United States v. Sardinas, 071610 FED11, 08-16695

Docket Nº:08-16695
Opinion Judge:PER CURIAM
Judge Panel:Before O'CONNOR, Associate Justice Retired, CARNES and ANDERSON, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:July 16, 2010
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit




No. 08-16695

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

July 16, 2010


Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D. C. Docket No. 08-20380-CR-CMA.

Before O'CONNOR, [*] Associate Justice Retired, CARNES and ANDERSON, Circuit Judges.


This is an appeal arising out of the prosecution of four defendants for crimes involving a plot to commit a home invasion robbery of a drug stash house. The drugs and stash house were fictional constructs that were part of a law enforcement sting operation. The defendants are: Jose Luis Wong, William Sardinas, Raydel Garcia De Armas, and Raul Ramirez Socorro. In varying combinations they challenge their convictions, sentences, or both.


The following factual account is taken from the evidence introduced during the government's case in chief at the trial of the four defendants.

The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Taskforce is a joint operation of the Miami Dade Police Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It focuses on violent crimes, including home invasion robberies. The Taskforce sometimes receives information from one of its confidential informants that a group of people is seeking to commit a home invasion robbery for drugs, sometimes also known a "drug rip-off." When the Taskforce receives such a tip, it typically performs undercover operations to investigate the group and prepare a case for prosecution if the facts justify doing so.

An undercover officer often poses as a disgruntled drug trafficker seeking people to help him commit a robbery in order to steal drugs from one of his employer's stash houses. The confidential informant introduces the undercover agent to the people interested in committing a drug rip-off. The meetings are usually recorded. There usually are no real drugs and no real stash house.

Miguel Gonzalez, a confidential informant working with the Taskforce, offered Wong the opportunity to commit an armed home invasion robbery for drugs. On March 25, 2008, Wong and Gonzalez discussed strategy for carrying out the proposed robbery during a recorded telephone conversation. Wong agreed to bring a partner to meet with Gonzalez and the disgruntled drug trafficker, who was in reality undercover ATF Special Agent Richard Checo.

The next day, Gonzalez and Agent Checo met with Wong and Sardinas in a Sears parking lot. The meeting was audio recorded in its entirety and partially video recorded. Checo told Wong and Sardinas that he transported cocaine for Colombian drug traffickers and that he was responsible for delivering the cocaine to a drug stash house once it arrived in Miami on a freighter. Checo then explained that he wanted to steal the cocaine because the Colombian drug traffickers who employed him had failed to pay him the promised amount for his services.

Checo said that he expected a shipment of twenty to twenty-five kilograms of cocaine to arrive soon. He stated that he would know when the cocaine was to arrive only one day in advance and that he would not know the location of the stash house until he picked up the drugs from the freighter. Wong replied that he understood that his crew would have to be ready at that point. Checo then told Wong and Sardinas that the stash house would be guarded by two men with firearms. Wong told Checo not to worry because three cars full of Wong's people would follow Checo to the stash house.

On April 8, 2008, Wong, Sardinas, Gonzalez, and Agent Checo met again, this time in the parking lot of a Publix supermarket. The Taskforce audio and video recorded the meeting. During that meeting, Wong said, "Everything's ready on my end." He added, "I have the group already, you copy?" Wong also explained the plan: He would not enter the stash house, but his crew would follow Checo inside as Checo delivered the cocaine, catching the armed guards by surprise. Checo told Wong and Sardinas that if they changed their minds, they would have to alert Checo or Gonzalez. Wong and Checo then haggled over how to split the cocaine, eventually agreeing that Wong, Sardinas, and the rest of Wong's crew would receive twenty kilograms and that Checo and his people would receive the remaining five kilograms.

On April 15, 2008, Wong again met with Gonzalez and Agent Checo. The meeting was audio and video recorded. Checo told Wong that the boat containing the cocaine had arrived, and the two agreed that the robbery would occur the following evening. Checo then asked if Wong had everything he needed to commit the robbery, including "hierros." Wong replied, "Everything is ready." (At trial, Agent Checo testified that "hierros" is slang for "firearms.") Checo, while gesturing toward his waistband, told Wong to warn his crew that Checo would have a "hierro" as well. Wong said that he could have his crew together and ready around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. the next day.

