U.S. v. Cuellar, No. 05-10065.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtW. Eugene Davis
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Humberto Fidel Regalado CUELLAR, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date02 February 2007
Docket NumberNo. 05-10065.
478 F.3d 282
UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Humberto Fidel Regalado CUELLAR, Defendant-Appellant.
No. 05-10065.
United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.
February 2, 2007.

[478 F.3d 284]

Nancy E. Larson, Asst. U.S. Atty. (argued), Fort Worth, TX, Denise B. Williams, Amanda R. Burch, Lubbock, TX, for U.S.

Jerry V. Beard, Asst. Fed. Pub. Def. (argued), Lubbock, TX, for Cuellar.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

Before JONES, Chief Judge, and KING, JOLLY, HIGGINBOTHAM, DAVIS, SMITH, WIENER, BARKSDALE, GARZA, DeMOSS, BENAVIDES, STEWART, DENNIS, CLEMENT, PRADO and OWEN, Circuit Judges.

W. EUGENE DAVIS, Circuit Judge:


We took this case en banc to consider whether the government presented sufficient evidence at Cuellar's trial to support his conviction of international money laundering under 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(2)(B)(i). For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the evidence was sufficient to prove all elements of the offense. We also consider Cuellar's arguments that the district court erred in admitting the expert testimony of Agent Nuckles, which arguments were unnecessary for the panel to address under its disposition of the case. Finding no error, we affirm.

I.

On July 14, 2004, defendant Humberto Fidel Regalado Cuellar was stopped just south of Eldorado, Texas, about 114 miles from the Mexican border. Cuellar was traveling south in a Volkswagon Beetle toward Mexico on State Highway 77. Highway 77 runs toward Del Rio, Texas, which is directly across the border from Acuna, Mexico. He was pulled over by Deputy Kevin Herbert from the Schleicher County Sheriff's office, after Herbert observed the vehicle traveling very slowly, approximately 40 miles per hour in a 70 mile per hour zone. The car also swerved onto the shoulder, leading Herbert to suspect that the driver might be intoxicated. Because Cuellar spoke no English, Herbert called State Trooper Danny Nunez to assist him. As they waited for Nunez to arrive, Herbert attempted to determine whether Cuellar had insurance. Cuellar handed him written material from the glove compartment. He then exited the car, without being asked, and went to the front of the VW where the trunk was located and lifted the lid. Such behavior raises suspicion among law enforcement officers because it is considered a diversionary tactic used to draw attention away

478 F.3d 285

from other locations in the vehicle where contraband is hidden.

In the papers Cuellar handed Herbert were bus tickets issued in Cuellar's name. The tickets showed northbound travel the previous day, from Del Rio, Texas to San Antonio. They also showed a departure the same day from San Antonio to Big Spring, Texas. From there the tickets showed a departure to Lubbock, with a stop in Tulia, ending in Amarillo and then reversing course. Also among the papers were three Mexican permits to operate a vehicle without license plates. Two were in Cuellar's name, dated April 17, 2004 and June 28, 2004. The third, dated May 18, 2004, was in the name of David Rodriguez Aleman. The papers also included a traffic ticket issued to Cuellar in Mexico on March 5, 2004.

Nunez arrived and began to talk to Cuellar. Nunez became suspicious of Cuellar because he was avoiding eye contact and seemed very nervous. Cuellar claimed he was on a three-day business trip attempting to buy vehicles, despite the fact that he had no luggage or extra clothing. Cuellar gave conflicting stories about his travels, saying first that he was coming from Acuna, Mexico and later that he had been in San Angelo and was on his way to Acuna. Nunez noticed a bulge in Cuellar's pocket, and when asked about it, Cuellar pulled out a wad of cash that smelled like marijuana to the officers. Nunez then requested that a drug search dog come to the scene.

