U.S. v. Lopez

Decision Date23 June 2004
Docket NumberNo. 02-1142.,02-1142.
Citation372 F.3d 1207
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Jason Robert LOPEZ, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit

Robert M. Russel, Assistant United States Attorney (John W. Suthers, United States Attorney, with him on the brief) Denver, CO, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Darcy M. Goddard (Amy L. Padden with her on the briefs), of Wheeler Trigg & Kennedy, P.C., Denver, CO, for Defendant-Appellant.

Before TACHA, Chief Circuit Judge, BRORBY, Senior Circuit Judge, and O'BRIEN, Circuit Judge.

O'BRIEN, Circuit Judge.

Jason Robert Lopez was convicted by a jury on March 15, 2000, of being a felon in possession of two firearms in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). In July 2000, he filed a motion for a new trial, claiming the Government failed to disclose exculpatory impeachment evidence as required by Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963), United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 105 S.Ct. 3375, 87 L.Ed.2d 481 (1985), Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150, 92 S.Ct. 763, 31 L.Ed.2d 104 (1972), and their progeny. The district court held several hearings and ultimately denied the motion. Lopez was sentenced to eighty-four months in prison. He appeals from the denial of his motion for a new trial and claims the district court erroneously instructed the jury on the elements of constructive possession.1 Exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.


Four people and an infant child lived in a home in Colorado Springs, Colorado: Debra Ruiz, the legal renter; Gabriel Ruiz, her son; Alissa Gonzales, Gabriel's girlfriend; Tracy Batts, Alissa's mother; and Randi, Tracy's infant daughter. Lopez was a friend of Gabriel Ruiz's and occasionally spent the night at the home. On June 17, 1999, federal agents executed a search warrant at the home and seized a substantial amount of stolen property, a number of firearms from various locations in the home and some ammunition. In particular, agents seized an SKS assault rifle and a Tec-9 handgun from the room where Lopez allegedly slept — the "nursery." Lopez, who was not present at the time of the search, was charged with illegal possession of the assault rifle and handgun.

I. Brady Violation

Prior to trial, Lopez filed a Brady/Giglio motion requesting disclosure of "promises of leniency, plea bargains or rewards of any nature given to ... witnesses...." (R., Vol. I, Doc. 19 at 2.) The Government answered, specifically stating "no promises of leniency" were made to any witness. (R., Vol. I, Doc. 21 at 2.)

After trial, but prior to sentencing, it came to the attention of Lopez that the testimony of two of the Government's witnesses, Debra Ruiz and Alissa Gonzales, may have been motivated or influenced by promises and/or threats that were not disclosed to him in spite of his written request. On July 10, 2000, Lopez filed a motion for a new trial, specifically alleging both women had been threatened with prosecution unless they cooperated against him. Additionally, he claimed they both were promised that Gabriel Ruiz would receive lenient treatment if they would testify against Lopez.2 A hearing was held on the motion on December 12, 2000. The court asked for further briefing and took the matter under advisement. In November 2001, before a decision was rendered, Lopez expanded his new trial motion to include a claim that the Government had failed to disclose a written report containing exculpatory material. On November 28 and December 6, 2001, hearings were held to explore that allegation. On December 21, 2001, the court orally announced its decision denying the motion for a new trial.

A. Standard of Review

"If a new trial motion is based on an alleged Brady violation, we review the district court's decision de novo." United States v. Combs, 267 F.3d 1167, 1172 (10th Cir.2001). In order to establish a Brady violation, Lopez "must demonstrate that `(1) the prosecution suppressed evidence; (2) the evidence was favorable to the accused; and (3) the evidence was material to the defense.'" Scott v. Mullin, 303 F.3d 1222, 1230 (10th Cir.2002) (quoting Banks v. Reynolds, 54 F.3d 1508, 1516 (10th Cir.1995)). Because "the primary consideration under Brady is fairness[,]" we will reverse the district court only if the suppression of evidence denied the defendant a fair trail. Banks, 54 F.3d at 1516 (citations omitted).

