448 F.3d 1206 (10th Cir. 2006), 05-2089, United States v. Isaac-Sigala

Docket Nº:05-2089.
Citation:448 F.3d 1206
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Rafael ISAAC-SIGALA, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:May 30, 2006
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Page 1206

448 F.3d 1206 (10th Cir. 2006)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,


Rafael ISAAC-SIGALA, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 05-2089.

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit.

May 30, 2006

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, D.C. No. CR-03-1598-RB.

Page 1207

Scott M. Davidson, Albuquerque, New Mexico, for Defendant-Appellant.

Page 1208

Terri J. Abernathy, Assistant United States Attorney (David C. Iglesias, United States Attorney with her on the brief), Las Cruces, New Mexico, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Before LUCERO, ANDERSON, and TYMKOVICH, Circuit Judges.

LUCERO, Circuit Judge.

This case asks whether a conviction for conspiring to smuggle narcotics and aiding and abetting the distribution of narcotics must be overturned when there is substantial evidence that the defendant drove a scout vehicle for a drug smuggler but where there is only circumstantial evidence that he knew the specific contents of the smuggler's van. Because we conclude that the evidence reasonably supports the jury's conclusion that the defendant knowingly advanced the essential objectives of the conspiracy, we exercise jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and AFFIRM.


In the early morning hours of December 5, 2002, a white van hauling an empty flat bed trailer approached an immigration checkpoint near Alamagordo, New Mexico. Behind the wheel sat Mario Meija-Nunez; Pedro Aguilar-Guerra was at his side in the passenger seat. The Border Patrol Agent on duty, Mark Bazill, asked Meija-Nunez for identification, and the occupants retrieved immigration documents. While Agent Bazill reviewed the documents, Meija-Nunez volunteered that he and Aguilar-Guerra were car haulers traveling to Ruidoso, New Mexico, where they intended to pick up cars for resale in Mexico. This surprised Agent Bazill, because, during his six years on the border patrol, he had never encountered car haulers destined for Ruidoso. In his experience, car haulers usually travel to places where car auctions are held such as Denver, Kansas, and Michigan.

Agent Bazill asked for permission to search the van and Meija-Nunez assented. While examining the roof of the van, Agent Bazill noticed fresh tool marks on the screws of the center panel. Because these marks indicated recent tampering with the roof panel, Agent Bazill suspected that the ceiling of the van was concealing narcotics. He referred the van to the secondary inspection area at the checkpoint, and the van was taken off the highway.

During the secondary inspection of the white van, Agent Bazill interviewed the two men. Meija-Nunez repeated that he and his companion were on their way to Ruidoso to collect previously purchased vehicles. When asked what vehicles they had purchased, Meija-Nunez answered "a Dodge van." Meanwhile, after dogs alerted to the smell of contraband coming from the van, two agents drilled into its ceiling and uncovered 96.4 net pounds (43 kilograms) of marijuana. Meija-Nunez and Aguilar-Guerra were placed under arrest, and their personal belongings were inventoried. A two-way hand held radio was recovered from Meija-Nunez's jacket pocket.

About ten minutes later, while the white van was in the secondary inspection area, a blue van driven by Rafael Isaac-Sigala approached the checkpoint. Another Border Patrol Agent, David Blasquez, was now monitoring the checkpoint in Agent Bazill's absence. At the time the blue van approached, Agent Bazill had not yet spoken with Agent Blasquez about the marijuana discovered in the white van. Agent Blasquez proceeded to interview Isaac-Sigala, who also stated that he was en route to Ruidoso to purchase vehicles. Like Agent Bazill, Agent Blasquez considered this small town an unusual destination for car haulers.

Noticing that the blue van displayed a temporary registration tag, Agent Blasquez

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asked where Isaac-Sigala worked. Isaac-Sigala responded by producing an identification card from Cereceres Auto Sales in El Paso, Texas. Agent Blasquez referred the blue van to secondary inspection, and after a canine examining the van did not alert, Isaac-Sigala drove away from the checkpoint.

Shortly after Isaac-Sigala drove away, Agent Blasquez spoke to Meija-Nunez and Aguilar-Guerra. When he learned that they were also going to Ruidoso on a car haul, Agent Blasquez radioed an agent on patrol duty that night, Agent Javier Ramirez, and asked him to intercept the blue van. Agent Ramirez discovered the blue van approximately 20 miles north of the checkpoint, traveling south, towards the checkpoint, instead of north, towards Ruidoso.

Agent Ramirez stopped the blue van, and asked Isaac-Sigala if he was headed towards Ruidoso. Isaac-Sigala replied that he was lost. Explaining that he would like to question Isaac-Sigala about a vehicle that was being held at the checkpoint, Agent Ramirez asked Isaac-Sigala for permission to search the blue van and to follow Agent Ramirez back to the checkpoint. Isaac-Sigala assented to both requests. In the course of searching the van for weapons, Agent Ramirez recovered a two-way hand held radio.

During Agent Ramirez's search of the van, another Border Patrol Agent, Julio Baray, spoke with Isaac-Sigala. Agent Baray explained that another van was being held at the immigration checkpoint and its driver had told agents that he was heading to Ruidoso to purchase vehicles. Agent Baray then asked if...

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