420 F.3d 1177 (10th Cir. 2005), 03-2191, United States v. Resendiz-Patino

Docket Nº:03-2191.
Citation:420 F.3d 1177
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Gerardo RESENDIZ-PATINO, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:August 26, 2005
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 1177

420 F.3d 1177 (10th Cir. 2005)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Gerardo RESENDIZ-PATINO, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 03-2191.

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit.

Aug. 26, 2005

Page 1178

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 1179

David C. Iglesias, United States Attorney, and Norman Cairns, Assistant United States Attorney, Albuquerque, NM, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Herman E. Ortiz, Garfield, NM and Raymond P. Moore, Federal Public Defender, and Jill M. Wichlens, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Denver, CO, for Defendant-Appellant.

Before SEYMOUR, LUCERO and O'BRIEN, Circuit Judges.

O'BRIEN, Circuit Judge.

After examining the briefs and appellate record, this panel has determined unanimously that oral argument would not materially assist the determination of this appeal. See Fed. R.App. P. 34(a)(2); 10th Cir. R. 34.1(G). The case is therefore ordered submitted without oral argument.

On February 13, 2002, a jury convicted Gerardo Resendiz-Patino of possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). The statutory penalty for the offense requires imprisonment for not less than five nor more than forty years. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B)(ii)(II). On August 6, 2003, Resendiz-Patino was sentenced to 121 months imprisonment. He appeals, challenging his conviction on the ground the district court committed reversible error in admitting hearsay evidence at trial and challenging his sentence on the ground it violates the rule announced in United States v. Booker, --- U.S. ----, 125 S.Ct. 738, 746, 160 L.Ed.2d 621 (2005) (invalidating the federal sentencing guidelines insofar as they are mandatory). Exercising jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 3742(a) and 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we AFFIRM.

I. BACKGROUND

Factual

On September 4, 2001, Resendiz-Patino, en route from Juarez, Mexico, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, stopped at a border checkpoint near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and permitted authorities to search his vehicle. During the search, a drug dog alerted to the vehicle's battery. Authorities removed the battery (which was not examined for fingerprints) and discovered 3.973 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside it. In the vehicle, authorities discovered a wrench that fit the nuts of the battery cables and a red felt protector for a battery cable. There appeared to be new cables attached to the battery. Authorities

Page 1180

also discovered that a motorcycle battery had been wired to the vehicle's battery. In the trunk, they located a set of Craftsmen tools. Although Resendiz-Patino owned the vehicle in which he was stopped, was traveling alone at the time and stated he was the only person who drove or otherwise possessed the vehicle, he testified he had no knowledge of the cocaine. He also denied ownership of the tools found in his vehicle. He shifted responsibility for the cocaine to his girlfriend, whom he had been visiting earlier that day in Juarez, and her cousin, who occasionally performed mechanical work on Resendiz-Patino's vehicle.

Procedural

The Presentence Investigation Report (PIR) 1 calculated a base offense level of 30 based on Resendiz-Patino's relevant conduct. 2 See USSG § 2D1.1(c)(5) (providing for a base offense level of 30 when offense involves at least 3.5 kilograms but less than 5 kilograms of cocaine). It also recommended a two level enhancement for obstruction of justice on the ground Resendiz-Patino testified falsely at trial. See USSG § 3C1.1. With a total offense level of 32 and a criminal history category of I, the applicable sentencing range was 121 to 151 months imprisonment. The district court found Resendiz-Patino possessed 3.88 kilograms of cocaine 3 and obstructed justice by his testimony at trial. It sentenced Resendiz-Patino to 121 months imprisonment, the low end of the applicable guideline range.

II. DISCUSSION

Hearsay Objection

When the authorities removed the battery containing the cocaine from Resendiz-Patino's vehicle, they made no effort to examine it for latent fingerprints, even though the hard plastic sheath for the battery was a surface from which fingerprints might have been obtained. The case agent testified at trial on redirect examination that one reason he did not submit the battery sheath for fingerprint analysis was that other agents had informed him in the past that oftentimes the fingerprints on containers of controlled

Page 1181

substances are smudged and unidentifiable:

Q. Are you saying that the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] task force never submits packaging or wrappings for fingerprinting to the South Central Lab?

