Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation137 S.Ct. 855,197 L.Ed.2d 107
Docket NumberNo. 15–606.,15–606.
Parties Miguel Angel PEÑA–RODRIGUEZ, Petitioner v. COLORADO.
Decision Date06 March 2017

Jeffrey L. Fisher, Stanford, CA, the Petitioner.

Frederick R. Yarger, Denver, CO, for Respondent.

Rachel P. Kovner for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the respondent.

Jonathan D. Rosen, Denver, CO, Jeffrey L. Fisher, Pamela S. Karlan, Brian Wolfman, Stanford Law School, Supreme Court, Stanford, CA, for Petitioner.

Cynthia H. Coffman, Colorado Attorney General, Frederick R. Yarger, Solicitor General, L. Andrew Cooper, Deputy Attorney General, Glenn P. Roper, Deputy Solicitor General, Katharine J. Gillespie, Stephanie Lindquist Scoville, Senior Assistant Attorneys General, Majid Yazdi, Molly E. McNab, Assistant Attorneys General, Office of the Colorado, Attorney General, Denver, CO, for Respondent.

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

The jury is a central foundation of our justice system and our democracy. Whatever its imperfections in a particular case, the jury is a necessary check on governmental power. The jury, over the centuries, has been an inspired, trusted, and effective instrument for resolving factual disputes and determining ultimate questions of guilt or innocence in criminal cases. Over the long course its judgments find acceptance in the community, an acceptance essential to respect for the rule of law. The jury is a tangible implementation of the principle that the law comes from the people.

In the era of our Nation's founding, the right to a jury trial already had existed and evolved for centuries, through and alongside the common law. The jury was considered a fundamental safeguard of individual liberty. See The Federalist No. 83, p. 451 (B. Warner ed. 1818) (A. Hamilton). The right to a jury trial in criminal cases was part of the Constitution as first drawn, and it was restated in the Sixth Amendment. Art. III, § 2, cl. 3 ; Amdt. 6.

By operation of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is applicable to the States. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 149–150, 88 S.Ct. 1444, 20 L.Ed.2d 491 (1968).

Like all human institutions, the jury system has its flaws, yet experience shows that fair and impartial verdicts can be reached if the jury follows the court's instructions and undertakes deliberations that are honest, candid, robust, and based on common sense. A general rule has evolved to give substantial protection to verdict finality and to assure jurors that, once their verdict has been entered, it will not later be called into question based on the comments or conclusions they expressed during deliberations. This principle, itself centuries old, is often referred to as the no-impeachment rule. The instant case presents the question whether there is an exception to the no-impeachment rule when, after the jury is discharged, a juror comes forward with compelling evidence that another juror made clear and explicit statements indicating that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in his or her vote to convict.


State prosecutors in Colorado brought criminal charges against petitioner, Miguel Angel Peña–Rodriguez, based on the following allegations. In 2007, in the bathroom of a Colorado horse-racing facility, a man sexually assaulted two teenage sisters. The girls told their father and identified the man as an employee of the racetrack. The police located and arrested petitioner. Each girl separately identified petitioner as the man who had assaulted her.

The State charged petitioner with harassment, unlawful sexual contact, and attempted sexual assault on a child. Before the jury was empaneled, members of the venire were repeatedly asked whether they believed that they could be fair and impartial in the case. A written questionnaire asked if there was "anything about you that you feel would make it difficult for you to be a fair juror." App. 14. The court repeated the question to the panel of prospective jurors and encouraged jurors to speak in private with the court if they had any concerns about their impartiality. Defense counsel likewise asked whether anyone felt that "this is simply not a good case" for them to be a fair juror. Id., at 34. None of the empaneled jurors expressed any reservations based on racial or any other bias. And none asked to speak with the trial judge.

After a 3–day trial, the jury found petitioner guilty of unlawful sexual contact and harassment, but it failed to reach a verdict on the attempted sexual assault charge. When the jury was discharged, the court gave them this instruction, as mandated by Colorado law:

"The question may arise whether you may now discuss this case with the lawyers, defendant, or other persons. For your guidance the court instructs you that whether you talk to anyone is entirely your own decision.... If any person persists in discussing the case over your objection, or becomes critical of your service either before or after any discussion has begun, please report it to me." Id., at 85–86.

