Liberty on the Line

Part One 

(February 2021) 

I remember the day we received a call from the wife of Emmanuel Colon-Sanchez (“Manny”). She was calling from North Carolina. She was frantic on the phone and we could tell she was scared. Her husband Manny, a long-haul commercial truck driver, had been arrested and incarcerated in Laredo for conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens and multiple additional counts of transportation of undocumented aliens within the U.S. for financial gain. Each of the federal criminal offenses Manny was being charged with was punishable by up to ten years in prison. Manny’s immigration status was that of a legal permanent resident. He had not yet become a United States citizen. Consequently, if convicted, he would be facing mandatory deportation back to his country of origin, the Dominican Republic. Manny’s wife told me that Manny had been living in the U.S. for his entire adult life over the last seventeen years. For them, deportation and future exclusion from the U.S. would tear their family apart and that was not an option for them. At the conclusion of that call, we knew we had a trial on our hands. Manny was driving a loaded 18-wheeler and traveling to Laredo to drop off a load of commercial goods. His truck was unloaded and then reloaded with Coca-Cola products to be transported up north. Prior to departing the warehouse, Manny conducted a final walk-through of the loaded trailer, inspected the pallets of the Coca-Cola products, and ensured that they were properly loaded. When he exited the warehouse, Manny and the compliance officer at the warehouse signed off on the paperwork acknowledging the contents of the load and placed a seal on the trailer. At that point, Manny had exceeded his hours of operation. In other words, under the law, for safety purposes, long-haul truck drivers are limited to the number of hours they may drive before they must take the mandatory “rest” period. Manny had reached that limit. He decided to park his truck alongside the road of an industrial park and was picked up by a friend. Eventually, he checked into a motel room to get a few hours of sleep. When Manny woke up, he got a ride back to his truck around 4 am. It was still dark outside. Manny performed a cursory walk around his tractor-trailer. He did not notice anything out of the ordinary. So, he got into the cabin of his truck and drove off. At the Border Patrol checkpoint, agents asked Manny the routine questions. Suddenly, one of the K-9s alerted to the presence of humans and/or narcotics in the trailer. Border patrol agents asked Manny to drive into secondary inspection. In secondary, agents noticed a suspicious-looking seal on the trailer. When agents removed the seal and opened the trailer, there were thirty-three undocumented people. These thirty-three undocumented aliens (“UDAs”) were from other countries south of the border that was trying to get into the United States illegally. Manny was immediately stripped of his belongings, including his cell phone, and detained for questioning. Manny was taken into an interrogation room and agreed to be questioned by agents without an attorney present on his behalf. Manny answered all their questions. He told them about his background, explained his whereabouts while in Laredo, and provided the names of people he had spoken to or had encountered during his short stay. Ultimately, Manny told agents he had no knowledge of the UDAs and no clue how they ended up in the trailer. The government finished their interrogation and despite Manny’s assertion of innocence, they transported him to a detention facility, and they charged him with the federal felony offense of conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens and other related charges. We began investigating the case by reviewing the reports prepared by federal agents. According to agents, they interviewed the thirty-three UDAs and detained only four who agents determined possessed relevant knowledge that could be used as evidence in the prosecution against Manny. These UDAs, referred to as “material witnesses”, each had an extraordinary story of a treacherous journey fleeing from violence, poverty, and bleak outlooks in their own countries. Each pursued a dangerous path in hopes of a better life in the United States. Three of the UDAs were Mexican Nationals; a mother and her two adult sons. The agents conducted an interview of these three witnesses but did not record them. Instead, they only provided written translated summaries of their conversations. According to reports, the family told agents that they were fleeing Mexico because one of the brothers had been kidnapped and beaten by a criminal gang. They were afraid they were going to be killed, so they chose to risk everything and attempt to be smuggled into the U.S. They claimed to have paid a human smuggling organization approximately $16,000.00 to be smuggled into the U.S. They swam across the Rio Grande river with other unknown UDAs. Upon crossing into the U.S., they were driven to a stash house. The next day, in the early morning hours, while it was still dark out, they were picked up by a man and driven to an area with an awaiting trailer. They were told to get inside the trailer that had bottles loaded in it. According to agents, the three family members said it took approximately twenty minutes for the trailer doors to shut from when they entered the trailer. However, the reports did not say how much time had passed between the doors shutting and the truck moving. The fourth material witness was a young man from the Dominican Republic. His family helped him make arrangements to be smuggled into the United States. They paid $18,000.00. He flew from the Dominican Republic to Costa Rica. From Costa Rica, he made his way to Nicaragua and then to Mexico City, Mexico. From Mexico City, he traveled to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. He swam across the Rio Grande River with a group of unknown individuals. They were picked up at an unknown location on the U.S. side of the river and driven to a stash house. Similar to the other material witnesses, he was driven to the trailer while it was still dark out and told to get into the trailer. This witness described the driver as a tall male, well built, wearing a black jacket or sweater, and dark color sweatpants. Agents showed this material witness a lineup of six individuals, one of which, was Manny.