A. No. I said I never have.

Q. Are you aware whether attempts have been made in other cases from the DEA task force?

A. Yes.

Q. Do you know of any times when fingerprints have come back?

A. No. In my experience, from my talking to other agents, they've....

MR. HARRIS: Objection, Your Honor. He's testifying to hearsay.

THE COURT: No, overruled. Go ahead.

A. They've told me that prints have come back inconclusive.

Q. It's hard to get a full print that you can actually categorize?

A. Yes.

Q. You get smudges or parts of prints?

A. Yes.

(R. Vol. III at 136-37.) Resendiz-Patino contends the agent's testimony as to what other agents had told him about obtaining fingerprints from drug packaging or wrappings was inadmissable hearsay, and it was an abuse of discretion and reversible error for the court to admit it.

Hearsay, defined by FED.R.EVID. 801(c) as "a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted[,]" is generally inadmissible. See FED.R.EVID. 802. However,

[e]videntiary rulings are committed to the discretion of the trial court and are reviewed only for abuse of discretion. While we review evidentiary rulings by considering the record as a whole, deference to the trial judge is heightened when reviewing rulings on hearsay questions. This court applies a harmless error standard when reviewing trial courts' rulings on hearsay objections resting solely on the Federal Rules of Evidence. A harmless error is one that does not have a substantial influence on the outcome of the trial; nor does it leave one in grave doubt as to whether it had such effect.

United States v. Jones, 44 F.3d 860, 873 (10th Cir. 1995) (internal citations omitted). See also FED.R.CRIM.P. 52(a) ("Any error, defect, irregularity, or variance that does not affect substantial rights must be disregarded."). We avoid deciding whether or not the challenged testimony was hearsay and whether the district court abused its discretion in admitting it, because the error in admitting it, if any, was harmless.

The gist of Resendiz-Patino's defense was that he was unaware of the presence of cocaine in his vehicle's battery. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) (requiring knowing or intentional possession to sustain conviction). Had the jury believed him, he would have been acquitted. It did not. Without the case agent's objected-to explanation for his failure to submit the battery sheath for fingerprint analysis, the jury would have been left with three equally plausible inferences that could be drawn from the evidence: 1) there were no recoverable fingerprints on the battery sheath; 2) there were recoverable fingerprints on the battery sheath that belonged to Resendiz-Patino; or 3) there were recoverable fingerprints on the battery sheath that did not belong to Resendiz-Patino.

The first inference is benign and would not have had any influence on the outcome of the trial. The second inference would not have lessened (and indeed would have added to) the otherwise overwhelming evidence of Resendiz-Patino's guilt. The

Page 1182

third inference would not have eliminated the possibility that Resendiz-Patino was in league with another person or persons in cocaine trafficking. 4 On the basis of the foregoing, we conclude the case agent's explanation for his failure to submit the battery sheath for fingerprint analysis did not have a substantial influence on the outcome of the trial. Therefore, the admission of the explanation, if error, was harmless.

Sentence

In Booker, the Court invalidated the federal sentencing guidelines insofar as they were mandatory. 125 S.Ct. at 746. The Court held that "[a]ny fact (other than a prior conviction) which is necessary to support a sentence exceeding the maximum authorized by the facts established by a plea of guilty or a jury verdict must be admitted by the defendant or proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. at 756. The Court concluded the guidelines would not offend the Constitution if advisory only. Id. at 749-50. To this end, in the remedial portion of its opinion, the Court excised those provisions mandating application of the guidelines. Id. at 756-57. The Court indicated its decision was applicable to all cases, like this one, on direct review. Id. at 769.

Applying Booker, we have stated:

there are two distinct types of error that a court sentencing prior to Booker could make. First, a court could err by relying upon judge-found facts, other than those of prior convictions, to enhance a defendant's sentence mandatorily. As Book...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP