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Friday, August 2, 2013

United States v. Alaniz: A Case Study in Issue Conflation and Awkward Analysis

Over at the EvidenceProf Blog, Collin Miller posts about the recent Fifth Circuit case, UnitedStates v. Alaniz.  In this money laundering case, one of the codefendants, Magana, claimed that she did not realize she was helping her brother engage in criminal conduct.  To support this claim, Magana sought to admit evidence of a coworker who would testify that Magana was a naïve and gullible person.  The district court ruled against the admission of this evidence, concluding that even if Magana was naïve, she still could have acted knowingly or willingly in the money laundering scheme.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed this ruling, adding that the coworker’s testimony about Magana’s naïveté would have only incrementally supported her claim that she was not aware of the overall scheme.

Miller does not hold back in expressing his opinion on this ruling.  Miller labels the Fifth Circuit’s discussion of the naïveté evidence as “some of the worst analysis that I have ever seen by a federal appellate court.”  He also deems “Ridiculous” the conclusion that the coworker’s testimony would have only incrementally added to Magana’s defense, and argues that because this is the only evidence mentioned by the court that supports Magana’s naïveté claim, this evidence would have been the “centerpiece” of her defense.

I am in agreement with Miller that the district court’s reasoning for excluding the evidence was lacking.  If the reasoning of its decision were adopted universally, character evidence would become largely inadmissible, since people are always capable of acting in a manner inconsistent with their character.

On the other hand, I am not so sure that the Fifth Circuit’s analysis is as terrible as Miller argues.  The Circuit begins by noting that the district court has a great deal of discretion in making decisions regarding the admission of evidence.  This is worth mentioning because the lower court may have concluded that the coworker’s friendship with Magana may have indicated bias and therefore decreased the probative value of the testimony.  Alternatively, the coworker would probably not have been able to testify about Magana’s gullibility when it came to organizing her finances – making the character evidence less probative regarding the central issue of the case.  While the district court did not engage in any of this analysis, it was probably worth mentioning that the court had the discretion it did.

Moreover, I think that Miller overstates the argument against the Fifth Circuit’s analysis of the incremental nature of the coworker’s testimony.  While Magana’s claim of naïveté may have been her full defense, it is worth noting the volume of evidence against.  Over the course of the money laundering scheme, Magana received $220,000 in wire transfers into eleven bank accounts that she controlled.  Money was also wired out of these accounts to other individuals involved in the scheme.  Magana was aware that her brother was using a false name, and three cars were purchased in Magana’s name over the course of the scheme.  Even if the coworker’s testimony about Magana’s naïve character would have been the bulk of her defense, I think the Fifth Circuit would probably be right to conclude that any error in excluding this testimony was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.  Even though the coworker’s testimony was Magana’s full defense, that doesn’t change the fact that the defense would have almost certainly failed to exonerate her.

That said, the court should have been more explicit in stating why the coworker’s testimony would have failed to make a difference.  Moreover, I think that this analysis is better suited to a harmless error discussion, and I do not think that it is proper for the court to lump all of the discussion together in the context of why the court acted within its discretion.  Here, the relative probative value of evidence was better suited for a discussion of harmless error – not for analysis over whether error had occurred in the first place.

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