U.S. v. Rodriguez-Felix

Decision Date02 June 2006
Docket NumberNo. 05-2142.,05-2142.
Citation450 F.3d 1117
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Juan RODRIGUEZ-FELIX, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit

James E. Bierly, Albuquerque, New Mexico, for Appellant.

Laura Fashing, Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Albuquerque, New Mexico, for Appellee.

Before LUCERO, McWILLIAMS, and TYMKOVICH, Circuit Judges.

TYMKOVICH, Circuit Judge.

Juan Rodriguez-Felix claims he is the victim of mistaken identification at his trial for distributing cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(B). He was convicted based in large part on extensive trial testimony from multiple eyewitnesses. To dispute this evidence, Rodriguez-Felix sought to introduce expert testimony on the general reliability of the prosecution's eyewitnesses. The district court disallowed the proposed expert testimony, finding it to be unreliable, and consequently limited rebuttal of the eyewitness testimony solely to cross-examination.

Following the convictions, the district court sentenced Rodriguez-Felix to 154 months imprisonment. He appeals his conviction and sentence, arguing (1) the district court should have allowed the proffered expert testimony on the general reliability of eyewitness identification, (2) the court improperly excluded proposed photographic evidence, (3) the evidence was insufficient for a jury to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and (4) the court's reliance on judge-found facts to enhance his sentence violated the Sixth Amendment.

Having jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and finding no legal error, we affirm.

I. Background

Victoriano Villegas was hired by the Gallup, New Mexico police department as a confidential informant. As part of a drug investigation, Villegas met a local dealer known by the name of "Jilli" on three separate occasions in June and July 2003. After their initial meeting, Villegas arranged for two subsequent meetings accompanied by undercover Gallup police officers.

On July 22, 2003, the first of these meetings occurred when undercover agent Sal Acevedo accompanied Villegas to a gas station. There, both men met Jilli in the back seat of his car and purchased cocaine. During this meeting, a police officer conducting surveillance recorded the car's license plate. Based on this information, two police officers stopped Jilli later that night for a broken taillight. During this traffic stop, which was videotaped, Jilli identified himself as Juan Rodriguez. The officers did not arrest Jilli at this time.

The second purchase occurred on July 29, 2003. Again, Agent Acevedo accompanied Villegas to a parking lot. Jilli arrived in the same vehicle he was driving on July 22. The men entered the car and bought cocaine. Agent Acevedo then offered to fix the car's broken taillight. Jilli agreed, and led Villegas and Agent Acevedo to his trailer home about a block away. When they failed to fix the taillight, Agent Acevedo and Villegas departed. A week later, an officer conducting surveillance snapped a photograph of Jilli in front of this residence.

It was not until March 2004, when Rodriguez-Felix was arrested for an unrelated crime, that Jilli was identified as Juan Rodriguez-Felix. At that time, Agent Acevedo viewed a photograph taken of Rodriguez-Felix after his arrest and identified Rodriguez-Felix as the person known as Jilli and from whom he had purchased drugs in July 2003.

II. Analysis

Rodriguez-Felix maintains both that his conviction is in error and that his sentence is improper. His conviction, he argues, should not stand because the district court denied him his right to present a defense. Moreover, he asserts his conviction is unsupported by the facts presented to the jury. Finally, even if his conviction is proper, he suggests the district court's reliance on judge-found facts to enhance his sentence violated his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

A. Admissibility of Evidence

The right to present a defense is anchored in the "Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and the Sixth Amendment right to compulsory process." United States v. Solomon, 399 F.3d 1231, 1239 (10th Cir.2005). Because "[f]ew rights are more fundamental than that of an accused to present witnesses in his own defense," due process guarantees are implicated whenever the exclusion of evidence acts to obstruct this right. Taylor v. Illinois, 484 U.S. 400, 408, 108 S.Ct. 646, 98 L.Ed.2d 798 (1988). But the opportunity to present evidence is not unfettered—a district court's resolution of evidentiary questions is constrained by the twin prongs of relevancy and materiality, and guided by the established rules of evidence and procedure. Solomon, 399 F.3d at 1239; see Holmes v. South Carolina, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 126 S.Ct. 1727, 1732, ___ L.Ed.2d ___, ___ (2006) (noting that rules of evidence must advance legitimate interests and be proportionate to the truth-seeking goals they are designed to serve).

