448 F.3d 436 (D.C. Cir. 2006), 02-3067, United States v. Mejia

Docket Nº:02-3067.
Citation:448 F.3d 436
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Appellee v. Rafael MEJIA, a/k/a Jose Alvarez-Rios, a/k/a Patron, a/k/a Professor, a/k/a Gordo, a/k/a Memo, a/k/a Juan Guillermo Gomez-Ramirez, a/k/a Jose Guillermo Gomez-Ramirez, Appellant.
Case Date:June 02, 2006
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

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448 F.3d 436 (D.C. Cir. 2006)

UNITED STATES of America, Appellee


Rafael MEJIA, a/k/a Jose Alvarez-Rios, a/k/a Patron, a/k/a Professor, a/k/a Gordo, a/k/a Memo, a/k/a Juan Guillermo Gomez-Ramirez, a/k/a Jose Guillermo Gomez-Ramirez, Appellant.

No. 02-3067.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.

June 2, 2006

Argued Sept. 12, 2005.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 99cr00389-01). (No. 99cr00389-02).

H. Heather Shaner, appointed by the court, argued the cause for appellant Rafael Mejia.

Jon S. Pascale, appointed by the court, argued the cause for appellant Homes Valencia Rios. Joseph Virgilio, appointed by the court, was on the brief for appellants.

Teresa A. Wallbaum, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for appellee. With her on the brief was Robert A. Feitel, Attorney.

Before: TATEL and GARLAND, Circuit Judges, and EDWARDS, Senior Circuit Judge.1


GARLAND, Circuit Judge.

Following a jury trial, defendants Rafael Mejia and Homes Valencia Rios were convicted of conspiring to distribute cocaine with the knowledge and intent that it would be unlawfully imported into the United States. Mejia was sentenced to 400 months in prison and Rios to 324 months. The defendants raise a number of jurisdictional, procedural, evidentiary, and constitutional challenges to their convictions and sentences. We consider those challenges below.


From June through November 1998, Costa Rican law enforcement officers conducted an investigation of a drug trafficking organization in Costa Rica. The investigation involved multiple wiretaps, which captured Colombian nationals Mejia and Rios discussing large drug transactions with other members of their drug trafficking organization. Based on information

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from these wiretaps, law enforcement officials intercepted three shipments of drugs in October 1998. On October 3, Costa Rican police seized 200 kilograms of cocaine from a truck at the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. On October 14, Nicaraguan police seized 130 kilograms of cocaine from a truck at the border of Nicaragua and Honduras. And on October 18, Costa Rican police seized 25 kilograms of cocaine from a truck in Costa Rica.

On November 30, 1999, a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia named Mejia and Rios in a one-count indictment that charged them with conspiring to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine with the knowledge and intent that such cocaine would be unlawfully imported into the United States, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 959(a), 960(a)(3), 960(b)(1)(B)(ii), and 963.2 The indictment alleged a conspiracy beginning no later than June 1998 and lasting until at least November 1998, spanning the countries of Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. A magistrate judge in the District of Columbia issued warrants for the arrests of Mejia and Rios, and copies of the warrants were provided to Panamanian law enforcement officials.

On February 9, 2000, Panamanian authorities seized Mejia and Rios in Panama. Hours later, the Panamanians transferred the two men into the custody of United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. DEA Special Agents Michael Chavarria and Joseph Evans then arrested Mejia and Rios and transported them to the United States. En route, the DEA agents advised the men of the charges against them and read them their Miranda rights in Spanish.

Upon arrival in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the DEA agents processed Mejia and Rios through Customs and Immigration, again advised them of their rights, and separated them for questioning. Mejia orally waived his rights and made statements inculpating himself in the transportation of drugs to the United States. Rios also waived his rights and signed a written statement inculpating himself in drug trafficking in Central America. Following these interviews, the DEA flew Mejia and Rios to Washington, D.C., where they were incarcerated pending trial.

On May 25, 2000, while the defendants awaited trial, the grand jury issued a superseding indictment enlarging the time period of the alleged conspiracy. Whereas the original indictment charged a conspiracy spanning six months in 1998, the superseding indictment stated that the conspiracy began no later than November 1995 and continued until February 2000. In all other respects, the superseding indictment was the same as the original.

