Smuggling of Persons – A Texas Criminal Offense

The State of Texas has made it a state crime to transport undocumented aliens with the intent to conceal them from law enforcement. Smuggling of persons, or human smuggling, is a serious offense under Texas law. The Texas Penal Code defines this crime and outlines the potential criminal penalties for those convicted. In this blog, we will delve into the specifics of the offense, discussing the punishment range, counties with the highest arrest rates, evidence commonly presented in court, challenges in proving the charge, and defense strategies that a skilled attorney may employ.

What is Smuggling of Persons?

Under Texas Penal Code Section 20.05, A person commits an offense if the person knowingly:

(1)  uses a motor vehicle, aircraft, watercraft, or other means of conveyance to transport an individual with the intent to:

(A)  conceal the individual from a peace officer or special investigator, or

(B)  flee from a person the actor knows is a peace officer or special investigator attempting to lawfully arrest or detain the actor;

(2)  encourages or induces a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection; or

(3)  assists, guides, or directs two or more individuals to enter or remain on agricultural land without the effective consent of the owner.

Will I face Jail time if I am convicted of Smuggling of Persons?

Smuggling of Persons is a felony offense that can carry severe penalties if someone is convicted. There are different punishment ranges depending on the facts of the case.  

The offense is generally classified as a felony of the third degree. A third degree felony carries a punishment range of a minimum of two years in prison and a maximum of ten years in jail.  You may also face up to a $10,000 fine.  

However, the punishment range for smuggling of persons can escalate to a second-degree felony if it is shown that you were paid to smuggle the undocumented aliens or served as a guide.  You may also face a second degree felony if it is shown that the individuals who were smuggled are under the age of 18 or the aliens (regardless of age) were transported in manner that is substantially likely to result in serious bodily injury or death. A second degree felony carries a punishment range of a minimum of two years in jail, up to twenty years in jail.

Finally, the punishment range for smuggling of persons can increase to a first degree felony if the smuggled individual dies during the smuggling attempt. A first degree felony has a punishment range of a minimum of five years in jail up to a maximum punishment of life in prison.

An individual convicted of any degree of smuggling of persons may also qualify for probation. Whether or not someone receives probation for human smuggling depends on the facts of the case, their criminal history, and whether or not the prosecutor who is handling their case is seeking jail time.

Counties with the Highest Arrest Rates of Smuggling Cases:

Smuggling of persons is a crime that impacts various regions in Texas, but certain counties experience higher arrest rates due to their proximity to the border and increased law enforcement efforts.

Notable Counties:

  • Hidalgo County:
    • Hidalgo County, located along the Texas-Mexico border, often sees a high number of smuggling-related arrests due to its strategic location and substantial border traffic.
  • Webb County:
    • With its border city of Laredo, Webb County experiences significant smuggling activities, making it a focal point for law enforcement.
  • El Paso County:
    • El Paso, situated on the border with Mexico, is another county witnessing notable smuggling-related arrests.
  • Maverick County, Kinney County, Val Verde County, and Uvalde County
    • These four counties have seen an increasing number of arrests for smuggling of persons because of Operation Lonestar. Operation Lonestar is a grant program from the State that provides law enforcement with increased money and resources to combat the smuggling of undocumented aliens along the Texas border.

How does the prosecutor prove the charge of Smuggling of Persons?

To secure a conviction for smuggling of persons, the state typically presents various types of evidence to establish the defendant’s guilt.

Common Evidence:

Witness Testimonies:

  • Statements from individuals involved in or aware of the smuggling operation, such as co-conspirators or victims, may be presented as crucial evidence.

Surveillance Footage:

  • Law enforcement may introduce surveillance footage depicting the transportation or harboring of individuals as evidence of the crime.

Financial Records:

  • Any financial transactions related to the smuggling operation, such as payments or wire transfers, can be used to build a case.

How Can a Defense Attorney fight a charge of Smuggling of persons?

