USA v. Cesar Mejia-Ruiz
OPINION filed: AFFIRMED, decision not for publication pursuant to local rule 206. Damon J. Keith; Julia Smith Gibbons (authoring) and Helene N. White, Circuit Judges.
File Name: 11a0593n.06
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Aug 22, 2011
LEONARD GREEN, Clerk
ON APPEAL FROM THE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT
COURT FOR THE EASTERN
DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
Before: KEITH, GIBBONS, and WHITE, Circuit Judges.
JULIA SMITH GIBBONS, Circuit Judge. Defendant–Appellant Cesar Mejia-Ruiz pled
guilty to possessing a firearm while illegally in the United States. He appeals the 120-month
sentence of incarceration imposed by the district court on the grounds that (1) the use of an
interpreter who spoke Spanish rather than Kanjobal at sentencing violated Mejia-Ruiz’s right to due
process and to confront witnesses; and (2) the prosecutor improperly and repeatedly referred to
Mejia-Ruiz’s silence during the sentencing hearing, in violation of his right to remain silent. For the
reasons discussed below, we affirm the sentence imposed by the district court.
On July 11, 2008, Chattanooga police responded to a 911 call claiming that a Hispanic male
with a gun was pursuing two Hispanic subjects. The police found Armando Francisco (“Francisco”)
and his wife Maria (“Maria”) hiding outside the residence of Paula Neal. The Franciscos reported
that they had been kidnaped at gunpoint in Oklahoma two weeks before. Minutes after finding the
victims, Neal alerted officers to Mejia-Ruiz and identified him as the gunman who had been chasing
the Franciscos. Police then apprehended Mejia-Ruiz.
United States v. Mejia-Ruiz
In September 2008, a grand jury issued a seven-count superseding indictment against MejiaRuiz, charging him with kidnaping for ransom, forceful seizure, illegal entry into the United States,
unlawful transportation of illegal aliens, unlawful possession of a firearm by an illegal alien, and
possession of a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime. In February 2009, Mejia-Ruiz pled guilty
to a single count, unlawful possession of a firearm by an illegal alien, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §
The United States Probation Office then prepared its presentence report for Mejia-Ruiz.
Pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(c)(1)(A), the report concluded that a cross-reference to U.S.S.G.
§ 2A4.1 should be applied in relation to the kidnaping offense, even though Mejia-Ruiz had not pled
guilty to that count. The report subsequently calculated a total offense level of 38 and criminal
history category of I. Mejia-Ruiz objected to the presentence report, contending that he did not
commit the alleged kidnaping offense or physically restrain the victim. Based on these objections,
the court concluded that an evidentiary hearing was necessary to determine whether there was
sufficient evidence to support the report’s determinations.
The government first called Armando Francisco; given that Francisco was not a native
English speaker, his testimony was translated by a Spanish interpreter. Francisco testified that he
and Maria Francisco (“Maria”) moved to Oklahoma City in July 2008. In Oklahoma City, he met
two Spanish-speaking men who offered him work. Francisco and Maria followed them to a house,
where the men kidnaped both of them for approximately ten days, holding them in a bathroom.
Francisco testified that the men, one of whom was Mejia-Ruiz, had guns and had demanded $10,000
for their release. According to Francisco, after ten days, both he and Maria were forced into a car
at gunpoint and driven from Oklahoma to Chattanooga. The day after arriving in Chattanooga,
Francisco said both victims were placed in another car. Mejia-Ruiz and another captor drove the car
to a store and exited the vehicle; at that moment, Francisco and Maria escaped from the car and ran.
Mejia-Ruiz pursued the Franciscos on foot, with a gun visible. On cross-examination, counsel
United States v. Mejia-Ruiz
suggested that Francisco had actually entered Mejia-Ruiz’s vehicle in Oklahoma voluntarily because
Mejia-Ruiz had agreed to take him to Chattanooga. Francisco denied this charge and denied that he
had fled the vehicle to avoid paying Mejia-Ruiz gas money.1
After testimony and arguments, the court made its factual findings. It concluded that “in
isolation the Court would have difficulty accepting [Francisco’s] testimony,” in part because “he had
a great deal of difficulty comprehending the questions asked for each side.” However, the court saw
no reason for doubting Francisco’s motive and reasoned that had Francisco been fabricating the
story, “then he would be exhibiting a higher degree of sophistication than we have seen.” The court
explained that if the standard of proof “was proof beyond a reasonable doubt, I think that the Court
would give [Mejia-Ruiz] the benefit of the doubt.” As this was not the standard at a hearing
conducted during the sentencing stage, however, the court concluded that there was clear and
convincing evidence that Mejia-Ruiz had kidnaped the Franciscos. The court therefore found that
Mejia-Ruiz was involved in an effort to kidnap Francisco and concluded that the presentence report
had properly calculated the total offense level, including the cross-reference increase. Noting that
the guideline range for an offense level of 38 and criminal history category of I was generally 235
to 293 months, the court acknowledged that the statutory maximum offense for 18 U.S.C. §
922(g)(5) was 120 months’ incarceration. The court then sentenced Mejia-Ruiz to 120 months’
imprisonment. Mejia-Ruiz appeals this sentence.
