Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Drug conspiracy, and the vehicles of its operation

US v. Cabrera-Beltran: A jury in Alexandria, VA, convicted Cabrera-Beltran of conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine and heroin. On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, Cabrera-Beltran raised several issues, including violations of his 6th and 14th Amendment rights.

On appeal, Cabrera-Beltran argued that three Spanish-speaking venirepersons should not have been struck by the district court after each of them expressed an inability to accept the translations of their native tongue by a court interpreter. The Fourth Circuit determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion in striking the potential jurors, holding that the "for-cause striking of prospective jurors based upon their perceived inability to accept an interpreter as the final arbiter of what was said or written does not violate the Equal Protection Clause" of the 14th Amendment, as it is integral to a fair trial that all jurors base their decision on the same evidence.

Next, Cabrera-Beltran argued that case management documents (Treasury Enforcement Communications System, or TECS) maintained by Customs and Border Patrol, to monitor the vehicles and license plates that cross the national borders, should not have been admitted because he could not cross-examine the border patrol agent who produced the information. The Fourth Circuit found that these documents were not testimonial, and did not violate the rule against hearsay because they are kept in the normal course of business, not for the purposes of a subsequent legal action. Additionally, at least two federal courts (5th and 9th) have held that these TECS records are admissible under the public records exception to hearsay.

Cabrera-Beltran also argued that because the jury convicted him for an amount of cocaine less than the amount alleged in the indictment, that he essentially received a variance which required reversal. The Fourth Circuit found, however, that a lesser included offense is included in the charged offense, and hence, there is no variance. Further, Cabrera-Beltran raised the issue of whether the indictment was effective, but since he had not raised this issue prior to trial, this claim was found to be waived. Cabrera-Beltran argued that the district court erred in giving an Allen charge as opposed to granting his request for a mistrial, when the jury announced its failure to reach a verdict. After two days, the jury eventually reached a verdict.

Cabrera-Beltran moved for acquittal based on insufficient evidence, that the witness testimony against him was vague, uncertain and incredible. The Fourth Circuit found substantial evidence supporting the verdict and found that the district court did not err in denying that motion. Cabrera-Beltran raised the issue that the district court erred in admitting testimony from Lorenzo Salgado as 404(b) evidence, testimony which detailed heroin transactions that occurred prior to the conduct alleged in the indictment. The Fourth Circuit concurred with the government that the testimony was relevant to prove knowledge and intent. Finally, Cabrera-Beltran raised two sentencing issues, that the district court erred in calculating the drug quantity by accounting for drugs that were sld to Salgado prior to the events of the indictment; second, that the district court erred in adding a two-level enhancement for his managerial role in the conspiracy. The Fourth Circuit found no sentencing errors.

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