Thursday, December 23, 2010

Puc-Ruiz v. Holder[1]

Opinion handed down December 23, 2010
Link to Eighth Circuit Opinion

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an administrative ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals that allowed the United States to deport an illegal alien who was Mexican citizen. Puc-Ruiz is a case of first impression for the Eighth Circuit in which the appellant alleged that he was arrested without probable cause in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The court ruled that the Fourth Amendment violation did not reach the standard of “egregious” to warrant suppression of evidence and denied all petitions for review, thus allowing the deportation to proceed.

I. Facts and Holding

St. Charles, Missouri police arrested Jorge Angel Puc-Ruiz about 4 a.m. on August 25, 2007 at a local restaurant after receiving a tip that the establishment was serving alcohol after hours.[1] The police did not obtain a warrant before entering the restaurant.[2] After the arrest, the police contacted and released Puc-Ruiz to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which determined that Puc-Ruiz was an illegal alien.[3] ICE also learned that Puc-Ruiz had previously agreed to leave the United States voluntarily after immigration authorities detained him in 1998.[4] The agency subsequently started deportation proceedings, and Puc-Ruiz was ordered to court.[5]

Roughly two weeks after the initial arrest, the St. Charles police issued a ticket to Puc-Ruiz, alleging that he had violated the municipal ordinance even though there was no evidence that he either owned or operated the restaurant.[6] City prosecutors declined to file charges, and his arrest record was expunged.[7]

In December 2007, Puc-Ruiz appeared in an immigration hearing in which he sought to suppress evidence of his municipal arrest and illegal immigration status and sought to halt his deportation proceedings.[8] The immigration judge (IJ) initially summarily rejected Puc-Ruiz’s motion to suppress, denied his request to leave the United States voluntarily, and ordered his deportation to Mexico.[9] The IJ, at a later date, issued a written decision as to why he rejected Puc-Ruiz’s motions. [10] The IJ reasoned that, even if the initial arrest by the St. Charles police was unwarranted and illegal, it did not prejudice the information the ICE officer had gleaned from Puc-Ruiz regarding his immigration status.[11] Thus, the ICE officer had acted properly.[12] The IJ added that it was within his authority to deny Puc-Ruiz’s request for voluntary departure because the decision was “a matter of discretion.”[13]

Puc-Ruiz moved to strike the IJ’s written decision, stating that it was issued when the case was no longer in the IJ’s jurisdiction and thus was an abuse of discretion.[14] Roughly a year later, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) upheld the admittance of IJ’s written decision and denied Puc-Ruiz’s motion.[15] The BIA stated that because the ICE was not involved with the initial arrest, the agency’s actions and information regarding Puc-Ruiz’s immigration status were “not tainted” and not “subject to suppression.”[16] Furthermore, the BIA found that the IJ did nothing improper despite the fact that he was late in filing his written decision.[17] Puc-Ruiz’s subsequent motion for reconsideration to the BIA was also denied.[18]

Puc-Ruiz appealed the BIA’s decision to the Eighth Circuit.[19] The court dismissed Puc-Ruiz’s petition for review regarding the denial of voluntary departure and denied his petition for review for the remaining points on appeal.[20]

II. Legal Background

A. Fourth Amendment and Due Process

Puc-Ruiz sought to suppress statements and evidence relating to his illegal alien status.[21] He reasoned that if the St. Charles police had not violated his Fourth Amendment rights, his illegal alien status would not have been revealed to authorities.[22] Consequently, Puc-Ruiz argued, the government would have been unable to meet the burden of proof required to deport him.[23] He claimed that wielding improperly obtained evidence is “fundamentally unfair” and a violation of his due process rights under the Fifth Amendment.[24]

Civil deportation cases are generally not subject to the exclusionary rule because the United States Supreme Court has held that the benefits of the probative evidence outweigh the costs to society.[25] However, the Supreme Court “limited its holding to circumstances that [did] not involve ‘egregious violations of Fourth Amendment or other liberties that might transgress notions of fundamental fairness and undermine the probative value of the evidence obtained.’”[26]

In Puc-Ruiz, a case of first impression, the Eighth Circuit examined what constitutes “egregious” and determined that a state action that “‘shocks the conscience’ and ‘offend[s] the community’s sense of fair play and decency’ constitutes an egregious constitutional violation.”[27] A constitutional violation by the state, in and of itself, is insufficient to warrant the exclusionary rule.[28]

Hypothetically, if Puc-Ruiz had been arrested solely on his race or appearance, that violation would be an egregious constitutional violation.[29] However, Puc-Ruiz made no such argument, and the Eighth Circuit held that the Fourth Amendment violation was not sufficient to trigger the exclusionary rule.[30]

The court looked to the U.S. Constitution to determine whether Puc-Ruiz’s due process rights were violated.[31] The court noted that the Fifth Amendment states that, “no person ‘shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.’”[32] However, the Eighth Circuit reasoned that a civil deportation hearing is inherently different from a criminal case in that it does not require any “Miranda-like warning.”[33] The court found no evidence on the record that Puc-Ruiz was forced into divulging his immigration status to ICE through “coercion, duress, or improper action on the part of the immigration officer” and held that there was no due process violation.[34]

