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Second Circuit Holds Government’s Misleading Disclosure of Inculpatory Statement Requires New Trial

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the Government’s inaccurate pre-trial disclosure under Rule 16(a)(1)(A) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure to defense counsel, which prompted him not to move to suppress an inculpatory statement made prior to being given his Miranda warnings, resulted in substantial prejudice and a new trial is warranted.  

Prior to being taken into custody, Francis Vinas told U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) agents that he had purchased a bottle of alcohol that, unbeknownst to him, contained cocaine packets at a store in the Dominican Republic. But after he was in custody, he told them the truth—that he was asked to carry the bottle for someone. Either way, Vinas said he didn’t know the bottle had cocaine in it. He was arrested and charged with importation of and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. 

When he took his case to trial, the Government relied heavily on the fact that Vinas lied about buying the bottle at a store. It argued it showed he knew the bottle had cocaine in it. And that was the key point: The Government had to prove Vinas knew the bottle contained cocaine. 

The Government did inform Vinas’ lawyer that he had made the comment about buying the bottle at a store, but it failed to mention that he made the comment prior to being advised of his Miranda rights. When this came to light—during the trial—Vinas’ lawyer told the judge, “I didn’t get an opportunity to [move to suppress the statement] due to an error in the notice as to when it was made.” The trial court rejected this argument and told him to file for a new trial later. 

Upon filing a motion for a new trial, the same judge denied the motion. The court ruled that there wasn’t a “fair degree of probability” the statement would have been suppressed and that though the Government’s disclosure of the statement to the defense was “imperfect,” the Government’s obligation was met by the disclosure. 

Not true, the Second Circuit said. Under Rule 16, “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.” Thus, the Government was required to tell Vinas’ lawyer that the damaging statement he made was before he received his Miranda warnings. Vinas was “in custody” when he made the statement. CBP seized his passport, he was secured in a room, and he was guarded by four armed agents. This information was crucial in deciding whether to move to suppress the statement, the Court concluded. The damage was that Vinas’ lawyer missed the chance to do so, and it was the Government’s fault for not following Rule 16, the Court reasoned.

“Had the store statement been suppressed, the quantum of proof at trial would have been significantly altered in Vinas’ favor,” the Court concluded. Accordingly, the Court held that Vinas’ motion for a new trial should have been granted. See: United States v. Vinas, 910 F.3d 52 (2d Cir. 2018). 

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