When Prosecutors Violate the Advocate-Witness Rule: United States v. Rangel-Guzman

VERY interesting case from the 9th Circuit holds that a prosecutor commits error by phrasing cross-examination questions regarding a witnesses’ prior inconsistent statements as “but you told us” and “I asked you and you said.” Such questions violate the advocate-witness rule.

http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2014/05/28/13-50059.pdf

The defendant was arrested at the border while trying to transport 91.4 kilos of marijuana into the U.S. The marijuana was hidden in a compartment behind his backseat.

The defendant was arrested and charged with the federal offenses of Unlawful Possession With intent to Distribute. While the case was pending, the Federal prosecutor interviewed the defendant. Eventually, the case went to trial.

 At trial, and during cross-examination, the Assistant United States Attorney repeatedly attempted to impeach Rangel-Guzman by referring to a meeting between herself, Homeland Security Agent Baxter, Rangel-Guzman and Rangel-Guzman’s attorney. In doing so, the Prosecutor made it clear that she had questioned Rangel-Guzman and that he had made certain statements inconsistent with his current testimony: “You told us that you and your mother ran into Martha . . . You told us that four or five months before . . . That’s what you told us last week . . . Don’t you remember that I was shocked that you were saying it was four to five months before you got arrested?”

The court reasoned that the Prosecutor engaged in improper vouching by effectively acting as a witness. Vouching occurs when a prosecutor “places the prestige of the government behind the witness or indicates that information not presented to the jury supports the witness’s testimony.” United States v. Roberts, 618 F.2d 530, 533 (9th Cir. 1980). The advocate-witness rule prohibits attorneys from testifying in a trial they’re litigating; the rule “expresses an institutional concern, especially pronounced when the government is a litigant, that public confidence in our criminal justice system not be eroded by even the appearance of impropriety.” United States v. Prantil, 764 F.2d 548, 553 (9th Cir. 1985).

Here, the prosecutor made a number of statements that used variations on “but you told us” and “I asked you and you said,” as well as assertions of fact about what had occurred during the meeting: “Well, we went over and over it, Mr. Rangel,” “Do you remember last week I specifically asked you multiple times who accompanied you to the Quinceanera?” And she left no doubt about her personal feelings during the meeting: “Don’t you remember that I was shocked that you were saying that it was four to five months before you got arrested that you met Martha?”

 When a prosecutor interviews a suspect prior to trial, the “correct procedure” is to do so “in the presence of a third person so that the third person can testify about the interview.”

The court concluded that undoubtedly, the Prosecutor was asking the jury to choose whether to believe her or the defendant. This was highly improper and unfair to the defendant.

 Despite the error, the court affirmed the conviction because the case against the defendant was so strong. In other words, the defendant failed to show that the outcome of the trial would have been different, had the error not occurred. For these reasons, the 9th Circuit affirmed the conviction.

My opinion? Interesting ruling. I’m satisfied the 9th Circuit actually took the case on appeal. It’s also pleasing they recognize when Prosecutors violate the Advocate-Witness Rule. It’s an important rule. Too often, Prosecutors lean on their own credibility when trying cases. This is a very subtle and damaging strategy because jurors have a tendency to want to believe everything a Prosecutor says! This is very dangerous, however, when Prosecutors unlawfully insert themselves into proceedings and testify as witnesses. The Court was correct in saying that the Prosecutor should have called Agent Baxter to testify. Good opinion.