Following the discharge of the jury, petitioner's counsel entered the jury room to discuss the trial with the jurors. As the room was emptying, two jurors remained to speak with counsel in private. They stated that, during deliberations, another juror had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward petitioner and petitioner's alibi witness. Petitioner's counsel reported this to the court and, with the court's supervision, obtained sworn affidavits from the two jurors.

The affidavits by the two jurors described a number of biased statements made by another juror, identified as Juror H.C. According to the two jurors, H.C. told the other jurors that he "believed the defendant was guilty because, in [H.C.'s] experience as an ex-law enforcement officer, Mexican men had a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they wanted with women." Id ., at 110. The jurors reported that H.C. stated his belief that Mexican men are physically controlling of women because of their sense of entitlement, and further stated, " ‘I think he did it because he's Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.’ " Id., at 109. According to the jurors, H.C. further explained that, in his experience, "nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls." Id., at 110. Finally, the jurors recounted that Juror H.C. said that he did not find petitioner's alibi witness credible because, among other things, the witness was " ‘an illegal.’ " Ibid. (In fact, the witness testified during trial that he was a legal resident of the United States.)

After reviewing the affidavits, the trial court acknowledged H.C.'s apparent bias. But the court denied petitioner's motion for a new trial, noting that "[t]he actual deliberations that occur among the jurors are protected from inquiry under [Colorado Rule of Evidence] 606(b)." Id ., at 90. Like its federal counterpart, Colorado's Rule 606(b) generally prohibits a juror from testifying as to any statement made during deliberations in a proceeding inquiring into the validity of the verdict. See Fed. Rule Evid. 606(b). The Colorado Rule reads as follows:

"(b) Inquiry into validity of verdict or indictment. Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury's deliberations or to the effect of anything upon his or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing him to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning his mental processes in connection therewith. But a juror may testify about (1) whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jurors' attention, (2) whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror, or (3) whether there was a mistake in entering the verdict onto the verdict form. A juror's affidavit or evidence of any statement by the juror may not be received on a matter about which the juror would be precluded from testifying." Colo. Rule Evid. 606(b) (2016).

The verdict deemed final, petitioner was sentenced to two years' probation and was required to register as a sex offender. A divided panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed petitioner's conviction, agreeing that H.C.'s alleged statements did not fall within an exception to Rule 606(b) and so were inadmissible to undermine the validity of the verdict. –– P.3d ––––, 2012 WL 5457362.

The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed by a vote of 4 to 3. 350 P.3d 287 (2015). The prevailing opinion relied on two decisions of this Court rejecting constitutional challenges to the federal no-impeachment rule as applied to evidence of juror misconduct or bias. See Tanner v. United States, 483 U.S. 107, 107 S.Ct. 2739, 97 L.Ed.2d 90 (1987) ; Warger v. Shauers, 574 U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 521, 190 L.Ed.2d 422 (2014). After reviewing those precedents, the court could find no "dividing line between different types of juror bias or misconduct," and thus no basis for permitting impeachment of the verdicts in petitioner's trial, notwithstanding H.C.'s apparent racial bias. 350 P.3d, at 293. This Court granted certiorari to decide whether there is a constitutional exception to the no-impeachment rule for instances of racial bias. 578 U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1513, 194 L.Ed.2d 602 (2016).

Juror H.C.'s bias was based on petitioner's Hispanic identity, which the Court in prior cases has referred to as ethnicity, and that may be an instructive term here. See, e.g., Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352, 355, 111 S.Ct. 1859, 114 L.Ed.2d 395 (1991) (plurality opinion). Yet we have also used the language of race when discussing the relevant constitutional principles in cases involving Hispanic persons. See, e.g.,ibid. ; Fisher v. University of Tex. at Austin, 570 U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 2411, 186 L.Ed.2d 474 (2013) ; Rosales–Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182, 189–190, 101 S.Ct. 1629, 68...

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