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Name: United States v. Esparza
Case #: 13-50033
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 06/29/2015
Summary

Statement in California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) documents was testimonial hearsay and its admission violated the defendant’s confrontation rights. A car driven by defendant was detained at the San Ysidro border crossing after a narcotics dog alerted to the presence of drugs. Defendant was arrested after 50 kilos of marijuana were found in the car. At his trial for federal drug offenses, the critical issues were defendant’s knowledge of the drugs’ presence and the ownership of the car used to transport the drugs. Appellant claimed he borrowed the car and that he was an unwitting drug courier. The car’s registered owner, Hernandez, filed a DMV transfer of ownership of the car to defendant after she was informed the car was seized by U.S. agents. Although Hernandez was available to testify, she did not. DMV documents that reflected Hernandez’s statement were used to prove that defendant owned the car. He was convicted and on appeal he challenged the admission of the DMV documents. Held: Reversed. The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment gives a defendant the right to confront his accusers. Testimonial hearsay of a witness who does not testify at trial may not be used unless the witness is unavailable and only where the defendant has had a prior opportunity to cross-examine. Although there is no comprehensive definition of “testimonial,” the court here “easily conclude[d]” that Hernandez’s statement was testimonial. At the time she made the statement, Hernandez knew her car had been used to smuggle drugs and that there was an ongoing investigation. She had a strong incentive to lie and the statement was made under circumstances which would cause a reasonable person to believe it would later be used at trial. Hernandez was available to testify and defendant had a right to cross-examine her.