Gerardo Sandoval-Gonzalez was born in Tijuana, Mexico to a Mexican mother and an American father who was born in Los Angeles, California. In 1972, Sandoval-Gonzalez entered the United States at age 14, but his family never notified U.S. authorities.
In 2006, he was charged with being an alien unlawfully in the country. Sandoval-Gonzalez did not contest the charge. At his deportation hearing, he said that his father was born in the United States. He testified that his parents had not applied to gain his U.S. citizenship and neither had he. When asked why not, he replied, “Well, time went by.”
In February, 2006, following the hearing, he was deported.
Sandoval-Gonzalez returned to the United States later that year and was again arrested. In December 2006, he was deported again.
In 2008, Sandoval-Gonzalez was again discovered in the United States.
Federal authorities went to his home in Chula Vista, California on September 28, 2008, and questioned him. Sandoval-Gonzalez said he was born in Fresno, California, but had no records to prove it. He was arrested by the Department of Homeland Security and charged with being an alien unlawfully in the United States.
In May, 2009, Sandoval-Gonzalez went on trial before a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.
His lawyers raised the defense of derivative citizenship—that a person born outside of the United States achieves citizenship if one of the parents is a U.S. citizen. The prosecution contended that the burden was on the defense to prove derivative citizenship.
The judge agreed. During closing argument, the prosecution contended that it had proven Sandoval-Gonzalez was illegally in the United States by presenting his statements in the deportation proceedings as well as evidence that he had previously been deported. “You’ve heard that there is a presumption that if someone is born outside of the United States, they are not considered a United States citizen,” the prosecutor told the jury.
The judge overruled an objection by Sandoval-Gonzalez’s attorney.
On May 21, 2009, the jury convicted Sandoval-Gonzalez. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
On April 25, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned the conviction, ruling that a defendant bears no burden of proving derivative citizenship and that the judge’s rulings and the prosecutor’s closing argument had shifted the burden of proof to the defendant.
The appeals court wrote: “The prosecutor’s statement was particularly egregious because she said that the jury had ‘heard’ of such a presumption previously. Of course, it had not—not from counsel, not from a witness, and certainly not from the judge when he instructed the jury minutes earlier; the prosecutor simply misstated the record. Her closing statement, and the district court’s rulings sustaining these comments, impermissibly shifted the burden of proof to Sandoval.”
The appeals court set aside Sandoval-Gonzalez’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
On August 23, 2011, Sandoval-Gonzalez went on trial for a second time. On the following day, he was convicted by a jury.
Before he was sentenced, prosecutors informed Sandoval-Gonzalez’s defense lawyer that they had discovered evidence—never before disclosed—that could have been used to impeach one of the original agents on the case.
The agent on the case had previously been caught signing his supervisor’s signature to a report in another case. Because the information could have been used to impeach the agent’s testimony in Sandoval-Gonzalez’s case, the conviction was vacated and the prosecution dismissed the case on January 25, 2012.
– Maurice Possley