Rosales-Lopez v. United States, No. 79-6624

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJustice WHITE announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Justice STEWART
Citation68 L.Ed.2d 22,451 U.S. 182,101 S.Ct. 1629
PartiesHumbertoetitioner, v. UNITED STATES
Docket NumberNo. 79-6624
Decision Date21 April 1981

451 U.S. 182
101 S.Ct. 1629
68 L.Ed.2d 22
Humberto ROSALES-LOPEZ, Petitioner,

v.

UNITED STATES.

No. 79-6624.
Argued Jan. 12, 1981.
Decided April 21, 1981.

Syllabus

Petitioner, who is of Mexican descent, was tried in Federal District Court for his participation in a plan by which Mexican aliens were smuggled into the country. Another participant in the plan, one Bowling, was apparently a Caucasian with whose daughter petitioner had been living. Prior to his trial, petitioner requested that the judge, in his voir dire examination of prospective jurors, ask a question as to possible prejudice toward Mexicans. The judge refused to ask such question, but did ask questions concerning possible prejudice against aliens. Petitioner was subsequently convicted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting petitioner's challenge of the trial judge's refusal to question the jurors about possible racial or ethnic bias.

Held : The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 188-194; 194-195.

9 Cir., 617 F.2d 1349, affirmed.

Justice WHITE, joined by Justice STEWART, Justice BLACKMUN, and Justice POWELL, concluded that there was no reversible error in the voir dire afforded petitioner. Pp. 188-194.

(a) Because the obligation to impanel an impartial jury lies in the first instance with the trial judge, and because he must rely largely on his immediate perceptions, federal judges have been accorded ample discretion in determining how best to conduct the voir dire. "Special circumstances" under which the Constitution requires questioning prospective jurors about racial or ethnic bias exist only when racial issues are inextricably bound up with the conduct of the trial and there are substantial indications of the likelihood of racial or ethnic prejudice affecting the jurors in the particular case. See Ristaino v. Ross, 424 U.S. 589, 96 S.Ct. 1017, 47 L.Ed.2d 258; Ham v. South Carolina, 409 U.S. 524, 93 S.Ct. 848, 35 L.Ed.2d 46. Under this Court's supervisory power over the federal courts, failure to honor a defendant's request to inquire into racial or ethnic prejudice, where such an inquiry is not constitutionally mandated, is reversible error only where the circumstances of the case indicate a "reasonable possibility" that such prejudice might influence the jury. Federal trial courts must make such an inquiry when requested by a defendant accused of a violent crime and where the defendant and the victim are members of different

Page 183

racial or ethnic groups. See Ristaino, supra; Aldridge v. United States, 283 U.S. 308, 51 S.Ct. 470, 75 L.Ed. 1054. Pp. 188-192.

(b) In this case, there were no "special circumstances" of constitutional dimension requiring an inquiry as to racial or ethnic bias, since the issues in the trial did not involve allegations of racial or ethnic prejudice. And the circumstances of the case did not reveal a violent criminal act with a victim of a different racial or ethnic group from that of the defendant. Nor did the external circumstances of the case indicate a "reasonable possibility" that racial or ethnic prejudice would influence the jury's evaluation of the evidence. Pp. 192-194.

Justice REHNQUIST, joined by Chief Justice BURGER, concurring in the result, concluded that the decision as to inquiry on voir dire as to racial or ethnic prejudice rested primarily with the trial court, subject to case-by-case review by the appellate courts, even in the case of "violent crimes" where the defendant and victim were members of different racial or ethnic groups. Pp. 194-195.

John J. Cleary, San Diego, Cal., for petitioner.

George W. Jones, Los Angeles, Cal., for respondent, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.

Justice WHITE announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Justice STEWART, Justice BLACKMUN, and Justice POWELL joined.

The question here is whether it was reversible error for a federal trial court in a criminal case to reject the defendant's request that the court's voir dire of prospective jurors inquire further into the possibility of racial or ethnic prejudice against the defendant.

