On December 10, 1978, Humberto Rosales-Lopez was arrested for participation in a scheme to smuggle three Mexican aliens into southern California. Prior to trial, Rosales-Lopez, who is of Mexican descent, requested that the trial judge, in conducting voir dire, question potential jurors as to their possible prejudice against Mexicans. The trial judge refused to ask that specific question but did question potential jurors as to their possible prejudice against aliens. Rosales- Lopez was subsequently tried and convicted on all charges. Rosales-Lopez appealed, arguing that the trial judge’s refusal to ask potential jurors on possible prejudice against Mexicans was an error. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument and affirmed the conviction.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts. The Court, reaffirming its holdings in Aldridge v. United States (1931) and Ristaino v. Ross (1976), held that while a federal judge, in having an intimate connection with the trial, has ample discretion in conducting a voir dire examination, is constitutionally required in ‘‘special circumstances’’ where racial issues are ‘‘inextricably bound up with the trial’’ to question potential jurors about their racial and ethnic biases. The Court went on the say, absent such ‘‘special circumstances’’ a trial judge’s failure to ask questions concerning racial or ethnic bias is only an error where there is a ‘‘reasonable possibility’’ that race or ethnic prejudice might influence the jury’s impartiality. Although the determination of what constitutes a ‘‘reasonable possibility’’ should be done by the trial judge on a case-by-case basis, the Court suggested inquiries are required in cases of violent crimes involving members of different racial or ethnic groups.
Cases and Statutes Cited