By Elissa Hachmeister

On Monday, February 2, in the criminal case of United States v. Fatih Sonmez, a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit held that the District Court for the District of Maryland did not abuse its discretion when it rejected the defendant’s proposed jury instructions in favor of a charge tracking the actual statutory language.

Immigration Marriage Fraud Conviction and Proposed Jury Instructions

A jury convicted Sonmez of marriage fraud in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1325(c), which applies when an individual “knowingly enters into a marriage for the purpose of evading any provision of the immigration laws.”

On appeal, Sonmez contended that the district court erred when it rejected his proposed jury instructions on the elements of the offense under Section 1325(c). Specifically, Sonmez’s proposed instructions required the government to prove that “the only reason the marriage was entered into was to obtain an immigration benefit” and that “the defendant and his US citizen spouse had no intent to establish a life together.” Instead, the trial court instructed the jury that the government must prove “that the marriage was entered into for the purpose of evading a provision of the United States immigration laws.”

Denial of Proposed Jury Instructions Reviewed for Abuse of Discretion

A district court’s denial of proposed jury instructions is reviewed for abuse of discretion; to establish abuse of discretion in this context, a defendant must show that the proposed instructions (1) were “correct,” (2) were “not substantially covered by the charge that the district court actually gave to the jury,” and (3) “involved some point so important that the failure to give the instruction[s] seriously impaired the defendant’s defense.” United States v. Bartko, 728 F.3d 327, 343 (4th Cir. 2013).

Proposed Jury Instructions Were Incorrect Statements of Law

Explaining that it must interpret statutory language as written, see Ignacio v. United States, 674 F.3d 252, 255 (4th Cir. 2012), the Fourth Circuit reasoned that the instructions sought by Sonmez were not supported by the plain language of Section 1325(c), but instead would have changed the elements of the crime.

The Fourth Circuit cited approvingly to the Sixth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Chowdhury, where a similar instruction to the one ultimately given by the trial court, requiring the government to prove that the defendant “entered into the marriage for the purpose of evading the United States immigration laws,” was held proper because it tracked the language of statute. 169 F.3d 402, 406-07 (6th Cir. 1999). Indeed, the majority of circuits that have considered the language of Section 1325(c) have set forth elements consistent with the district court’s instructions to the jury in this case. See United States v. Yang, 603 F.3d 1024, 1026 (8th Cir. 2010); United States v. Darif, 446 F.3d 701, 709-10 (7th Cir. 2006); United States v. Islam, 418 F.3d 1125, 1129-30 (10th Cir. 2005); United States v. Rojas, 718 F.3d 1317, 1320 (11th Cir. 2013).

The Fourth Circuit characterized the Ninth Circuit’s contrary decisions, see, e.g.United States v. Orellana-Blanco, 294 F.3d 1143, 1151 (9th Cir. 2002) (requiring as an element of the offense that the government prove that the defendant had no intent to establish a life with his spouse at the time of the marriage), as unpersuasive and imposing “a requirement completely apart from the statutory language.”

Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Affirmed the District Court’s Judgment

The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to give the proposed jury instructions because they were not correct statements of the law.