Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Third Circuit finds evidence insufficient to support conviction for harboring; upholds seizure based on anonymous tip

On September 9, 2008, the Third Circuit issued its decision in United States v. Silveus, Case No. 07-3544.  It focused on two issues raised by the appellant, Rozaline Silveus: Whether the evidence was sufficient to support her conviction for harboring an illegal alien (her boyfriend, Dorsainvil Jean), and whether ICE agents' seizure of her -- and the search that followed -- was constitutional.

The Third Circuit held that the government's evidence was insufficient to convict Ms. Silveus of harboring Mr. Jean.  As the Court observed, the evidence supporting the harboring charge was limited to the following:  As ICE agents approached Ms. Silveus's house, they heard a door slam and some bushes break.  Then, as they went to the front door, they saw Ms. Silveus close that door and open a window.  In response to the agents' questions, Ms. Silveus said that Mr. Jean was not there, that she did not know whether anyone had just left her home, and that the agents could not enter to conduct a search.  There was no testimony or other evidence tending to show that Mr. Jean was present.  Therefore, the Third Circuit said, the evidence could not support the necessary inference that Ms. Silveus was concealing Mr. Jean from authorities.  It consequently reversed the district court's denial of Ms. Silveus's Rule 29 motion as to the harboring charge, and vacated her conviction thereon.
The Court was less accepting of Ms. Silveus's challenge to the constitutionality of ICE agents' seizure of her and search of her car.  The agents received an anonymous tip that Ms. Silveus and Mr. Jean were transporting illegal aliens on the car ferry between St. John and St. Thomas.  The informant, who had previously given agents accurate information, provided Ms. Silveus and Mr. Jean's name, said that they were traveling together on the ferry, described their SUV, and provided their license plate number.  Based on this tip, the agents stopped Ms. Silveus when the ferry arrived in St. Thomas.  They found Ms. Silveus in the aforementioned SUV, along with two illegal aliens.  They also saw Mr. Jean off the side of the ferry, treading water.
The Third Circuit held that the anonymous informant's information, taken together with the ICE agents' observations, were sufficient to supply reasonable suspicion for the stop.  It further held that the agents' observations after the initial stop -- of nervous, wet, non-English-speaking passengers in Ms. Silveus's SUV -- were sufficient justification for the prolongation of the stop and further investigation.
In addition to these two major issues, Ms. Silveus's appeal raised three other claims of error: that the evidence was insufficient to sustain her conviction for transporting three aliens, that the district court's erred in denying her motion for a new trial to correct a miscarriage of justice, and that the district court violated her Sixth Amendment confrontation right by limiting her cross-examination of one of the ICE agents.  The Third Circuit rejected all three.
First, it said that the government's evidence (primarily, the testimony of the three illegal aliens in the SUV) supported an inference that Ms. Silveus knowingly transported aliens within the United States.  Second, the Court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Ms. Silveus's motion for a new trial, which she premised on the argument that one of the government's witnesses had perjured himself, because that witness's testimony was not, as she claimed, patently unbelievable.  And finally, the Third Circuit held that the district court, by limiting Ms. Silveus's cross-examination of an ICE agent about his bias against her and Mr. Jean to exclude any mention of the agent's resentment over Mr. Jean's previously being acquitted of a crime (while permitting her to explore the agent's unhealthy, romantic obsession with her and his subsequent anger over being spurned), had not infringed Ms. Silveus's Sixth Amendment confrontation right.

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