Mejia-Ruiz first argues that, because Francisco’s native language was Kanjobal (a Mayan
dialect spoken primarily in Guatemala and part of Mexico), his constitutional rights to due process
In addition to Francisco, the government called Neal, who testified that she saw Mejia-Ruiz
across the street from her house on the day in question and identified him to the police. The
government also called Officer Diaz of the Chattanooga Police Department. Diaz testified that he
responded to the call at the Neal house and interviewed Francisco. The defense stipulated that
Francisco told Diaz the same story that he testified to at trial.
United States v. Mejia-Ruiz
and to confront witnesses were violated when the court employed a Spanish interpreter to translate
Francisco’s testimony. During his testimony, Francisco expressed some difficulty in understanding
certain questions asked by both the government and Mejia-Ruiz’s counsel. After Francisco’s
testimony, the government clarified during arguments that Francisco’s “native language” is Kanjobal
and that “[h]e speaks Spanish as a second language.” This linguistic barrier, Mejia-Ruiz argues,
denied him an adequate opportunity to cross-examine Francisco.
Mejia-Ruiz concedes that he failed to object to Francisco’s testimony in Spanish during the
sentencing hearing. As a result, we only review this claim for plain error. United States v. Bostic,
371 F.3d 865, 872–73 (6th Cir. 2004). “When reviewing a claim under a plain error standard, this
Court may only reverse if it is found that (1) there is an error; (2) that is plain; (3) which affected the
defendant’s substantial rights; and (4) that seriously affected the fairness, integrity or public
reputation of the judicial proceedings.” United States v. Barnes, 278 F.3d 644, 646 (6th Cir. 2002).
The Supreme Court has explicitly held that the Due Process Clause applies to the sentencing
process. Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, 358 (1977). Similarly, this court has accepted—at least
when reviewing a credibility determination in the immigration context—that “obvious
misunderstandings based on translation mistakes” could serve as the basis for a due process claim.
Kaciqi v. Holder, 349 F. App’x 58, 62 (6th Cir. 2009); see also Ahmed v. Gonzales, 398 F.3d 722,
727 (6th Cir. 2005). However, this court has accepted such translational claims only where the
appellant “was prejudiced by interpretation or translation errors.” Id. In Amadou v. INS, for
instance, this court found that a party had been “deprived of his due process right to a full and fair
hearing because of the incompetence of the interpreter.” 226 F.3d 724, 726 (6th Cir. 2000). In
Amadou, a variety of exchanges during the proceedings revealed that the translator was having
difficulty understanding the witness and had incorrectly translated some of the witness’s statements.
Id. at 727. The court also found that the “record indicates that the interpreter’s faulty translation
United States v. Mejia-Ruiz
directly prejudiced [the petitioner]” because the immigration judge had found the witness not
credible in part due to the witness’s inconsistency and lack of clarity. Id.; see also Ahmed, 398 F.3d
at 727–28 (finding asylum applicant was denied a fair hearing where the immigration judge made
adverse credibility findings against in part based on misunderstandings of the applicant’s oral
testimony). Because we review Mejia-Ruiz’s claim for plain error, he too must show prejudice in
order to prove his substantial rights were affected. United States v. Gabbard, 586 F.3d 1046, 1051
(6th Cir. 2009) (noting the substantial-rights prong of plain error review requires a showing of
In this case, Mejia-Ruiz overstates the degree to which language actually inhibited crossexamination. First, the entirety of Francisco’s testimony suggests that, while Spanish was not his
native language, he speaks the second language fluently. Though Francisco had some difficulty
understanding some questions asked of him, the district court attributed the difficulty to Francisco’s
limited education, not to any linguistic barrier. Second, while Francisco was sometimes not able to
comprehend a question asked of him, a simple rephrasing of the question by counsel corrected the
misunderstanding and Francisco was able to answer.2
Moreover, Mejia-Ruiz was not harmed by the errors in translation here like the asylum seeker
in Amadou was. The district court found that Francisco’s difficulty with certain questions bore on
the witness’s credibility, which helped Mejia-Ruiz’s case. The court explained that it would not find
Francisco’s testimony sufficiently cogent to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mejia-Ruiz
kidnaped Francisco; given the lower standard of proof during a sentencing hearing, however, the
court found it adequately persuasive. Mejia-Ruiz has not offered any evidence that he was harmed
by the alleged difficulties in translation, and Amadou and other cases like it are distinguishable.