Page 184

I

Petitioner is of Mexican descent. In February 1979, he was tried before a jury in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California for his alleged participation in a plan by which three Mexican aliens were illegally brought into the country.1

The Government's evidence at trial described the following events. On the night of December 10, 1978, three aliens were led across the Mexican-American border and taken to a car, previously left for them on the American side. They drove to Imperial Beach, Cal., a town about eight miles inside the border. Early in the morning of December 11, they reached the home of Virginia Hendricks Bowling, where they were admitted into the garage of the house by petitioner. Bowling was an American citizen, apparently Caucasian, living in Imperial Beach with her 19-year-old daughter. Petitioner had been living with Bowling's daughter in her mother's house since July 1978.

Later in the morning, petitioner hid the three aliens and their guide in the trunk of a green Oldsmobile. Bowling drove the Oldsmobile north, through the San Clemente check-point, while petitioner followed in a grey Ford. After passing through the checkpoint, Bowling and petitioner exchanged cars. Petitioner proceeded to Los Angeles in the Oldsmobile and Bowling returned to Imperial Beach in the Ford. In Los Angeles, petitioner went to an apartment which agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service had had under surveillance for several weeks because they suspected that it was a drop site for illegal aliens. Upon

Page 185

arrival, the aliens were let out of the trunk and told to go into the apartment by petitioner. Shortly thereafter, petitioner was arrested when he left the apartment with one of the aliens.

At trial, the INS agents, Bowling, the three illegal aliens, and David Falcon-Zavala, another named principal in the smuggling arrangement who was arrested with petitioner, testified for the Government. Petitioner did not testify; his defense was principally to challenge the credibility of the Government witnesses. The jury convicted him of all the charges and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. 617 F.2d 1349 (1980).

Prior to trial, petitioner's counsel formally requested that he be allowed personally to voir dire the prospective members of the jury. At the same time, he filed a list of 26 questions that he requested the trial judge to ask, if the court denied his first motion. Among the questions submitted was one directed toward possible prejudice toward Mexicans:

"Would you consider the race or Mexican descent of Humberto Rosales-Lopez in your evaluation of this case? How would it affect you?

As permitted by Rule 24 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and pursuant to the practice in the Southern District of California, the trial judge conducted the voir dire himself. He asked about half of the questions submitted by petitioner.2 Although he did not ask any question directed specifically to possible racial or ethnic prejudice, he did ask a question directed to attitudes toward the substantive charges

Page 186

involved: "Do any of you have any feelings about the alien problem at all?" He subsequently rephrased this: "Do any of you have any particular feelings one way or the other about aliens or could you sit as a fair and impartial juror if you are called upon to do so?" App. 17-18.3 The judge began the voir dire with the following general statement to the panel:

"In order that this defendant shall have a fair and impartial jury to try the charges against him, it is necessary that we address certain questions to the panel to make sure that there are no underlying prejudices, there are no underlying reasons why you can't sit as a fair and impartial juror if chosen to do so in this case." Id., at 14.

He ended his general questioning with the following:

"Does any reason occur to anyone of you why you could not sit in this case as a fair and impartial juror, any reason whatsoever?" Id., at 21.

Following the voir dire, defense counsel restated his request with respect to six of the submitted questions, including the one directed toward racial or ethnic prejudice.4 He argued at side bar that under Aldridge v. United States, 283 U.S. 308, 51 S.Ct. 470, 75 L.Ed. 1054 (1931), a federal court "must explore all racial antagonism against my client because he happens to be of Mexican descent." App. 25. The judge declined to ask any further

Page 187

questions of the jury panel. Peremptory challenges were then exercised and the jury was sworn.

Petitioner appealed, unsuccessfully challenging the refusal of the trial judge to question the jurors about possible racial or ethic bias.5 The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit noted that there is

"[a] longstanding rule of criminal justice in the federal courts . . . that questions regarding possible racial prejudice should be put to the venire in prosecutions of minority defendants, at least where 'special circumstances' indicate that the defendant's race may be a factor in the trial." 617 F.2d, at 1354.