While waiting for the canine unit, Nunez asked Cuellar for permission to search the vehicle. Cuellar consented. The officers started with the trunk that Cuellar had opened. Nunez noticed drill marks on the fender walls and evidence of tampering on the gas tank. Contraband is often transported in gas tanks and in secret compartments behind fender walls. Nunez considered the markings as evidence of possible modifications to facilitate transportation of contraband. He also noticed that mud appeared to be splashed purposefully on the car with an acoustic gun, which is done by criminals to cover up tool marks, fresh paint and other work done on a vehicle. In addition, while most of the car's interior was faded and worn, the carpet appeared newer. Animal hair was found in the vehicle, concentrated in the rear area, but nowhere else in the car. Cuellar claimed that he had used the VW to transport goats on a prior occasion. Nunez doubted that goats could fit in the space.

Nunez also found a Whataburger bag with a receipt dated earlier the day of the stop. After calling the phone number on the receipt the officers determined that the restaurant was in Big Spring, which is northwest of San Angelo — farther north than Cuellar told officers he had traveled. A border patrol agent called to the scene checked Cuellar's last border crossing date. That information was also inconsistent with Cuellar's story. While Nunez was talking to Cuellar and searching the car, Nunez observed Cuellar standing on the side of the road and making the sign of the cross leading Nunez to believe that Cuellar knew he was in trouble.

Deputy Chatham arrived with the canine unit. The dog alerted on the money in Cuellar's pocket and on the back floorboard area of the car. The officers found a hidden compartment underneath the floorboard containing $83,000 wrapped in duct tape bundles inside blue Walmart sacks and marked with a Sharpie as to the amounts in each bundle. A Sharpie was in the glove box of the car along with a Phillips-head screwdriver that matched the types of screws used in the hidden compartment. Chatham noticed that animal hair was concentrated in the area of the compartment. He testified that animal

478 F.3d 286

hair is often used to try to distract a dog during a search but it does not work.

The officers arrested Cuellar and transported the car to the sheriff's office for further investigation. At the station Cuellar wanted to call his family in Mexico and told Nunez that if he did not have the car in Mexico by midnight "his family would be floating down the river."1 As Cuellar was questioned, he gave several different versions of his travels, including the purpose of his trip, where he had been and when, and who owned the vehicle he was driving.

At trial, the government also offered testimony from Special Agent Richard Nuckles of U.S. Immigration and Customs, an expert on drug trafficking organizations. Nuckles testified that drug operations typically involve the flow of drugs from Mexico into the United States and the flow of cash proceeds of drug sales from the United States back into Mexico. He described the usual methods employed by drug traffickers in transporting drugs and money across the border. Cash is usually bundled. Duct tape and plastic are used to cover the odor of drugs and to prevent couriers from pilfering bills from the stash. Vehicles used to transport drugs and cash are sometimes registered in the driver's name to avoid suspicion in the event of a traffic stop. Nuckles also indicated that couriers of drug proceeds would almost certainly know they were involved in illegal activity and were carrying money. Nuckles' description of the typical drug courier was consistent with the facts concerning Cuellar. Nuckles did not testify regarding what customarily happens to the drug money in Mexico other than to say that it is returned to those in charge of the drug trafficking operation. Once in Mexico, which has a more cash-based economy than the U.S., the dollar can be used as readily as the peso.

Cuellar testified at his trial that he was in the business of buying and selling vehicles. He had purchased the Volkswagon Beetle in March and used it in his business. He also testified that he had carried small goats in the car. Cuellar said that he sold the car in May to a Mr. Morcia. Morcia could not get a permit for the car, so Cuellar obtained the permit in his own name in June 2004. Cuellar crossed the car into the United States and delivered it to Mr. Morcia and returned to Mexico.

Cuellar stated that he began a bus trip on July 13, 2004, to Amarillo, Texas to buy two trucks. He was only planning to be gone for two days so he carried no luggage. He arrived in Amarillo on July 14th, where a friend was waiting with the trucks. They began driving toward Acuna, using one truck to tow the other. The two men stopped in Big Spring, but found no additional trucks at an acceptable price. When they arrived in San Angelo, Cuellar called Mr. Morcia to inquire about trucks for sale. Mr. Morcia showed them a truck and suggested that Cuellar buy the truck and tow the Volkswagon back to Mexico. The VW had a transmission problem that Cuellar was going to repair in Mexico, where needed parts were available. Cuellar did not want to buy the truck Mr. Morcia had shown him but offered to buy a truck he had seen in Big Spring if Mr. Morcia would loan him the necessary funds. Cuellar stated that Mr. Morcia lent him $1,600 to buy the other truck, which was part of the money he was carrying in his pocket.

