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

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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

What Did the Government Disclose?

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…”

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

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

When is a Discovery Violation Grounds for Reversal?

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

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.’”

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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