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Second Circuit: Government’s Misleading Disclosure Warrants New Trial

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the Government violated Rule 16 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure when its misleading disclosure caused the defense to forego filing a motion to suppress the defendant’s statement. The Court vacated the district court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion.

On November 15, 2015, Francis Patino Vinas arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport after returning from the Dominican Republic. His luggage was initially searched in the open, public area of the airport by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) officer Francisco Santos.

Santos became suspicious of a bottle containing a drink known as Mamajuana. Santos kept Vinas’ passport and, along with three other armed CBP officers, escorted Vinas to a search room. 

Once inside the room, Santos asked Vinas where he had obtained the Mamajuana. Vinas responded that he had purchased it at a store in the Dominican Republic (“the Store Statement”).

Santos removed several blue objects that contained cocaine from inside the bottle. Santos arrested Vinas and advised him of his Miranda rights.

Vinas was indicted for importing cocaine and with possession with intent to distribute. In its disclosure pursuant to Rule 16, which governs discovery in federal criminal proceedings, the Government said it was during the “initial inspection” when Vinas gave the Store Statement.

But at the ensuing trial, counsel for the defense learned that Vinas gave the Store Statement while he was in the search room. The jury convicted Vinas on both charges. The defense filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the Government’s misleading disclosure lulled them into foregoing a motion to suppress. The court denied the motion, and Vinas appealed.

The Second Circuit cited United States v. McElroy, 697 F.2d 459 (2d Cir. 1982), to emphasize that the purpose of a Rule 16 pretrial disclosure of a defendant’s oral statements is to enhance the ability of defense counsel to identify those statements obtained in violation of Miranda and move to suppress them prior to trial. The Court determined that the Government’s disclosure violated Rule 16 by stating Vinas gave his statement “during the ‘initial inspection’ which is reasonably interpreted as referring to the inspection in the open, public area of the airport where Vinas first encountered Santos.” In that scenario, Vinas was not in custody, and Miranda’s protections would not apply.

However, had the Government disclosed that the Store Statement was, in actuality, given while Vinas was in the search room, surrounded by four armed officers with his passport taken from him, then counsel would have moved to suppress the statement. These circumstances suggest Vinas was in custody, and if so, the motion to suppress would have been granted. Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: United States v. Vinas, 910 F.3d 52 (2d Cir. 2018). 

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