Zhenli Ye Gon must feel like he's trapped in a revolving courthouse door, as his legal effort challenging his detention in the United States is passed from one judge to another.
Ye Gon, a Chinese national and resident of Mexico whom the U.S. Justice Department pegged as a leader in a global methamphetamine trafficking conspiracy, has remained in custody since his arrest in Maryland in July 2007.
Federal prosecutors abandoned the government’s drug and money laundering case against Ye Gon in 2009 over a Washington judge’s concern that government lawyers withheld favorable information from Ye Gon’s trial counsel. Ye Gon, who owned a pharmaceutical wholesale business in Mexico, has long alleged he was not involved in any drug manufacturing or trafficking organizations.
Ye Gon remains jailed without having been convicted of a crime. The authorities in Mexico want Ye Gon prosecuted there on drug and money charges. Ye Gon is awaiting a final decision by the U.S. State Department about the surrender to officials in Mexico.
Yesterday, a federal trial judge in Washington, Amy Berman Jackson, ruled that Ye Gon must use the federal court system in Virginia to challenge his continued detention. Jackson issued an order sending the case to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia for disposition.
Ye Gon in February first filed a habeas petition in the Western District of Virginia, naming the warden of the state-run facility where he is jailed, in an effort to challenge an extradition ruling. He later filed a similar petition in Washington federal district court.
But the presiding judge in the Virginia proceeding, James Turk, did not rule on the merits of Ye Gon’s legal challenge. Instead, Turk, acting on his own, in May sent the dispute to U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.
Prosecutors contend Ye Gon’s habeas petition should be heard in Virginia even though the U.S. marshal in the District retains administrative responsibility over his custody. The warden of the Virginia state jail where Ye Gon is locked up, prosecutors said, is the “immediate physical custodian” of Ye Gon.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 ruled in Rumsfeld v. Padilla that an inmate’s physical custodian—and not the person who is exercising supervisory control over custody—is the proper defendant in a habeas case. That case involved Jose Padilla's challenge of his detention as an alleged enemy combatant.
Jackson said in her ruling Tuesday that she “certainly does not take the step of returning the case lightly.” She said Ye Gon’s lawyers have “made one good faith effort after another to lodge this action in the appropriate court and to name the proper respondents.”
Washington solo practitioner Gregory Smith, a lawyer for Ye Gon, could not immediately be reached for comment this morning.