Part Two

(March 2021)

Attorney Uriel Druker and Marc A. Gonzalez

Manny told agents that he had no idea that the 33 undocumented aliens (“UDAs”) were in the trailer he was hauling. Manny told agents that after his trailer was loaded with coca-cola products at the warehouse and sealed, he had to park and take a mandatory rest before he could start his trip. He parked his tractor-trailer on the side of the road within the industrial park. He called a friend he knew from prior trips and got picked up. Manny had spent time with this friend on a few prior occasions, but they really did not know each other well. He gave agents his friend’s name. Despite denying knowledge of the UDAs, Manny was nevertheless arrested. Manny was eventually granted a bond and released from custody under strict conditions of release and supervision. He immediately left Laredo and reunited with his family in North Carolina. Shortly thereafter the indictment came down formally charging Manny with one count of conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens and several additional substantive counts for each UDA he allegedly illegally transported. He was facing 10 years in prison for each count of the indictment and mandatory deportation from the United States. The government only held 4 out of the 33 UDAs that were found in Manny’s trailer as material witnesses for their prosecution. The rest of the UDAs were processed and deported. None of the material witnesses were able to pick Manny out of a photo lineup. Only one of them gave a general description of the driver of the tractor-trailer as a tall male, well built, wearing a black jacket or sweater, and dark-colored sweatpants. Manny matched that description in that he is tall, well-built, and was wearing dark articles of clothing. However, Manny’s pants were not sweatpants and he did not have a black jacket.

Agents interviewed employees at the warehouse where Manny’s trailer was loaded. They learned that the seal found on the trailer at the checkpoint was different from the original seal placed on Manny’s trailer at the warehouse. The original legitimate seal was metal, with a square red lock with the “coca-cola” logo on it. The original seal also had a particular serial number that matched the information on the shipping documents. The suspicious-looking seal that agents saw on Manny’s trailer was green, did not have the customary “coca-cola” logo on it, and did not have a serial number that matched the shipping documents. Agents also checked into Manny’s story. Agents ran a search on their database and found a few individuals that matched the name of the friend said he was with. Agents made contact with them and none of them admitted knowing Manny. As far as agents were concerned, this was a slam-dunk circumstantial case. After all, Manny had 33 people in the back of the trailer he was hauling. Who was going to believe he didn’t know they were back there? The government certainly didn’t.

Even with the promise of a more lenient sentence, a guilty plea was not an option for Manny. He refused to be deported without a fight. We knew we had an uphill battle on our hands. As if figuring out how to prove Manny’s innocence wasn’t enough pressure, at the time, we had just formed Gonzalez Druker Law Firm. Gonzalez Druker Law Firm had only been operating for 6 months and our new team was still adjusting to the change associated with the merger of two law firms. Individually, this wasn’t anyone’s first rodeo. However, this was our first trial with our new firm. It felt different than other cases. There was more pressure. Not only the pressure that naturally comes when someone’s life and liberty are on the line. We felt we had to prove ourselves. It was the first test for our new team. The pressure was on. The stakes were high.

As we were preparing for trial, we kept on wondering why the government had not executed a search warrant of Manny’s mobile phone and extracted the data from it. In our experience, human smuggling organizations are well organized and their illegal activities require a lot of coordination. Much of that coordination is done over the phone. Through a forensic search of his mobile phone, agents could have verified Manny’s location at precise times. They could have reviewed all of his conversations through text, social media platforms, and phone call logs. A cell phone is typically a treasure chest with a wealth of evidence. However, although Manny’s phones were confiscated and in the possession of the government, there was no mention of cell phone data in any of the reports.