During the pretrial period, the government provided discovery materials to the defense. These materials included DEA-6 forms summarizing the DEA's interviews with cooperating witnesses, which the government produced at least four months prior to trial. When the forms were originally provided, the names of the witnesses, as well as other identifying information, were blacked out. The redacted DEA-6 forms describe multiple drug transactions between 1995 and 2000 involving the cooperating witnesses and appellant Mejia. After receiving these statements, the defense

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moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) to prevent the cooperating witnesses from testifying, arguing that their statements detailed bad acts by Mejia that were unrelated to the October 1998 seizures and therefore assertedly irrelevant to the conspiracy outlined by the government. The court denied the motion. Approximately two weeks before trial, the government turned over unredacted versions of the DEA-6 forms, thereby revealing the identities of its cooperating witnesses, Jorge Alexis Gallardo Funez and Jose Sanchez.

The trial commenced on October 9, 2001. At trial, Funez testified that he was involved in cocaine trafficking with Mejia, and that Mejia told him that the drugs were destined for the United States. Funez related that, in 1996, he assisted Mejia in transporting 700 kilos of cocaine, 100 of which Mejia intended to ship to Los Angeles. Sanchez testified that he was also involved with Mejia's organization, primarily in overseeing financial matters. Sanchez stated that, in 1996, at Mejia's request, he went to Houston at least three times to assist in counting and transferring money. Sanchez also testified that, in 1997, Mejia told him that a 1,400 kilogram shipment was going to "California, to Houston, Texas, and to the towers in New York." Trial Tr., vol. XIII-A at 31 (Nov. 1, 2001). Neither Funez nor Sanchez offered any testimony about Rios.

In addition to the testimony of the cooperating witnesses, the government played 26 tapes of conversations recorded during the Costa Rican wiretapping investigation. Eight of those conversations were between Mejia and other members of the drug trafficking conspiracy. Nine of the telephone calls were between Rios and other members of the conspiracy. Several witnesses identified the defendants' voices on the tapes. Inspector Siegfredo Sanchez, 3 who led the Costa Rican investigation, identified Mejia's voice on eight of the tapes; DEA Agent Evans identified Mejia on three of the tapes; and Juan Delgado, a prisoner who met Mejia and Rios during their pretrial incarceration, identified Mejia on four of the tapes.4Both Inspector Sanchez and DEA Agent Chavarria identified Rios' voice on eight tapes; Delgado identified Rios on seven tapes.

According to the prosecution, the conversations captured on the tapes were coded to disguise their subject matter. The government offered Inspector Sanchez as an expert in deciphering the coded language used by drug trafficking organizations, and he testified about the meaning of numerous conversations. For example, Inspector Sanchez decoded a conversation involving a 147-kilogram shipment of cocaine. He testified that, during the conversation, Rios authorized another member of the conspiracy to keep three kilograms of the 147-kilogram shipment as payment for his services. According to Inspector Sanchez, Mejia raised questions about the three-kilogram discrepancy in this shipment during a subsequent taped conversation with another associate, Johnny Morales Cooper.

Inspector Sanchez further testified that coded phrases in the recorded conversations established a nexus with the October 1998 drug seizures. In a conversation on October 2, 1998, two of the defendants' co-conspirators made reference to $200,

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which Inspector Sanchez testified actually referred to 200 kilograms of cocaine. The next day, October 3, the Costa Rican police seized 200 kilograms of cocaine from a truck at the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border. In an October 12, 1998 conversation, two of the defendants' co-conspirators referred to the number 130. Two days later, on October 14, Costa Rican police seized 130 kilograms of cocaine at the Nicaraguan-Honduran border.

The government also introduced the testimony of former DEA Agent Michael Garland, who testified as an expert on "drug trafficking organizations in Central and South America, . . . shipment routes in South, Central America and North America, the methods and means of communication among drug traffickers in that region, the relative pricing of cocaine in 1998 in Central America, South America, and the United States, and drug logos associated with the packaging of cocaine." Trial Tr., vol. I-B at 57-58 (Oct. 16, 2001). Garland testified that the principal market for drugs produced in Central and South America is the United States, and that the considerations relevant to determining the destination of Central or South American cocaine were the amount of cocaine, the markings on the cocaine, and the method of concealment.

Finally, DEA Agents Chavarria and Evans testified regarding the defendants' post-arrest statements. Chavarria testified that Rios...

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