Saturday, March 09, 2019
Jurisdiction of the Virgin Island District Courts / Limitation on cross based on Rule 403
Ayala was convicted in the District Court of the Virgin Islands of federal Hobbs Act robbery and conspiracy, use of a firearm during the commission of the crime of violence, and Virgin Islands first degree robbery. At trial, the evidence showed that on August 19, 2015, a jewelry store on St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. was robbed at gunpoint by co-defendants Thomas and Emmanuel. Another co-defendant, Miller, waited outside in a getaway car. Ayala was in the front passenger seat. Thomas, Emmanuel, and Miller testified about Ayala's role in the robbery: Ayala paid for their plane tickets from St. Croix to St. Thomas; reserved and paid for the hotel rooms; and, picked up and paid for the rental car. After the robbery, she paid Thomas and Emmanuel for their work.
At trial, Ayala raised the affirmative defense of duress. She argued that two other men, Bogus a/k/a Bogie (“B”) and Waza a/k/a Muwaza (“W”), told her to participate in the robbery and that she only agreed because she feared for her life. Additionally, she feared for her brother, who was W’s cellmate. During cross-examination, Ayala was permitted to question the government witnesses about B and W, but not their reputations for violence, in support of her defense based on Rule 403.
Ayala raised five issues on appeal which the Circuit ruled on as follows:
1. Pursuant to congressional grants of jurisdiction in 48 U.S.C. § 1612(a) and 18 U.S.C. § 3241, the District Court of the Virgin Islands can adjudicate federal criminal offenses in cases in which the United States is a party;
2. The Court further held that a judge of the District Court of the Virgin Islands may serve past the expiration of the judge’s ten-year term, until the President nominates and the Senate confirms a successor, and the fact that the term of the presiding judge had expired did not render the convictions invalid;
3. Next, the Court addressed whether convictions for both Hobbs Act robbery and Virgin Islands first-degree robbery violated the Double Jeopardy Clause. Because the federal charge contains an interstate commerce element, whereas the VI robbery offense requires the display or threat to use a dangerous weapon, each requires proof of an element the other does not, and therefore meets the Blockburger standard and no violation of the Double Jeopardy clause.
4. Ayala challenged the court’s limitation on her ability to cross-examine the government's witnesses about B’s and W’s reputations for violence, given that such a line of questioning went to the heart of her affirmative defense of duress—that she only committed the crime because she believed B and W would hurt her or her family if she did not, and that her fear was objectively reasonable. The trial court gave little explanation other than citing Rule 403, and did not put any balancing on the record.
The Court here elected to conduct its own balancing. At trial, although not permitted to ask government witnesses (including law enforcement witnesses) about B’s and W’s reputations for violence, Ayala was permitted to ask the witnesses if they knew B or W, whether the witness was afraid of them, and how that fear affected their decisions. Miller and Emmanuel both testified on cross-examination about their fear of B and W, and Miller admitting that he did not want to even say B’s name out loud out of fear. Emmanuel was able to testify on cross-examination that he turned himself in to the police after the robbery because he “felt threatened big-time” by B and W, that B and W are “both dangerous dudes” and that he was afraid of their “reach” and the violence they could do to his family and him. Thomas testified that he was not afraid of B or W.
Although “troubled” that the trial court did not provide on-the-record balancing, the Court was satisfied that it had not abused its discretion in limiting cross-examination. The Court explained that Ayala’s duress defense did not depend on B’s and W’s past crimes or reputations as they were not on trial and the probative value was slight to none. “What Ayala sought to prove—namely, that she faced an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury; her claimed fear was well-grounded; this immediate threat directly caused her criminal acts; and she did not recklessly place herself in the situation, . . . had nothing to do with B's and W's reputations.” Furthermore, this narrow limitation on cross-examination did not hinder Ayala from eliciting the evidence that went to her duress defense, as the jury was permitted to hear whether her co-conspirators were afraid of B and W, and how that fear affected their actions.
5. Finally, the Court held that the shackling of Ayala during her non-jury sentencing was not an abuse of discretion.
United States v. Ayala, No. 17-2422 (March 6, 2019)
The District Court's indication of the sentence it would impose before the defendant allocuted was not reversible plain error.
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