d be regardless of what they did, they’d still be challenged—a claim that turned out correct.


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