On April 16, 2008, the defendants kept the cellular telephone towers buzzing with activity during the lead-up to the planned heist: Sardinas and De Armas spoke seven times; De Armas and Wong exchanged thirty-one calls; and Socorro spoke to Wong eight times. Cellular tower records indicated that Sardinas, Socorro, and De Armas were in the vicinity of Wong's residence in the late afternoon and evening of April 16. At 7:18 p.m., Gonzalez called Wong and instructed Wong to meet him in the parking lot of the El Tropico Restaurant and to bring his crew with him. The two planned to wait at El Tropico for Agent Checo's call. Once they received it, Gonzalez, Wong, and Wong's crew would drive to meet Checo and then follow him to the fictional stash house where they would carry out the armed robbery.

El Tropico sits next to a Shell gas station. Another restaurant, the Latin American Grill, is located in the immediate vicinity. El Tropico and the area around it were under police surveillance, including video recording, on the evening of April 16, 2008. That evening, Gonzalez waited in the parking lot of El Tropico. He sat in a black Ford Expedition that had been equipped with hidden audio and video recorders.

Just before 9:00 p.m., Wong entered the parking lot of El Tropico and got in the front passenger seat of the Expedition. Wong assured Gonzalez that his people were already in the area surrounding El Tropico. The two discussed how they would travel to the stash house and the planned split of the cocaine. Cellular telephone records revealed that Wong spoke to Sardinas, Socorro, and De Armas while inside the Expedition.

Meanwhile, Detective Mitch Jacobs, a police officer conducting surveillance at the Latin American Grill, observed a red Mustang driven by a female pull into the parking lot of that restaurant. The Mustang parked next to a Toyota Scion containing De Armas and a female passenger. The two vehicles' occupants then spoke to each other. The Mustang and the Scion eventually drove off. They were followed by Detective Jacobs and Detective Wayne Peart.

Back in the Expedition, Wong instructed someone through his cell phone to "go separate ways." Wong then explained to Gonzalez "that they had parked and they had to move. And he's saying that there's a car following them." The Mustang and Scion split up. Detective Jacobs continued following De Armas' Scion as it circled near the area between El Tropico and the Miami Airport.

Wong told Gonzalez that: "[o]ne followed the girl and the other one followed him. And then they told [Sardinas], 'Take off because this is hot.' [Sardinas] took off, and now they're coming back." Wong said into his cell phone: "Brother, because maybe you parked . . . maybe everything . . . is hot, . . . because all the Latin American are super hot." He added, "[D]o me a favor, pick that up. Call me and come to where I'm at . . . . And if you want, you can keep going afterwards . . . but I want that, please. . . . Bring me that." When Wong hung up, Gonzalez asked, "Did he throw away the, the gun?"

Meanwhile, the officers tailing De Armas observed him pull over to the side of an expressway on-ramp. They watched as he walked into a grassy area adjacent to the roadway and apparently searched for something. After a short time, De Armas returned to the Scion and drove away. The officers continued to follow De Armas, and he soon returned to the same location, where he again got out of the Scion and searched for something. The officers then arrested him. While De Armas was in the back of a police car, officers searched the ramp and adjacent grassy area. The officers did not find anything during their search.

Back at El Tropico, officers observed Sardinas enter the parking lot and approach the Expedition. After speaking with Wong and Gonzalez briefly, Sardinas walked back across the parking lot and up to a black Chevy Blazer, which was driven by Socorro. As Sardinas approached, Socorro rolled down the driver side window. The two spoke briefly before Socorro handed a blue gym bag to Sardinas. Sardinas immediately returned to the Expedition, blue gym bag in hand, and entered that vehicle.

After Sardinas climbed inside, the Expedition left the El Tropico parking lot. Gonzalez drove the Expedition to a warehouse, where Wong and Sardinas were arrested. When police officers searched the Expedition, they discovered the blue gym bag. When they opened the bag, they discovered a smaller bag containing a shortened rifle, two silencers, and a magazine clip of ammunition.

After Wong and De Armas had been arrested, officers placed them together in the backseat of a squad car equipped with a...

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