For example, the following exchange took place during cross-examination: “Q. Mr.
Francisco, what is your education? A. You mean, like, schooling? Q. School, yes. A. I only got
to the fourth grade.”
United States v. Mejia-Ruiz
Because Mejia-Ruiz cannot show that a difficulty in interpretation prejudiced him during the
sentencing hearing, we find that the sentencing court made no plain error affecting Mejia-Ruiz’s due
Mejia-Ruiz also argues that the use of a Spanish translator violated his constitutional right
to confront Francisco. The government first responds by arguing that no right was violated because
Mejia-Ruiz does not have a constitutional right to cross-examine a witness during a sentencing
hearing. The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation
Clause applies to sentencing, United States v. Fell, 217 F. Supp. 2d 469, 486 (D. Vt. 2002), though
broad language of this court’s prior opinions suggest that it does not.3 As the government concedes,
however, most of our opinions dealing with the Confrontation Clause’s application in sentencing
proceedings only consider the admission of testimonial hearsay, not the right to cross-examine a
testifying witness. Here, we need not answer definitively the questions of whether the Confrontation
Clause applies at sentencing or whether it applies to the sort of claim made here, because Mejia-Ruiz
has not demonstrated any infringement of a right to cross-examine.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right of a criminal defendant “to be confronted with
the witnesses against him.” U.S. Const. amend. VI; see also Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400, 407
(1965). Cross-examination is a “primary interest” secured by the Confrontation Clause; indeed, it
On multiple occasions, this court has rather unequivocally stated that “the Confrontation
Clause does not apply at sentencing.” United States v. Moncivais, 492 F.3d 652, 665 (6th Cir. 2007);
see also United States v. Christman, 509 F.3d 299, 304 (6th Cir. 2007); United States v. Hamad, 495
F.3d 241, 246 (6th Cir. 2007); United States v. Stone, 432 F.3d 651, 654 (6th Cir. 2005); United
States v. Silverman, 976 F.2d 1502, 1511 (6th Cir. 1992) (en banc). Other circuit courts have issued
similarly broad language denying the Confrontation Clause applies during sentencing proceedings.
See, e.g., United States v. Powell, --- F.3d ---, 2011 WL 1797893, at *1 (4th Cir. May 12, 2011);
United States v. Dyer, 589 F.3d 520, 532 (1st Cir. 2009); United States v. Robinson, 482 F.3d 244,
246 (3d Cir. 2007); United States v. Martinez, 413 F.3d 239, 242 (2d Cir. 2005); United States v.
Navarro, 169 F.3d 228, 236 (5th Cir. 1999).
United States v. Mejia-Ruiz
“is the principal means by which the believability of a witness and the truth of his testimony are
tested.” Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308, 316 (1974). But while “the Confrontation Clause guarantees
an opportunity for effective cross-examination,” it does not guarantee the right to “cross-examination
that is effective in whatever way, and to whatever extent, the defense might wish.” Delaware v.
Fensterer, 474 U.S. 15, 20 (1985) (emphasis omitted).
Here, however, Francisco unequivocally was available to Mejia-Ruiz, and Mejia-Ruiz had
the full opportunity to cross-examine the witness. Mejia-Ruiz seems to imply that a linguistic barrier
essentially made Francisco unavailable for cross-examination. Even assuming that Francisco’s
difficulty with Spanish created a genuine difficulty in cross-examining him, such difficulty did not
rise to the level of a total deprivation of the opportunity to conduct a meaningful cross-examination,
and no case law suggests this complication would amount to a constitutional violation.4 In sum,
Mejia-Ruiz has no claim under the Confrontation Clause, and the district court committed no error
by allowing Francisco to testify in Spanish.
