Three people convicted of marriage and immigration fraud are entitled to a retrial because of the judge’s improper contact with the jury and faulty jury instructions, a federal appeals court ruled.

Gaurav Mehta and Isha Mehta and their son were issued tourist visas to enter the U.S. from India for six months. While in the U.S., Gaurav married Mary Opoka and Isha married Brandon Johnson, both of whom are U.S. citizens. Gaurav and Isha then applied for lawful permanent resident status.

The Mehtas were convicted of marriage and immigration fraud, and Opoka was convicted of marriage fraud. But the three are entitled to a new trial, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled.

During the trial, five jurors asked to speak with the judge, and he met with them without the defendants or lawyers present. The jurors told him that as they walked to and from the courthouse, Gaurav and Opoka would follow them and stare at them. The judge called the behavior “disturbing” and “inappropriate” and promised to assign a court security officer to accompany them. He later told defense counsel to have their clients “stay the hell away” from the jurors.

The Second Circuit has warned that trial courts shouldn’t respond to jury inquiries in an ex parte manner, because it jeopardizes defendants’ constitutional rights to be present at every stage of their trial and is “pregnant with possibilities for error,” the appeals court said. Here, the defendants’ lawyers couldn’t weigh in on how to handle the inquiry or comment on the judge’s proposed response.

The judge’s comments “strongly implied that the defendants posed some threat of physical danger to the jurors,” the court said, and the defense had no opportunity to rebut that implication, such as providing an alternate account of Guarav and Opoka’s actions. Moreover, the judge never discussed the meeting with the full jury, so jurors who didn’t attend might have reached unfounded conclusions about what the defendants did, and the judge never asked the jurors whether they could remain impartial.

The appeals court also faulted the trial judge’s jury instructions. He told jurors they could consider that a defendant’s interest in the outcome of the case creates a motive for false testimony.

“We have repeatedly held, in no uncertain terms, that this charge is forbidden; district courts may not tell juries that a testifying defendant’s personal interest in the outcome of a trial supplies a motive to lie,” the appeals court said.

Although the appeals court said it didn’t question the trial judge’s “conscientiousness and good faith,” it vacated the convictions and remanded the case for retrial.

The appeal was heard by Judges Barrington Parker, Debra Ann Livingston, and Denny Chin.

Guarav Mehta is represented by Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP. Isha Mehta is represented by the Law Office of Robert A. Culp. Opoka is represented by The Law Offices of Eric K. Schillinger.

The case is United States v. Mehta, 2d Cir., No. 16-02585, 3/21/19.