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Rosales-Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182 (1981)

Rosales-Lopez v. United States

No. 79-6624

Argued January 12, 1981

Decided April 21, 1981

451 U.S. 182


Petitioner, who is of Mexican descent, was tried in Federal District Court for his participation in a plan by which Mexican aliens were smuggled into the country. Another participant in the plan, one Bowling, was apparently a Caucasian with whose daughter petitioner had been living. Prior to his trial, petitioner requested that the judge, in his voir dire examination of prospective jurors, ask a question as to possible prejudice toward Mexicans. The judge refused to ask such question, but did ask questions concerning possible prejudice against aliens. Petitioner was subsequently convicted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting petitioner's challenge of the trial judge's refusal to question the jurors about possible racial or ethnic bias.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 451 U. S. 188-194; 451 U. S. 194-195.

617 F.2d 1349, affirmed.

JUSTICE WHITE, joined by JUSTICE STEWART, JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and JUSTICE POWELL, concluded that there was no reversible error in the voir dire afforded petitioner. Pp. 451 U. S. 188-194.

(a) Because the obligation to impanel an impartial jury lies in the first instance with the trial judge, and because he must rely largely on his immediate perceptions, federal judges have been accorded ample discretion in determining how best to conduct the voir dire. "Special circumstances" under which the Constitution requires questioning prospective jurors about racial or ethnic bias exist only when racial issues are inextricably bound up with the conduct of the trial and there are substantial indications of the likelihood of racial or ethnic prejudice affecting the jurors in the particular case. See Ristaino v. Ross, 424 U. S. 589; Ham v. South Carolina, 409 U. S. 524. Under this Court's supervisory power over the federal courts, failure to honor a defendant's request to inquire into racial or ethnic prejudice, where such an inquiry is not constitutionally mandated, is reversible error only where the circumstances of the case indicate a "reasonable possibility" that such prejudice might influence the jury. Federal trial courts must make such an inquiry when requested by a defendant accused of a violent crime and where the defendant and the victim are members of different

Page 451 U. S. 183

racial or ethnic groups. See Ristaino, supra; Aldridge v. United States, 283 U. S. 308. Pp. 451 U. S. 188-192.

(b) In this case, there were no "special circumstances" of constitutional dimension requiring an inquiry as to racial or ethnic bias, since the issues in the trial did not involve allegations of racial or ethnic prejudice. And the circumstances of the case did not reveal a violent criminal act with a victim of a different racial or ethnic group from that of the defendant. Nor did the external circumstances of the case indicate a "reasonable possibility" that racial or ethnic prejudice would influence the jury's evaluation of the evidence. Pp. 451 U. S. 192-194.

JUSTICE REHNQUIST, joined by CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER, concurring in the result, concluded that the decision as to inquiry on voir dire as to racial or ethnic prejudice rested primarily with the trial court, subject to case-by-case review by the appellate courts, even in the case of "violent crimes" where the defendant and victim were members of different racial or ethnic groups. Pp. 451 U. S. 194-195.

WHITE, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which STEWART, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, in which BURGER, C.J. joined, post, p. 451 U. S. 194. STEVENS, J., filed dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 451 U. S. 195.

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