478 F.3d 287

According to Cuellar, Mr. Morcia told him to deliver the Beetle to a certain shop in Acuna, run by Mr. Morcia's brother-in-law. Cuellar drove the Beetle and his friend took the two trucks. Cuellar was unable to purchase the truck in Big Spring because the price was too high. After looking at other cars, Cuellar bought lunch at the Whataburger and then headed to Acuna. On the way to Acuna, the Beetle broke down and Cuellar could only drive it 18 miles per hour. Cuellar stopped in Eldorado to look at another vehicle but didn't see the...

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  • U.S. v. Kay, No. 05-20604.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • October 24, 2007
    ...upon a ruling which admits or excludes evidence unless a substantial right of the party is affected."). 104. United States v. Cuellar, 478 F.3d 282, 295 (5th Cir.2007) (internal quotations 105. Murphy Br. at 24. 106. United States v. Hale, 422 U.S. 171, 181, 95 S.Ct. 2133, 45 L.Ed.2d 99 (19......
  • United States v. Valdivia, No. 08–1547.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • May 16, 2012
    ...(approving admission of expert testimony about the methods and materials associated with drug trafficking); United States v. Cuellar, 478 F.3d 282, 293 (5th Cir.2007) (acknowledging “routine” admission of expert testimony about the conduct and methods of operation unique to drug distributio......
  • Novelty, Inc. v. D.E.A., No. 08-1296.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • June 22, 2009
    ...villainy.2 Because "[t]he war on drugs is not an excuse to violate the norms of fair play and evenhandedness," United States v. Cuellar, 478 F.3d 282, 307 (5th Cir.2007) (en banc) (Smith, J., dissenting), rev'd ___ U.S. ___, 128 S.Ct. 1994, 170 L.Ed.2d 942 (2008), I respectfully To apprecia......
  • Blanton v. Quarterman, No. SA-05-CA-598-OG.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Western District of Texas
    • June 1, 2007
    ...are virtually non sequitur in the context of federal habeas review of evidentiary sufficiency claims. See United States v. Cuellar, 478 F.3d 282, 287 (5th Cir.2007)("In assessing the sufficiency of the evidence, the court does not evaluate the weight of the evidence or the credibility of wi......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
30 cases
  • U.S. v. Kay, No. 05-20604.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • October 24, 2007
    ...upon a ruling which admits or excludes evidence unless a substantial right of the party is affected."). 104. United States v. Cuellar, 478 F.3d 282, 295 (5th Cir.2007) (internal quotations 105. Murphy Br. at 24. 106. United States v. Hale, 422 U.S. 171, 181, 95 S.Ct. 2133, 45 L.Ed.2d 99 (19......
  • United States v. Valdivia, No. 08–1547.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • May 16, 2012
    ...(approving admission of expert testimony about the methods and materials associated with drug trafficking); United States v. Cuellar, 478 F.3d 282, 293 (5th Cir.2007) (acknowledging “routine” admission of expert testimony about the conduct and methods of operation unique to drug distributio......
  • Novelty, Inc. v. D.E.A., No. 08-1296.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • June 22, 2009
    ...villainy.2 Because "[t]he war on drugs is not an excuse to violate the norms of fair play and evenhandedness," United States v. Cuellar, 478 F.3d 282, 307 (5th Cir.2007) (en banc) (Smith, J., dissenting), rev'd ___ U.S. ___, 128 S.Ct. 1994, 170 L.Ed.2d 942 (2008), I respectfully To apprecia......
  • Blanton v. Quarterman, No. SA-05-CA-598-OG.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Western District of Texas
    • June 1, 2007
    ...are virtually non sequitur in the context of federal habeas review of evidentiary sufficiency claims. See United States v. Cuellar, 478 F.3d 282, 287 (5th Cir.2007)("In assessing the sufficiency of the evidence, the court does not evaluate the weight of the evidence or the credibility of wi......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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