In The

Supreme Court of the United States




Decided July 2, 1982

Justice O’Connor, Concurring


United States v. Valenzuela-Bernal, 458 U.S. 858 (1982), is a United States Supreme Court case that determined the constitutionality of deporting aliens who might give testimony in criminal alien smuggling prosecutions. Because deporting alien witnesses might take away a testimony that would be both “material and favorable” to the defendant, it gives rise to a potential motion from the defense to dismiss the indictment under the Compulsory Process Clause of the Sixth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Supreme Court held that because the defendant failed to make a “plausible suggestion that the deported aliens possessed any material evidence that was not merely cumulative of other evidence,” the District Court properly denied the respondent’s motion to dismiss the indictment.

Topic: Criminal Procedure*Court vote: 7–2
Note: No other Justices joined this opinion.
Holding: Respondent cannot establish a violation of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a criminal defendant the right to compulsory process for obtaining witnesses 'in his favor,' merely by showing that deportation of the aliens deprived him of their testimony, nor can he establish a Fifth Amendment violation for lack of due process, as an absence of fairness is not made out by the Government's deportation of the witnesses here unless there is some explanation of how their testimony would have been favorable and material.
Citation: 458 U.S. 858 Docket: 81–450Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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JUSTICE O'CONNOR, concurring in the judgment.

The right to offer the testimony of witnesses, and to compel their attendance, if necessary, is in plain terms the right to present a defense, the right to present the defendant's version of the facts as well as the prosecution's to the jury so it may decide where the truth lies.

Washington v. Texas, 388 U. S. 14, 388 U. S. 19 (1967). In short, the right to compulsory process is essential to a fair trial. Today's decision, I fear, may not protect adequately the interests of the prosecution and the defense in a fair trial, and may encourage litigation over whether the defendant has made a "plausible showing that the testimony of the deported witnesses would have been material and favorable to his defense." Ante at 458 U. S. 873. A preferable approach would be to accommodate both the Government's interest in prompt deportation of illegal aliens and the defendant's need to interview alien witnesses in order to decide which of them can provide material evidence for the defense. Through a suitable standard, imposed on the federal courts under our supervisory powers, a practical accommodation can be reached without any increase in litigation.


One cannot discount the importance of the Federal Government's role in the regulation of immigration. [ Footnote 2/1 ] As the Court points out, Congress and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency authorized to make such policy decisions, have decided that prompt deportation is the appropriate response to the tremendous influx of illegal aliens. Ante at 458 U. S. 864. The Court is also correct that the Federal Government has legitimate reasons for reducing the number of illegal aliens detained for possible use as material witnesses. Particularly because most of the detained aliens are never called to testify, we should be careful not to permit either needless human suffering or excessive burdens on the Federal Government. Under these circumstances, courts should be especially circumspect about interfering with congressional judgments.

Nevertheless, the constitutional obligation of the Executive to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed," U.S.Const., Art. II, § 3, including the immigration laws, does not lessen the importance of affording the defendant the "fundamental fairness" inherent in due process, Lisenba v. California, 314 U. S. 219, 314 U. S. 236 (1941). Moreover, the defendant's express right in the Sixth Amendment to compel the testimony of "witnesses in his favor," requires recognition of the importance, both to the individual defendant and to the integrity of the criminal justice system, of permitting the defendant the opportunity to interview eyewitnesses to the alleged crime. A governmental policy of deliberately putting potential defense witnesses beyond the reach of compulsory process is not easily reconciled with the spirit of the Compulsory Process Clause.


The Court's solution to this apparent conflict between the Executive's duty to enforce the immigration laws and its duty not to impair the defendant's rights to due process and compulsory process is to permit the Government to deport potential alien witnesses, and to put the burden on the defendant of making a plausible showing that the deported aliens would have provided material and relevant evidence. The Court's approach thus permits the Government to make a practice of deporting alien witnesses immediately, taking only the risk that the defendant will be able to show that the deported witnesses, whom the defendant's counsel never will be able to interview, would have provided useful testimony. In effect, to the extent that the Government has conflicting obligations, the defendant is selected to carry the burden of their resolution.

