Jones Act Prevents Enhanced Sentence Based On Spanish Language Document

The Jones, Act, 48 U.S.C. § 864, requires that “[a]ll pleadings and proceedings in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico ... be conducted in the English language.” Violations of the Jones Act “will constitute reversible error whenever the appellant can demonstrate that the untranslated evidence has the potential to affect the disposition of an issue raised on appeal.” In Puerto Rican courts, a U.S. territory, Spanish language documents are common.

At Julio Román–Huertas’ sentencing, the Government and the Court relied on a Spanish language conviction record to enhance Román–Huertas base offense level under U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(4)(A), (2). Román–Huertas had a prior conviction in Puerto Rico under Article 406 of the Puerto Rico controlled substances act. But that law includes conduct that does not meet the definition of a “controlled substance offense” under the federal sentencing guidelines. For example, a “controlled substance offense” under the Guidelines does not include possession offenses.

The First Circuit court of appeals vacated and remanded for resentencing. “Because the district court relied only on the untranslated document to calculate Román's total offense level, that document “affect[s] the disposition” of his appeal,” the court wrote.

However, the court barred the Government from introducing new evidence on remand to support the enhancement.

“We have previously allowed additional factfinding where the Government did not have an incentive to present evidence, but not ‘where the government asked for the enhancement but failed to adduce sufficient proof for its imposition—a situation in which there would not likely be reason to permit a second bite at the apple. Here, the Government asked for a total offense level of seventeen ‘but failed to adduce sufficient proof for its imposition.’ The Jones Act requires federal courts to conduct proceedings ‘in the English language,’ 48 U.S.C. § 864, and our case law has reaffirmed this many times. The Government therefore had every incentive to ensure that the district court relied only on evidence presented in the English language. ‘[N]o party—including the government—is entitled to an unlimited number of opportunities to seek the sentence it desires.’ On remand, therefore, the Government may not present new evidence of Román's prior conviction.” See: United States v. Román–Huertas, No. 15-2019 (1st Cir. 2017).

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist.Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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