Our team also reviewed the translated summaries of the agent’s interviews with the material witnesses. The agent’s reports were general and brief. For example, the reports stated that material witnesses said that once they were loaded onto the trailer, the doors shut and the tractor-trailer left to make its way to the checkpoint. As stated, it seemed as if it all happened contemporaneously. The driver of the tractor-trailer would have had to be present as the UDAs were being loaded because it sounded like the tractor-trailer left as soon as the trailer doors were closed. Manny had told agents that he had parked his truck off the side of the road in an industrial park, got picked up by his friend, checked into a motel room, woke up early in the morning while it was still dark out, got a ride back to his trailer, conducted a cursory walk around the trailer, did not see anything out of the ordinary and then got in his vehicle and left. So, it was critical for the defense to have a more precise timeline. We decided to interview the material witnesses at the detention facilities. We wanted to speak to them directly in their native language and hear for ourselves what they had to say. We needed answers to many unasked questions. For example, we felt it was important to know exactly how much time passed from when each material witness entered the trailer, the doors closed and the tractor-trailer left the loading site. The material witness from the Dominican Republic said it took about an hour from when the doors closed and the trailer began the trip to the checkpoint. The three family members from Mexico could not say exactly how long it took but agreed that it could have been up to an hour. In addition, the material witness that provided a description of the driver told us that it was so dark he really could not say his description of the driver was accurate. It became apparent that the material witnesses’ accounts were nothing like the reports made them sound. Suddenly, the possibility that Manny was not present when the UDAs were loaded into the trailer and that they could have been loaded into the trailer up to an hour before Manny arrived at his truck from the motel, was plausible.

Part Three

(April 2021)

It was the day of our final pretrial hearing. The day you must announce your intentions to the Court of whether you wish to proceed with a guilty plea or request a trial by jury. We advised the Court that we wanted a jury trial. In response, the Court told us that we would receive an email providing us with a future date for jury selection. We left the courtroom and headed back to our office. As we were walking down the hallway outside of the courtroom towards the elevators, one of the court staff members who had followed us out of the courtroom, caught up to us and stopped us in the hallway. She told us that the Court decided that our jury trial would begin tomorrow and that we would receive an order via email with further instructions related to the trial. We were stunned. We did not expect that the trial would be set to begin so soon. We thought we would have at least a few days to prepare. Although we were all probably thinking the same thing, there simply was no time to sit around and complain. We just rolled with it and immediately phoned home letting our loved ones know not to wait up because we were going to be burning the midnight oil at work. We immediately began preparing for trial. There was so much to do and still a lot unknown. For example, the government had not yet provided us with its trial witness and exhibit lists. Naturally, we could anticipate who they would call as witnesses and what evidence they would present, but we did not know for sure. Considering the trial was beginning the next morning, we really did not have time to waste preparing for all the potential witnesses the government could call. Later that afternoon we received the order from the Court. It stated that jury selection would begin at 8 am the next morning and that any jury selection and trial-related motions including disclosure of the parties’ trial witness and exhibit lists had to be filed by 9 pm. We spent that day and night putting everything we had been working on together for our last stand. A process that could easily be spread over and fill a few workdays had to be completed by the time we left the office that day.

