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IT’S NOT MY TRUCK
Ever have this happen to you? You borrow your cousin’s pickup to run into town for a six-pack of the beer formerly known as Bud. You’re reasonably cautious: you ask him whether there are any illegal aliens in the toolbox back in the bed. He says, “Of course not!”
You drive off, mollified and a little self-satisfied that you thought to check. After all, you can’t be too safe. Your congratulatory euphoria lasts until the Border Patrol pulls you over. You open the toolbox for the nice agents, and, lo and behold, there’s an extended family of Mexican inside, eating lunch.
A common enough occurrence, right? Sure. It happened to Duane Sheridan, who was convicted of transporting aliens within the United States in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324. Duane explained to the jury that he had no idea those folks were in the toolbox of his cousin’s truck. He had just borrowed the Dodge Ram for a bit.
Duane was convicted, of course, and appealed the judge’s refusal to instruct the jury that when the aliens are hidden in the vehicle, control of the truck alone is not enough to prove he knew the aliens were there.
Duane likened aliens to drugs. The 5th Circuit has held that a jury can infer the knowledge element of unlawful drug possession from the defendant’s control of a vehicle in which the drugs are contained. However, when the drugs are hidden, control alone is not sufficient to prove knowledge. Duane argued that the same should apply for aliens.
The district court followed the 5th Circuit pattern instruction, which said that the jury could convict Duane only if the government proved, among other things, that he “knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that the aliens were in the United States in violation of the law” and that he was hauling the aliens “with the intent to further the alien’s unlawful presence.”
On Tuesday, the 5th Circuit rejected Duane’s position that “the district court’s instruction (and by extension, the 5th Circuit Pattern Jury Instruction) ‘took for granted Mr. Sheridan’s awareness that ‘said alien’ (the hidden cargo) was present in the pickup truck’.” The Court ruled that the instructions the jury heard presupposed that a jury would have to find that the defendant knew the aliens were hidden onboard. Otherwise, how could the defendant know or recklessly disregard the aliens’ immigration status or intend to further their being in the U.S. illegally. You can’t intend to help the illegal acts of someone you don’t know you’re helping, the Court seemed to say, and you can’t know you’re helping someone you don’t know is there.
The Court concluded that district court’s jury charge was an adequate statement of the law. That’s probably so, although the implication is not as clear as the defendant might want it. But that’s the job of defense counsel: the argument that one can’t aid someone he doesn’t know is there was one Duane’s lawyer should have been pointing out to the jury.
United States v. Sheridan, Case No. 15-41678 (5th Cir., Oct. 4, 2016)