The case against three immigrants accused of conspiracy to smuggle humans is at a precarious point as a judge decides today whether a jury should hear the men’s confessions.
The men are the first illegal immigrants to go on trial under Arizona’s new antismuggling law.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Thomas O’Toole and attorneys will hash out today whether investigators can testify about the men’s confessions at their trial.
If he doesn’t allow the statements into evidence, then the case could fall apart for the state.
The judge, who has the power to acquit the men without the jury ever deliberating, was unimpressed with other evidence presented Monday, the first day of trial.
The confessions will be allowed only if there is enough independent evidence to show that the crime actually took place.
The case will test whether the state can win a conviction against illegal immigrants on the theory that they conspired with a human smuggler to cross the border.
The issue has drawn the ire of immigrant advocates. They allege that Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas is misusing the law, which they say is to target human smugglers or “coyotes,” not the illegal immigrants who pay them to cross the border illegally.
In a discussion Monday without the jury present, O’Toole recounted earlier testimony by the arresting deputy: He stopped two vans filled with people and found food, water and some carpet insulation, which is typically used to tie onto shoes to avoid making footprints in the desert.
“What does that show?” O’Toole asked attorneys.
He said that wasn’t enough to show Gustavo Unbalejo Gomez, 29, and Antonio Hernandez-Lopez, 21, participated in a conspiracy, but he asked the state to provide more case law to consider.
The accused smuggler of the group is also on trial.
Prosecutor David Rodriguez said Javier Ruiz-Lopez admitted to a grand jury in March that he was in the country illegally and that he got a discount to cross the border by agreeing to lead the group.
O’Toole said that is enough evidence to show Ruiz committed a crime, but his confession would be unfair to the other two defendants because they wouldn’t get a chance to confront him on the witness stand — which he would be unlikely to take.
The three immigrants on trial were arrested in March with 46 others, who recently pleaded guilty to solicitation to commit human smuggling, a low-level felony. Their plea deals called for three years of probation, jail time and deportation.
Since March, Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies have arrested more than 240 illegal immigrants under the antismuggling law.