B. ICE regulations

The Eighth Circuit found that the ICE did not comply with regulations when it interviewed Puc-Ruiz and the BIA may have improperly shifted the burden to the Puc-Ruiz to prove that ICE had failed to follow regulations.[35] However, the Eighth Circuit found those errors to be harmless because Puc-Ruiz failed to show that his immigration status would not have been discovered otherwise.[36] Furthermore, because ICE regulations are not “constitutionally mandated,” prejudice is not presumed.[37]

Additionally, the court found that BIA acted improperly when it admitted the IJ’s written decision into the record because the IJ lacked jurisdiction and the memorandum did not meet substantive statutory requirements.[38] However, because Puc-Ruiz failed to show how the admittance of the written decision prejudiced him, it also was deemed a harmless error.[39]

C. Denial of Application for Voluntary Departure

Puc-Ruiz argued that he was denied due process and equal protection when he chose to remain silent during the hearing and consequently the IJ became biased against him.[40] Puc-Ruiz argued that those biases manifested themselves in questionable remarks by the IJ during the hearing: “[s]omeone that comes into my court and won’t admit alienage is not going to be entitled to voluntary departure as a matter of my discretion.”[41]

The Eighth Circuit noted that the comment was directed at the petitioner directly preceding Puc-Ruiz and noted that the IJ, in his written decision, had acknowledged that Puc-Ruiz had a right to remain silent in order to preserve his constitutional suppression claim for appeal.[42] The court concluded that the IJ had acted within his authority when he denied Puc-Ruiz’s motion for a voluntary departure.[43]

III. Comment

Puc-Ruiz is illustrative of how difficult it is to overturn a discretionary decision by an administrative law judge. The standard for immigration cases was established in Chen v. Mukasey, which states that “administrative findings of fact are conclusive unless any reasonable adjudicator would be compelled to conclude to the contrary.”[44] In Puc-Ruiz, the Eighth Circuit conceded that the BIA erred in allowing the IJ’s written decision into record.[45] The court also acknowledged that the IJ did not submit a written decision until he learned that Puc-Ruiz had filed a Notice of Appeal.[46] Because the IJ lost jurisdiction once the appellant filed a notice of appeal, his actions could be seen as a post-hoc attempt to buttress his summary denial of Puc-Ruiz’s previous motions.[47] In this case, it appears that the IJ feared being overturned. The timing of the IJ’s written decision came one day after Puc-Ruiz had filed his Notice of Appeal with the BIA. However, the IJ had issued his summary decision a month earlier.

Despite the acknowledged irregularity of allowing the IJ’s written decision into the record, the Eighth Circuit relies on it to find that the IJ used his discretion in denying Puc-Ruiz a voluntary departure.[48] Because the IJ had not entered a written decision when he initially denied Puc-Ruiz’ motions, it is difficult to know what the IJ’s reasoning was at the time of the decision. This is critical because the Eighth Circuit cannot overturn findings of fact unless it can conclude that “any reasonable adjudicator” would have concluded differently.[49] But there is not enough in the original record for an adjudicator to make that decision. This high legal standard may have been the difference between a voluntary departure and a forcible removal for Puc-Ruiz and portends a bleak future for aliens who wish to challenge the removal process.

- Linda Man

[1] Nos. 09-1296 and 09-3629, 2010 WL 5185803 (8th Cir. 2010).
[2] Id. at *1.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id. at *2.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] Id. at *1
[21] Id. at *3.
[22] Id.
[23] Id.
[24] Id.
[25] Id.
[26] Id. (quoting INS v. Lopez-Mendoza, 468 U.S. 1032, 1050-51(1984)).
[27] Id at *4 (quoting Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 172-73 (1952)).
[28] Id.
[29] Id. (citing Almeida-Amaral v. Gonzales, 461 F.3d 231, 237 (2d Cir. 2006)).
[30] Id.
[31] Id.
[32] Id.
[33] Id. (citing U.S. CONST. amend. V).
[34] Id. at *5.
[35] Id.
[36] Id. at *6 (citing 8 CFR § 287.3(a) (requiring an alien, who was arrested without a warrant and in removal proceedings, be interviewed by an immigration officer other than the arresting officer unless no other qualified agent is available), 8 CFR 287.3(c) (requiring the state to inform an arrested alien his legal rights, the reasons for the arrest and information for free legal services)).
[37] Id. at *7.
[38] Id.
[39] Id. at *8.
[39] Id.
[40] Id.
[41] Id.
[42] 510 F.3d 797, 800 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting 8 U.S.C. § 1252(b)(4)(B)).
[43]Puc-Ruiz, 2010 WL 5185803 at *7.
[44] Id.
[45] Id.
[46]See In re Aviles, 15 I. & N. Dec. 588, 588 (BIA 1976); In re Mintah, 15 I. & N. Dec. 540, 541 (BIA 1975); Board of Immigration Appeals Practice Manual § 4.2(a)(ii).
[47] Puc-Ruiz, 2010 WL 5185803, at *2.
[48] Id. at *7.
[49] Id. at *2 (citing Chen, 510 F.3d at 800).