Just because someone is arrested for Smuggling of Persons does not mean they have been found guilty of the crime. The State of Texas must bring an accused into court and provide enough evidence they committed the offense. Proving the charge of smuggling of persons comes with its set of challenges, including obstacles related to witness testimony.

Defense Strategies:

A defense attorney may employ various strategies to challenge a charge of smuggling of persons, aiming to suppress evidence pretrial and weaken the prosecution’s case at trial.

Motion to Suppress:

A defense attorney may file a motion to suppress evidence obtained unlawfully or violating the defendant’s rights. This could include challenging the admissibility of statements or surveillance footage.

Attacking Evidence Strength:

Casting doubt on the strength of the evidence is another effective strategy. This may involve questioning the credibility of witnesses, challenging the chain of custody for physical evidence, or highlighting inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case.

Deportation of Undocumented Aliens

One significant challenge that the State usually faces in these type of cases is the fact that many undocumented aliens, who are potential key witnesses, are often deported before the trial. This creates difficulties for the state in presenting firsthand accounts, impacting the strength of the case.

Can I get deported if I am convicted of Smuggling of Persons?

Conviction of smuggling of persons in Texas, as per Texas Penal Code Section 20.05, can have significant immigration consequences for the individual involved. Immigration consequences are often separate from criminal penalties and can result in deportation, removal proceedings, or other adverse actions by immigration authorities. It’s important to note that immigration laws are federal, and the consequences can vary based on the specific circumstances of the case.

If someone is convicted of smuggling of persons, which involves transporting individuals with the intent to conceal them or encouraging them to enter the country unlawfully, several immigration consequences may arise:

  • Deportation/Removal Proceedings:
      • Convictions for certain crimes, especially those involving moral turpitude or aggravated felonies, can lead to deportation or removal proceedings. Smuggling of persons is considered a serious offense, and a conviction may trigger these proceedings.
  • Inadmissibility:
      • A person convicted of smuggling of persons may become inadmissible to the United States. Inadmissibility means that the individual may be barred from reentering the U.S. legally, even for reasons such as family reunification or employment.
  • Loss of Immigration Benefits:
      • Individuals with certain immigration benefits, such as visas or permanent residency, may face the loss of these benefits if convicted of smuggling of persons. This can result in the revocation of a green card or the denial of an application for citizenship.
  • Cancellation of Removal:
      • Non-U.S. citizens who are lawful permanent residents (green card holders) may be eligible for cancellation of removal in certain cases. However, a conviction for smuggling of persons can make an individual ineligible for this relief.
  • Refugee/Asylum Claims:
      • Convictions for serious crimes, including smuggling of persons, can impact refugee or asylum claims. Individuals seeking protection in the U.S. may face challenges if they have a criminal record related to human smuggling.

It’s crucial for individuals facing charges related to the smuggling of persons to consult with both criminal defense and immigration attorneys. The defense attorney can address the criminal charges, while the immigration attorney can provide guidance on potential consequences and strategies to mitigate them. The complex interplay between criminal and immigration law underscores the importance of seeking legal advice tailored to the specific circumstances of the case.

Should you hire an attorney if you are arrested for Smuggling of Persons?

With severe criminal penalties at stake, individuals facing such charges must seek competent legal representation. Attorney Jorge Vela is a former federal prosecutor that handles hundreds of human smuggling cases. He can use his experience to help anyone that is arrested for human smuggling in the State of Texas.

Jorge Vela

Jorge Vela

Jorge Vela is a seasoned attorney with experience in both prosecution and defense. A graduate of Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas School of Law, he has served as a felony prosecutor in Webb County and an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of Texas. In 2017, he worked as an Assistant District Attorney for Travis County. Since 2018, Jorge has been a criminal defense attorney, leveraging his extensive experience to protect the rights of individuals accused of a crime through his practice, the Law Office of Jorge Vela.

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