The court noted that "[t]he extent of the federal rule is unclear." Ibid. It concluded, however, that this case did not contain such "special circumstances."

The Courts of Appeals have adopted conflicting rules as to when the failure to ask such questions will constitute reversible error. Some Circuits have adopted a per se rule, requiring reversal whenever the trial judge fails to ask a question on racial or ethnic prejudice requested by a defendant who is a member of a minority group. See United States v. Bowles 574 F.2d 970 (CA8 1978); United States v. Robinson, 485 F.2d 1157 (CA3 1973); United States v. Carter, 440 F.2d 1132 (CA6 1971); United States v. Gore, 435 F.2d 1110 (CA4 1970); Fraiser v. United States, 267 F.2d 62 (CA1...

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127 practice notes
  • U.S. v. Robertson, Nos. 93-1292
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
    • January 23, 1995
    ...discretion standard. See United States v. Washita Constr. Co., 789 F.2d 809, 819 (10th Cir.1986) (citing Rosales-Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182, 189, 101 S.Ct. 1629, 1634-35, 68 L.Ed.2d 22 (1981)). A criminal defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to a jury pool comprised of a fair cro......
  • Goins v. Angelone, No. Civ.A. 97-1406-A.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Virginia)
    • June 10, 1999
    ...circumstances" indicate that racial issues are "inextricably bound up with the conduct of the trial." See Rosales-Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182, 189, 101 S.Ct. 1629, 68 L.Ed.2d 22 (1981). Here, Goins asserts that such special circumstances existed because he was being tried by an alm......
  • People v. Tafoya, No. S047056.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • August 20, 2007
    ...the voir dire...." (People v. Chaney (1991) 234 Cal.App.3d 853, 861, 286 Cal.Rptr. 79, citing Rosales-Lopez v. United States (1981) 451 U.S. 182, 189, 101 S.Ct. 1629, 68 L.Ed.2d 22.) Whether the prospective jurors are required to complete a written questionnaire is a matter within the trial......
  • Kirk v. Raymark Industries, Inc., Nos. 94-1745
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • July 27, 1995
    ...in determining how best to conduct the voir dire." Waldorf v. Shuta, 3 F.3d 705, 710 (3d Cir.1993) (citing Rosales-Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182, 189, 101 S.Ct. 1629, 1635, 68 L.Ed.2d 22 (1981)). In determining whether a particular juror should be excused for cause, our main concern ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
128 cases
  • U.S. v. Robertson, Nos. 93-1292
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
    • January 23, 1995
    ...discretion standard. See United States v. Washita Constr. Co., 789 F.2d 809, 819 (10th Cir.1986) (citing Rosales-Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182, 189, 101 S.Ct. 1629, 1634-35, 68 L.Ed.2d 22 (1981)). A criminal defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to a jury pool comprised of a fair cro......
  • Goins v. Angelone, No. Civ.A. 97-1406-A.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Virginia)
    • June 10, 1999
    ...circumstances" indicate that racial issues are "inextricably bound up with the conduct of the trial." See Rosales-Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182, 189, 101 S.Ct. 1629, 68 L.Ed.2d 22 (1981). Here, Goins asserts that such special circumstances existed because he was being tried by an alm......
  • People v. Tafoya, No. S047056.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • August 20, 2007
    ...the voir dire...." (People v. Chaney (1991) 234 Cal.App.3d 853, 861, 286 Cal.Rptr. 79, citing Rosales-Lopez v. United States (1981) 451 U.S. 182, 189, 101 S.Ct. 1629, 68 L.Ed.2d 22.) Whether the prospective jurors are required to complete a written questionnaire is a matter within the trial......
  • Kirk v. Raymark Industries, Inc., Nos. 94-1745
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • July 27, 1995
    ...in determining how best to conduct the voir dire." Waldorf v. Shuta, 3 F.3d 705, 710 (3d Cir.1993) (citing Rosales-Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182, 189, 101 S.Ct. 1629, 1635, 68 L.Ed.2d 22 (1981)). In determining whether a particular juror should be excused for cause, our main concern ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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