Federal judges on Monday gave their approval to procedures used in courts to speed up the processing of illegal immigrants.
In a unanimous ruling, the judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said there is nothing inherently wrong about taking guilty pleas from individuals in a large group at a single hearing. More to the point, appellate Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain said nothing in the process used short-circuited the constitutional rights of those involved.
Monday's ruling is a major victory for federal prosecutors who defended the process as a practical way to deal with the large number of illegal immigrants who have to be processed every day. It also comes more than a year after another panel of the same appellate court voided a similar process as unconstitutional.
But there was a key difference in the way the other cases were handled -- a difference that apparently made this process legal while the others were not.
At the heart of the dispute is Operation Streamline. Under that system, a group of up to 70 people accused of misdemeanor violations of illegally entering the United States have their initial appearance, guilty pleas and sentencing in a single hearing.
In a 2009 ruling, the 9th Circuit said taking pleas en masse, with all defendants agreeing to plead guilty as a group, violated the constitutional rights of those involved.
In this case, the magistrate, speaking to the group -- in some cases, through headphones in Spanish -- informed them collectively of their rights, their charges and the consequences of pleading guilty. After each statement, the magistrate asked them collectively if they understood their rights. The record reflects no negative responses.
Ultimately, the magistrate asked each defendant individually how he chose to plead and whether there was a factual basis for the charges. Both defendants pleaded guilty, affirmed the facts, were sentenced to time served and ordered returned to Mexico.
In challenging their convictions, they argued through their public defender that there is no evidence that they "voluntarily and understandingly'' pleaded guilty as the U.S. Supreme Court has required. They also cited that 2009 appellate court ruling against such mass hearings.
O'Scannlain said that earlier ruling did not ban such group hearings but only required magistrates to ensure that each and every person in the group had, in fact, pleaded guilty. Given the group response in that case, the court said there was no way for the magistrate to possibly know whether absolutely everyone in the group pleaded the same way.
Here, he noted, both defendants were directly addressed by the judge for their actual guilty pleas. O'Scannlain said the fact that they were asked as a group if they understood their rights did not undermine those pleas.
And the judge also pointed out that neither defendant is even suggesting he would have pleaded innocent had the rights been individually explained.
Dennis Burke, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, said magistrates altered the procedures they used after that 2009 ruling.
"Operation Streamline continues to operate and is performed in a shorter period of time as a result of constitutionally-sound modification implemented by our office, modifications that have earned the confidence of the 9th Circuit,'' he said.