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United States v. Pena-Garza

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Victoria Division

November 29, 2017




         I. Background

         On May 21, 2015, Emma Morales-Hinojosa (“Morales”) and her husband, Socorro Pena-Garza (“Pena”), were indicted for conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens between December 2011 and September 2014, in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324. Morales was not arrested until April 28, 2017, more than 23 months after she was indicted. Pena was not arrested until July 13, 2017, almost 26 months after he was indicted.

         Now pending before the Court is Morales' Motion to Dismiss Indictment for Violation of Defendant's Constitutional Right to a Speedy Trial (D.E. 35), to which the Government has responded (D.E. 42). Also pending is Pena's almost identical motion to dismiss the indictment on speedy trial grounds (D.E. 43). A hearing on both motions was held on September 25, 2017, (9/25/2017 Hrg. Tr., D.E. 58) and continued on October 10, 2017 (10/10/2017 Hrg. Tr., D.E. 60). Pena thereafter filed a memorandum in support of his motion to dismiss (D.E. 55), which Morales moved to adopt as her own (D.E. 56).[1]

         II. Legal Standard

         The Sixth Amendment guarantees that, “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial . . . .”[2] Courts consider four factors in determining whether a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial has been violated: “(1) Length of delay, (2) the reason for the delay, (3) the defendant's assertion of his right, and (4) prejudice to the defendant.” Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 530 (1972). “The first prong of Barker, the length of delay, is merely a threshold ‘triggering mechanism.' The Court need not inquire into the other factors unless there has been a delay of such length as to be ‘presumptively prejudicial.'” United States v. Edwards, 577 F.2d 883, 888 (5th Cir. 1978) (quoting Barker, 407 U.S. at 530).

         III. Analysis

         A. Length of Delay

         “Depending on the nature of the charges, the lower courts have generally found postaccusation delay ‘presumptively prejudicial' at least as it approaches one year.” Doggett v. United States, 505 U.S. 647, 652 n.1 (1992). See also United States v. Bergfeld, 280 F.3d 486, 488 (5th Cir. 2002) (“Generally, it is accepted that a post-accusation delay approaching one year is sufficient [to trigger a speedy trial analysis]”.); Davis v. Puckett, 857 F.2d 1035, 1040 (5th Cir. 1988) (13-month delay necessitated examination of remaining Barker factors); United States v. Carter, 603 F.2d 1204, 1206-07 (5th Cir. 1979) (16-month delay substantial enough to warrant further inquiry).

         Here, the 23-26 month period between Defendants' indictment and their arrests is presumptively prejudicial, thus requiring that the Court consider the other Barker factors. See Edwards, 577 F.2d at 888 (21-month delay held to be presumptively prejudicial). However, this delay “is not sufficient in itself to warrant a finding that [Defendants have] been denied the right to a speedy trial.” Id. Accordingly, this factor is neutral.

         B. Reason for Delay

         “If the government diligently pursues defendant from indictment to arrest, a speedy trial claim will always fail without a showing of actual prejudice. On the other hand, if ‘the Government had intentionally held back in its prosecution to gain some impermissible advantage at trial, ' that fact weighs heavily against the government.” Bergfeld, 280 F.3d at 489 (citing Doggett, 505 U.S. at 656-57). “If a case involves neither diligent prosecution nor bad faith delay but instead official negligence, the case occupies a ‘middle ground' where the weight assigned to the factor increases as the length of the delay increases.” United States v. Serna-Villarreal, 352 F.3d 225, 232 (5th Cir. 2003) (citing Doggett, 505 U.S. at 656-57).

         Defendants were indicted on May 21, 2015. D.E. 1. The following day, warrants were issued for their arrest. D.E. 5, 6. At the hearing, the Government presented the following evidence of its efforts to locate and arrest Defendants.

         Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent Eric McCall testified that he received Defendants' arrest warrants from the U.S. Marshals Service on June 10, 2015, and submitted the warrants to the National Crime Information Center on June 12, 2015. 9/25 Tr. at 12:15-13:1. After cooperating witness Jessica Yasmin Lopez told SA McCall that Defendants owned multiple houses in Mission and McAllen, Texas, he researched property ownership in the Hidalgo County Appraisal District, and 2752 Melba Ave., McAllen, came up. Id. at 13:16-14:8. He also learned that Defendants ...

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