Mejia-Ruiz also argues that the prosecutor improperly made repeated references to MejiaRuiz’s silence, in violation of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Mejia-Ruiz
acknowledges that he failed to object to the prosecutor’s statements during the sentencing
proceedings, warranting plain error review. United States v. Henry, 545 F.3d 367, 376 (6th Cir.
2008). Plain error results from prosecutorial misconduct when the prosecutor makes improper
comments that are so flagrant in context that they “undermine the fundamental fairness of the trial
In his brief, Mejia-Ruiz also mentions the Court Interpreters Act (“CIA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1827,
in apparent support of his Confrontation Clause claim. The CIA, however, “was not enacted to
‘create new constitutional rights for defendants or expand existing constitutional safeguards’; rather,
it was intended ‘to mandate the appointment of interpreters under certain conditions and to establish
statutory guidance for the use of translators in order to ensure that the quality of the translation does
not fall below a constitutionally permissible threshold.’” United States v. Johnson, 248 F.3d 655,
661 (7th Cir. 2001) (quoting United States v. Joshi, 896 F.2d 1303, 1309 (11th Cir. 1990)).
United States v. Mejia-Ruiz
and contribute to a miscarriage of justice.” United States v. Young, 470 U.S. 1, 16 (1985). In the
context of prosecutorial remarks made to a jury, this court has developed four factors to determine
if the prosecutor’s comments are so flagrant that they threaten fundamental fairness: “(1) whether
the conduct and remarks of the prosecutor tended to mislead the jury or prejudice the defendant; (2)
whether the conduct or remarks were isolated or extensive; (3) whether the remarks were deliberately
or accidentally made; and (4) whether the evidence against the defendant was strong.” United States
v. Modena, 302 F.3d 626, 635 (6th Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
Here we initially note that the potential for prejudice to Mejia-Ruiz was minimal. The
remarks in question were made to the judge during a sentencing hearing. While the prosecutor’s
remark that “[i]t’s not a question of Mr. Mejia Ruiz’s story, which, by the way, he never took the
stand” was improper, it hardly amounts to constitutional violation.5 The transcript evidences no
prejudice based on the statement. The district court never mentioned Mejia-Ruiz’s silence during
its factual finding and instead focused almost exclusively on the credibility of the government’s
witnesses. The court was of course aware that it should not consider Mejia-Ruiz’s silence. Because
the court appears to have been unaffected by the government’s statements, the first prong of the test
does not weigh in Mejia-Ruiz’s favor. As to the second prong—whether the conduct or remarks
were isolated or extensive—the record indicates that only one statement made by the government
improperly referenced Mejia-Ruiz’s silence.
Mejia-Ruiz points to two other prosecutorial statements that Mejia-Ruiz argues “obliquely
referred to his silence.” First, he flags the prosecution’s remark that the testimony offered by
witnesses “has not been controverted by anything from Mr. Mejia Ruiz.” He also claims the
statement “we haven’t seen any evidence today that refutes Mr. Francisco’s story” was an improper
reference to his silence. Both remarks, however, only discussed the evidence adduced during the
hearing, and neither referred to Mejia-Ruiz’s decision not to testify. Joseph v. Coyle, 469 F.3d 441,
474 (6th Cir. 2006) (“‘[G]eneral references to evidence as uncontradicted, while not recommended,
may not reflect on the defendant’s failure to testify where witnesses other than the defendant could
have contradicted the evidence.” (quoting Byrd v. Collins, 209 F.3d 486, 534 (6th Cir. 2000)).).
United States v. Mejia-Ruiz
The third and fourth factors—whether the remarks were deliberately or accidentally made
and whether the evidence against the defendant was strong—also do not support Mejia-Ruiz. There
is no evidence offered that the prosecution’s improper remark was purposeful, and the singular,
passing nature of the statement suggests it was accidental. The evidence marshaled against MejiaRuiz was also relatively strong. The district court found the statements of all government witnesses
relatively credible; similarly, he found that Mejia-Ruiz’s possession of a firearm tended to undermine
his story that he had only been acting as a driver for Francisco.
Given the isolated nature of the government’s single improper remark, the lack of effect that
statement seemingly had on the district court’s decision, and the evidence offered against Mejia-Ruiz
during the hearing, Mejia-Ruiz has failed to show plain error. We therefore affirm the sentence
imposed by the district court.
For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the sentence imposed by the district court.
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