The next morning, after our jury panel was selected, both sides were to give their opening statements to the jury presenting their theory of the case of what the evidence would show. After the government presented its version of the facts, we presented ours. We told the jury Manny’s story through his eyes. We told them that Manny was driving a loaded 18-wheeler to Laredo to drop off a load of commercial goods. At the warehouse, Manny’s truck was unloaded and then reloaded with Coca-Cola products. Prior to departing the warehouse, Manny conducted a final walk-through of the loaded trailer, inspected the pallets of the Coca-Cola products, and ensured that they were properly loaded. When he exited the warehouse, Manny and the compliance officer at the warehouse signed off on the paperwork acknowledging the contents of the load and placed a seal on the trailer. We explained to the jury that Manny had exceeded his hours of operation and needed to take a mandatory “rest” period before leaving Laredo. We told the jury that Manny parked his truck alongside the road of an industrial park, was picked up by a friend, and checked into a motel room that evening to get a few hours of sleep. We explained to the jury that when Manny woke up, he got a ride back to his truck around 4 am, while it was still dark outside, that he performed a cursory walk around his tractor-trailer, that he did not notice anything out of the ordinary and drove off. We explained to the jury that Manny was just as surprised as the agents when the thirty-three people were found in the trailer he was hauling. At the conclusion of our opening statement, the judge called us up to the bench for a private conference. The Court told us that our opening statement was essentially a commitment that our client would be testifying at trial to confirm everything we had just told the jury. If he did not testify, the court warned, it would instruct the jury to disregard our entire opening statement. It felt like everyone was surprised that we had committed our client to testify so early on in the case. Truth be told, we wrestled with that decision for some time. There are lots of reasons why a witness may not testify well. Most people do not perform well being questioned by trained lawyers under the spotlight and stress of a trial. A witnesses’ nervousness alone can be wrongly interpreted and mistaken by the jury as deception. The stakes are especially high when the witness is the accused because a wrong impression can be fatal to the defense. However, the decision that our client would testify had been made long before we walked into the courtroom that day and now there was no turning back. We laid our cards on the table right out of the gate and advised the judge, in the prosecutor’s presence, that it was our intention that our client takes the stand.

The government questioned the material witnesses and obtained the basic general information matching the information in the summaries contained in the government’s reports. Once it was our turn to question them, we asked much more detailed questions. For example, we exposed that it was so dark that the material witnesses really could not have identified Manny as being present when they were loaded onto the trailer. We asked them that if agents were to testify that they provided identification of Manny the night they were apprehended if that would be a lie. They claimed that they never told agents that they could identify Manny and outright said that it would be a lie. Curious, because the government reports made it seem like the material witnesses provided a description of Manny. The government’s reports and the way the prosecution generally laid out the timeline through its questioning of the material witnesses also made it seem like the truck left right after the trailer was loaded with the 33 undocumented people. The inference being that Manny was in on the conspiracy because he would have had to have been present as the trailer was being loaded. We extracted a much more precise timeline from each material witness. They each agreed that it could have taken up to an hour from when the doors to the trailer were shut and when it left the loading site. This was a huge discrepancy because for us reasonable doubt hinged on a timeline that fits with Manny’s statement to agents regarding his whereabouts that night and that Manny was not present when the undocumented aliens were loaded into his trailer. After the material witnesses were excused, we waited anxiously for the investigating agents to be called to the stand so we could cross-examine them about the inconsistencies between their reports and the material witnesses’ sworn testimony. However, that moment never came. Shockingly, the government never called a single investigating agent to the stand. The government went all-in on relying that the jurors shared their opinion that just because the undocumented aliens were found in Manny’s trailer, he must have been in on the conspiracy to illegally transport them. After the government rested, Manny took the stand and told his story. Manny was personable, genuine, and persuasive. He told his story and nothing the government presented at trial contradicted anything Manny said. We highlighted that the government had Manny’s mobile phone in its possession and never bothered to search it. The government could have checked Manny’s location at specific times and looked at all of his communications before, during, and after the time the alleged criminal activity occurred. We emphasized that there could have also been evidence stored on Manny’s phone that exonerated him. When we pointed that out to the jury, they appeared noticeably upset, and from their body language, we felt like we had a shot at winning this case. However, we knew better than to get overly confident at trial. All experienced trial lawyers know that you really never know what a jury is thinking.

Once the jury was excused to the jury room to deliberate, the Court asked us to remain close by and accessible. We decided to head back to our office about a block away from the courthouse. About thirty minutes later we got a call to report back to the courtroom. The jury had a verdict! We wanted to stay positive, but in our experience, a quick jury verdict typically meant a guilty verdict. You could hear a pin drop in the room just before the judge read out the verdict. What really takes a few seconds to read out felt like an eternity. Then the judge read aloud, NOT GUILTY on all counts! We felt an instant rush. Manny cried tears of joy. We were especially proud of the jurors. They held the government to their high burden of proof and followed through with a not guilty verdict when the evidence fell short. Knowing that Manny was freed and reunited with his family made all those long hours worked and sacrifices we made worthwhile.