Rodriguez-Felix argues the district court denied him this right to present a defense in two ways: (1) excluding testimony from an expert witness regarding the reliability of eyewitness identification; and (2) rejecting a request for an in-court photograph of Rodriguez-Felix standing back-to-back with Officer Ganoa.

1. Expert Testimony

Rodriguez-Felix's principal argument is that the district court improperly excluded expert testimony regarding the general reliability of eyewitness identification. In making this argument, he claims two errors: (1) the district court improperly rejected his proffered expert psychologist on eyewitness identification on the grounds that the expert had not shown his testimony would meet the reliability standards set forth in Daubert; and (2) the court should have authorized adequate payment in order for his expert to testify at the Daubert hearing.

Prior to trial, Rodriguez-Felix disclosed his intention to call as a defense witness Dr. Steven E. Clark, a university professor with expertise in the "memory and decision processes which underlie eyewitness identification decisions." Dr. Clark proposed to testify regarding "the factors relevant to consider in evaluating the reliability of eyewitness identification," including conditions of observation, events subsequent to the crime but prior to the identification, and procedures used in obtaining the identification. Summ. of Test. at 1. His curriculum vitae further states that he had "recently developed a model of the memory and decision processes which underlie eyewitness identification decisions," allowing for "quantitative predictions for response probabilities in eyewitness identification experiments." It notes he is still in the process of refining and testing this model. Curriculum Vitae at 1.

After reviewing the proffered testimony, the district court excluded Dr. Clark, finding that his proffer did not meet the minimal Daubert standards required for expert testimony. We review de novo the question of whether the district court employed the proper legal standard and performed its gatekeeper role in admitting expert testimony. Dodge v. Cotter Corp., 328 F.3d 1212, 1223 (10th Cir.2003). But the court's actual application of this standard in deciding whether to admit or exclude an expert's testimony is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Id. The district court retains broad discretion in deciding how to assess an expert's reliability, including what procedures to utilize in making that assessment, as well as in making the ultimate determination of reliability. Id. We therefore reverse only if the district court's conclusion is "arbitrary, capricious, whimsical or manifestly unreasonable or when we are convinced the district court made a clear error of judgment or exceeded the bounds of permissible choice in the circumstances." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

Admissibility of the Testimony

In evaluating the admissibility of expert testimony, trial courts are guided by a trilogy of Supreme Court cases: Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993); Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 141, 119 S.Ct. 1167, 143 L.Ed.2d 238 (1999); and General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 142, 118 S.Ct. 512, 139 L.Ed.2d 508 (1997). Together these cases clarify the district court's gatekeeper role under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. United States v. Lauder, 409 F.3d 1254, 1262 (10th Cir.2005). Under Rule 702, a district court must satisfy itself that the proposed expert testimony is both reliable and relevant, in that it will assist the trier of fact, before permitting a jury to assess such testimony. See Fed.R.Evid 702 ("If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill experience, training or education may testify" at trial.) (emphasis added).

In reviewing whether an expert's testimony is reliable, the trial court must "assess the reasoning and methodology underlying the expert's opinion . . . ." Dodge, 328 F.3d at 1221 (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592-93, 113 S.Ct. 2786). "[A]n expert's scientific testimony must be based on scientific knowledge, which `implies a grounding in the methods and procedures of science' based on actual knowledge, not `subjective belief or unsupported speculation.'" Id. at 1222 (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 590, 113 S.Ct. 2786). The Supreme Court in Daubert listed four nonexclusive factors that a trial court may consider in making its reliability assessment: (1) whether the theory at issue can be and has been tested; (2) whether the theory has been subjected to peer review and publication; (3) whether there is a known or potential rate of error and whether there are standards controlling the methodology's...

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