Lopez's Brady claim, however, is predicated on the district court's preliminary factual findings as to whether threats or promises were made. We review the district court's findings of fact for clear error. United States v. Pearl, 324 F.3d 1210, 1215 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 539 U.S. 934, 123 S.Ct. 2591, 156 L.Ed.2d 616 (2003). After considering the entire evidence, the reviewing court will determine a finding is "clearly erroneous" when "it is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." United States v. Colonna, 360 F.3d 1169, 1175 (10th Cir.) (quoting United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395, 68 S.Ct. 525, 92 L.Ed. 746 (1948)), petition for cert. filed (April 12, 2004). "We cannot duplicate the factfinding role of the trial court and `[w]here there are two permissible views of the evidence, the factfinder's choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous.'" Id. (quoting Anderson v. Bessemer City, N.C., 470 U.S. 564, 573, 105 S.Ct. 1504, 84 L.Ed.2d 518 (1985)).

B. Suppression of Evidence

Lopez argues "the district court erred when it did not complete the analysis required under Brady, Giglio, and Bagley...." (Appellant's Reply Br. at 10.) He contends that, had the district court conducted a full analysis, it would mandate reversal of Lopez's conviction and require a new trial. We disagree.

The district court's oral ruling denying the motion for a new trial was preceded with a summary of the extended proceedings and conflicting testimony before the court. It recognized Gonzales and Ruiz's testimony alleging the investigating officers had threatened to arrest them unless they cooperated. It further noted Ruiz's attestation that she was told her testimony against Lopez may benefit her son in his case. However, these allegations were categorically denied by each of the investigating officers. As to the allegations that Gonzales and Ruiz were threatened with arrest, Detective Charles Yeater was the only investigator who recalled mentioning the subject. He stated that shortly after they began searching the premises, he told "Alissa Gonzales, Tracy Batts and Debbie Ruiz that all of them could be arrested because we were finding stolen property and drugs in about every room of the house ... but I continued on to let them know that I really didn't think that Alissa or Debbie were actually involved in any of it as far as the stolen property." (R., Vol. 7 at 99.) Upon further questioning, Yeater conclusively stated he did not tell them their arrest was "contingent in any way upon their cooperation or refusal to cooperate." (Id.)

Lopez claims the district court made findings of fact when it noted "there's evidence that the threats were made" and "one could infer that a deal was struck with Gabriel Ruiz and that arguably this would show that he was being rewarded for the testimony of Alissa Gonzales and Debbie Ruiz." (R., Vol. 14 at 8.) A careful reading of the entire hearing transcript instead reveals these observations are a reflection of the court's oral consideration of conflicting evidence, not factual findings. It painstakingly weighed this evidence and determined Lopez had failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that there was any deal, and consequently, there was no Brady violation. Because there is abundant evidence in the record to support this conclusion, it is not clear error. Moreover, after finding Lopez failed to demonstrate the Government suppressed evidence, the trial court need go no further to effectively dispose of Lopez's Brady claim.3

II. Jury Instruction

Lopez also complains the district court improperly instructed the jury regarding constructive possession. Jury Instruction No. 30, provided in relevant part:

A person who, although not in actual possession, knowingly has both the power and the intention at a given time to exercise dominion or control over a thing, either directly or through another person or persons, is then in constructive possession of it.

(R., Vol. 6 at 333.) Lopez contends this instruction was incomplete and inaccurate because constructive possession is limited to circumstances when a person "knowingly has ownership, dominion, or control over the [contraband] and the premises where [it is] found." United States v. Hager, 969 F.2d 883, 888 (10th Cir.) (emphasis added), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 964, 113 S.Ct. 437, 121 L.Ed.2d 357 (1992), abrogated on other grounds by Bailey v. United States, 516 U.S. 137, 116 S.Ct. 501, 133 L.Ed.2d 472 (1995). Lopez argues the district court erred by omitting from the instruction the words "and the premises where it is found."

Because he did not object to the language defining constructive possession — in fact, he requested it — we review for plain error. Fed.R.Crim.P. 30(d) & 52(b); United States v. Fabiano, 169 F.3d 1299, 1302 (10th Cir.1999); (R. Vol. I, Doc. 38). But the standard of review matters not at all. Under any standard, the omission was not error.

In United States v. Culpepper, we reaffirmed a twenty-year-old holding that a person has constructive possession of an item when he "knowingly hold[s] the power and ability to exercise dominion and control over it." 834 F.2d 879, 881 (10th Cir.1987) (citing United States v. Massey, 687 F.2d 1348, 1354 (10th Cir.1982); United States v. Zink, 612 F.2d 511, 516 (10th Cir.1980); Amaya v. United States, 373 F.2d 197, 199 (10th Cir.1967)). We restated the "dominion and control over the item" rule in United States v. Parrish and added that, in some instances, "[e]xercising...

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