U.S. v. Vinas, Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Filed December 6, 2018: When is a Discovery Violation Grounds for Reversal?

In U.S. v. Vinas, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a conviction for importing and possessing with intent to distribute cocaine based on the government’s misleading pretrial disclosures.

The Court found that the government failed to comply with Rule 16(a)(1)(A). The government provided the defense with inaccurate information regarding the defendant’s pretrial statements to law enforcement, which caused Vinas to fail to move to suppress the statements, which unfairly prejudiced his defense.  

What is Rule 16(a)(1)(A), when is a discovery violation grounds for reversal, and what happened in Vinas’ case?

What is Rule 16(a)(1)(A)? 

Rule 16(a)(1)(A) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure requires the government to disclose to the defense any statements that the defendant made to law enforcement when the government plans on using the statements at trial:

  • Defendant’s Oral Statement. Upon a defendant’s request, the government must disclose to the defendant the substance of any relevant oral statement made by the defendant, before or after arrest, in response to interrogation by a person the defendant knew was a government agent if the government intends to use the statement at trial.

What Did the Government Disclose?

Upon returning from a trip to the Dominican Republic, Vinas was questioned about a bottle of “Mamajuana” found in his luggage – a bottle that turned out to contain a large quantity of cocaine.

The government disclosed to the defense that Vinas made statements, after he was Mirandized, that a friend had given him the bottle. No problem.  

The government also disclosed that, before he was Mirandized, Vinas made a statement that he had purchased the bottle at a store near the airport in the Dominican Republic. The government’s disclosure stated that Vinas made the statement “[d]uring the initial inspection of his luggage by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers…”

This second disclosure is the problem – if the statement was made during the initial inspection, Vinas was not in custody and there would be no grounds to suppress his statement. Therefore, his counsel did not make a motion to suppress the statement before trial.

In the government’s opening statement, however, the prosecutor told the jurors that Vinas was taken to a “private search room” where he then made the statement that he had purchased the bottle at a store. If Vinas was questioned in a private search room in the presence of four armed guards, he was arguably in custody and there were grounds for a motion to suppress the statement – a very different scenario from what was disclosed by the government before trial.

Although the defense immediately brought this to the court’s attention, the district court at trial allowed the government to go forward and elicit testimony from law enforcement about Vinas’ statement that he purchased the bottle at a store.

The prosecutor then argued that this was evidence of Vinas’ guilt – if he did not know that the cocaine was in the bottle, he would not have lied about it to border agents – and Vinas was convicted.

When is a Discovery Violation Grounds for Reversal?

The government’s failure to disclose a defendant’s statements, or any other discovery violation or Brady violation, is not automatically grounds for reversal.

It is grounds for reversal when it results in prejudice to the defendant’s case and when the suppression motion would not have been frivolous – in this case, there was clear prejudice and the Second Circuit found that the motion to suppress the statement would not have been frivolous.

The Disclosure Made by the Government was Misleading

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that the government violated its obligation under Rule 16 because, although they disclosed the exact statement made by Vinas, their disclosure “was misleading.”

“Misleading” is a euphemism for “the government lied.” Why?

The agent testified that “he did not tell prosecutors that Vinas made the Store Statement ‘during the initial inspection.’”

Furthermore, the evidence at trial demonstrated that the questioning in the private search room was a separate event than the initial inspection – Vinas’ luggage was searched during the initial inspection, but then it was repacked, and he was escorted to the second location by four armed officers.

It is not enough that the government’s disclosure contains the substance of the statement – if the disclosure also provides untruthful information that would mislead the defense into believing there were no grounds for a suppression motion, it is a Rule 16 violation.

The Discovery Violation Results in Prejudice

When the government fails to comply with the discovery rules, that does not automatically mean a conviction gets reversed. Even when the government lies in their disclosures, that does not automatically mean that a conviction gets reversed. There must also be prejudice that results from the discovery violation.

In this case there was clear prejudice from the misleading disclosure. Why?

Believing the statement was made during the initial inspection, the defense did not make a suppression motion before trial.

A motion to suppress the statement would not have been frivolous – arguably, Vinas was in custody when he was detained in the private search room with four armed agents. Because he was admittedly not Mirandized at that point, the statement that he bought the bottle at a store may have been suppressed.

The government relied heavily on the statement to argue that Vinas knew that the drugs were in the bottle – Vinas’ defense at trial was that he was an unwitting courier and had no knowledge of the cocaine hidden inside the Mamajuana bottle which was given to him by a friend.

The prosecutor argued to the jury repeatedly that Vinas’ inconsistent statements as to where the bottle came from were “devastating” evidence of his guilt, saying in closing argument that:

The fact that the defendant repeatedly lied, in particular his lie about buying this bottle in the Dominican Republic, [was] absolutely devastating evidence of his guilt.

Furthermore, because the trial turned on whether Vinas had knowledge of the cocaine, the evidence against him was not overwhelming.

Because the government’s untruthful Rule 16 disclosures resulted in prejudice to Vinas’ defense, the conviction was reversed, and Vinas will have the opportunity to move to suppress the statement at his retrial.

Federal White Collar and Criminal Appeals Attorney in Columbia, SC

Elizabeth Franklin-Best is a federal criminal defense and federal appellate lawyer in Columbia, SC. who defends white-collar criminal cases.

For more information, call us at (803) 331-3421 or send us an email to set up a consultation about your case.