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Conviction for Smuggling Cuban baseball players into the U.S. upheld but convictions for transporting and harboring players reversed for insufficient evidence

A professional sports agent, the defendant in U.S. v. Dominguez was charged and convicted of smuggling 5 Cuban baseball players to the United States, transporting them from Miami to Los Angeles, and then harboring them there until they applied for asylum. Dominguez represented over 100 baseball players, many of whom played for Major League Baseball teams. Some of his clients were Cuban nationals who arrived without official documentation in the United States. According to the government’s theory, he planned to represent them in their baseball contract negotiations and collect a percentage of their earnings.

For his defense, Dominguez invoked the U.S. law known as the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) which gives special treatment to Cuban nationals who come to the U.S. and allows Cuban nationals who have no documentation authorizing their presence in the U.S. to remain here without having to prove they are the victim of persecution. The CAA is enforced through the “Wet Foot/ Dry-Foot” policy, which offers the benefits of the CAA to those Cuban nationals who reach U.S. soil (dry feet) while Cubans who are interdicted at sea (wet feet) are repatriated and can not benefit.

Dominguez arranged with his cohort, Medina, to smuggle 5 Cuban baseball players into the U.S., agreeing to give Medina 5% of any Major League Baseball contract the players might sign. The five players were successfully brought in through the Florida Keys. The players were transported to Los Angles where they met with Dominguez and signed agency contracts that included clauses obligating them to pay Medina a percentage of their baseball earnings. Shortly after their arrival, Dominguez arranged for an immigration attorney to process the players through immigration to apply for asylum and parole.

Dominguez claimed that he believed the Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy gave the players legal status to enter the U.S. and therefore he lacked specific intent to smuggle the players under the statute §1324(a) which makes it a crime to knowingly bring or attempt to bring an alien to the United States. The court defined the term “knowingly” as requiring proof of knowledge of the facts constituting the offense and did not require specific intent to violate the law. Because willful conduct is not required to violate the statute, the special status given to Cuban Nationals through the Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy was not relevant to the state of mind required to commit a smuggling offense in violation of §1324. While the Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy may pertain to the action taken with regard to the players, the smuggling offense was complete prior to the time the players arrived in the U.S.

The Appellate court did reverse the transporting and harboring convictions. The evidence was insufficient for a reasonable jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Dominguez transported the Cuban players from Miami to Los Angeles in order to further their illegal status. The evidence showed the players were taken to an experienced immigration attorney shortly after arrival in Los Angeles for their immigration processing and prior to that they lived openly and did not act in any way that suggested they were avoiding immigration officials. Likewise, there was insufficient evidence to support a harboring conviction, which required proof that Dominguez concealed, harbored or shielded the players from immigration detection. The evidence of the applying for immigration proceedings and living openly failed to support the conclusion that Dominguez helped the player were hiding from or trying to avoid detection by immigration officials.

In dissenting, Judge Tjoflat concurred with the reversal of the convictions for transporting and harboring but would reverse the smuggling conviction and remand for a new trial on grounds that excluding the federal immigration policy from the defendant’s case effectively prevented the defendant from presenting his defense that he did not intend to violate the law.