United State v. Zaragoza-Moreira

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Law
  • Date Filed: 03-18-2015
  • Case #: 13-50506
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Senior District Judge Gettlemen for the Court; Circuit Judges Reinhardt and Gould
  • Full Text Opinion

When potentially exculpatory evidence has been destroyed by a governmental body, a showing that the investigating officer understood its exculpatory value will result in a finding of bad faith and a violation of the defendant's due process rights.

Estefani Zaragoza-Moreira was apprehended while attempting to enter the United States at the Mexican-American border. While crossing through customs, she was chosen for a secondary screening process, at which point she informed the officer that she was carrying drugs. Zaragoza informed the officer that a drug cartel had threatened her daughter’s life in the event she refused to carry the drugs. Zargoza told the officer that she was hoping to be caught and was trying to act erratically while in the customs line to draw attention to herself. Zaragoza was charged with various trafficking charges. Her defense counsel moved to dismiss the charges based on a claim of duress, requesting that the security footage of her behavior in the customs line be made available for discovery. The footage was destroyed. As a result, Zaragoza conditionally pled guilty to drug trafficking charges, but claims that the destruction of the footage violated her due process rights. The Ninth Circuit reviewed whether the destroyed footage was potentially useful to Zaragoza’s defense of duress. The panel explained that when evidence has intentionally been destroyed by the government, the inquiry turns on the government’s knowledge of the potentially exculpatory value of the evidence. Here, the panel found that there was sufficient evidence that the border patrol officer understood Zargoza’s claim of duress enough to ask her several questions regarding the drug cartel’s threats and her behavior. Therefore, the panel determined that the officer understood the potential usefulness of the surveillance footage and acted in bad faith when she failed to preserve the tape. Therefore, Zaragoza’s due process rights were violated. The panel remanded back to the district court to dismiss the indictment. REVERSED and REMANDED.

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