As the Court poses the issue today, the only alternatives are either to (1) permit routine deportation of witnesses and require the defendant to make some showing of prejudice, or (2) delay deportation so that defense counsel can interview the potential witnesses, and provide for automatic dismissal of the indictment if the witnesses are deported. There is, however, another alternative that would avoid unduly burdening either the Government or the defendant. The Court could require that deportation of potential alien witnesses be delayed for a very brief interval to allow defense counsel, as well as the Government, to interview them. That approach is somewhat similar to the Ninth Circuit's practice, originally described in United States v. Mendez-Rodriguez, 450 F.2d 1 (1971). Under the holding in that case, illegal alien witnesses were held in custody for a short period, an average of five days, following the appointment of counsel. During that time, defense counsel had the opportunity to interview the witnesses and determine whether any of them might provide material and relevant evidence. Following the interviews, a Federal Magistrate held a hearing to determine whether any of the witnesses could provide material evidence, and ordered deportation of those aliens who could not provide such testimony. On those occasions when the Government nevertheless deported potential witnesses before the materiality hearing was held, the District Court determined whether the deported witnesses could have been of some "conceivable benefit" to the defendant. If the defendant met that standard, the court dismissed the indictment.

The principal difficulty with the Ninth Circuit's approach was, as the Court notes, ante at 458 U. S. 866 -867, that it required virtually no evidence that the deported witness' testimony would have been material to the defense. Under the Ninth Circuit's formulation, the Government's deportation of an alien witness resulted in virtually an automatic dismissal of the indictment.

In adopting a standard requiring brief detention of potential alien witnesses, the Court need not take so extreme a position. In United States v. Avila-Dominguez, 610 F.2d 1266 (1980), for example, the Fifth Circuit followed the Ninth Circuit's rationale in concluding that a defendant's constitutional rights are violated if the Government deports an alien witness before the defendant has had an opportunity to interview him. The court nevertheless affirmed the defendant's conviction because he could not offer a "plausible theory" explaining how the witness' testimony would have been helpful to the defense. Id. at 1270. The court thus adopted a more stringent test than the Ninth Circuit's "conceivable benefit" test.

The standard I propose is an amalgam of the approaches used by the Fifth and Ninth Circuits. [ Footnote 2/2 ] As a matter of course, the deportable aliens who are potential witnesses should be detained for a very brief period to afford Government and defense counsel the opportunity to interview them. If, within that period, the defendant requests that certain aliens not be deported, a federal magistrate should hold a hearing to determine whether deportation of any of the witnesses should be deferred until after trial. As evidenced by the statistics provided by the respondent, similar procedures in the Ninth Circuit have produced very little litigation. See Brief for Respondent 30. Of course, the Government could be expected to abide by such a rule, but in the occasional event that it deports alien witnesses without affording the defendant any opportunity to interview them, the defendant should not be entitled to an automatic dismissal of the indictment; nor should the defendant be expected to prove prejudice -after all, the Government has deported his potential witnesses. Instead, I agree with the Court that sanctions should be available against the Government if the defendant sets forth some plausible theory explaining how the deported witnesses would have provided material evidence that was not simply cumulative of evidence readily available to the defendant.


In the case before us, the respondent made no plausible suggestion that the deported aliens possessed any material evidence that was not merely cumulative of other evidence. Under the standard I have proposed, the District Court properly denied the respondent's motion to dismiss the indictment. Accordingly, I concur in the judgment of the Court.


[ Footnote 2/1 ]

Article I, § 8, cl. 4, states that Congress shall have the power "To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization." See Mathews v. Diaz, 426 U. S. 67, 426 U. S. 81 (1976) ("For reasons long recognized as valid, the responsibility for regulating the relationship between the United States and our alien visitors has been committed to the political branches of the Federal Government"); Galvan v. Press, 347 U. S. 522, 347 U. S. 531 (1954) ("that the formulation of [immigration] policies is entrusted exclusively to Congress has become about as firmly imbedded in the legislative and judicial tissues of our body politic as any aspect of our government").

[ Footnote 2/2 ]

This Court has not hesitated to use its supervisory power over federal courts to set standards to ensure the fair administration of justice. For example, in McCarthy v. United States, 394 U. S. 459, 394 U. S. 468 -472 (1969), this Court, under its supervisory power, held that, when a district court does not comply fully with Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 in accepting a guilty plea, the plea must be set aside and the case remanded for the defendant to enter a new plea. The Court expressly rejected the rule, adopted by some Circuits, of holding a hearing to determine whether the defendant had entered his plea voluntarily with an understanding of the charge. See also Marshall v. United States, 360 U. S. 310, 360 U. S. 313 (1959) (using this Court's "supervisory power to formulate and apply proper standards for enforcement of the criminal law in the federal courts" in setting aside a criminal conviction because several jurors had read inadmissible news accounts of the defendant's past activities).

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