U.S. v. Vega-Figueroa

Decision Date18 December 2000
Docket NumberNo. 99-1394,A,VEGA-FIGUERO,99-1394
Citation234 F.3d 744
Parties(1st Cir. 2000) UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee, v. JOSE A.K.A. PITO CASCO, Defendant, Appellant
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit


[Hon. Salvador E. Casellas, U.S. District Judge]

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

[Copyrighted Material Omitted] Bruce R. Bryan and Paul G. Carey on brief for appellant.

Jacabed Rodriguez-Coss, Assistant United States Attorney, Guillermo Gil, United States Attorney, and Jorge E. Vega-Pacheco, Assistant United States Attorney on brief for appellee.

Before Selya, Circuit Judge, Bownes, Senior Circuit Judge, and Lipez, Circuit Judge.

BOWNES, Senior Circuit Judge.

Defendant-appellant Jose A. Vega-Figueroa, along with eight other defendants, was tried pursuant to a three-count indictment in the District Court for the District of Puerto Rico for drug related activities. The indictment charged as follows: Count I, 21 U.S.C. § 848(a) and (b), continuing criminal enterprise, and 18 U.S.C. § 2, aiding and abetting; Count II, 21 U.S.C. § 846, conspiracy to distribute in excess of five kilograms of heroin, in excess of five kilograms of cocaine, in excess of five kilograms of cocaine base and in excess of 100 kilograms of marijuana; and Count III, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1) & (2), unlawful use of firearms during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense and aiding and abetting.

All nine of the defendants who stood trial were found guilty on all or some of the counts. We consolidated the appeals. Seven of the defendants argued orally on September 14, 2000. The other two defendants' appeals were submitted on briefs to the same panel.

The defendant in this case, Vega-Figueroa, was found guilty on all three counts. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on Counts I and II of the indictment1 and a term of five years on Count III, to be served consecutively. Defendant has raised ten issues on appeal, which we will discuss in the order followed in his brief.


We state the facts in the light most favorable to the verdict. See United States v. Duclos, 214 F.3d 27, 32 (1st Cir. 2000). This rehearsal of the evidence does not, of course, cover the facts that are applicable only to other defendants. Nor do we recite, at this juncture, all of the facts involving defendant. Many of the facts pertaining to particular issues will be set forth in our discussion of the issues. All we do now is state those facts that will give the reader the necessary background information to understand the different issues raised by defendant.

Defendant and Carlos Hernandez-Vega were in charge of an extensive criminal enterprise involving the sale and distribution of heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, and marijuana. Cooperating witnesses for the government included five former members of the enterprise who sold narcotics for the organization. Their testimony can be summarized as follows.

Defendant and/or Hernandez-Vega delivered the drugs to the various cooperating witnesses at the drug point, located in a public housing project. Members of the enterprise carjacked automobiles on a regular basis. The carjacked vehicles were then used for drive-by shootings targeted against other drug dealers who operated drug points in other public housing units in competition with defendant and Hernandez-Vega. The drug distribution point of the enterprise was guarded by armed members of the organization. There was also testimony that defendant and Hernandez-Vega operated a heroin drug point located within the Hogar Crea detention and drug rehabilitation facility in Saint Just at Trujuillo Alto, Puerto Rico. Another drug gang ousted two members of defendant's organization from the Hogar Crea drug point. Defendant and Hernandez-Vega ordered that the two men who had taken over the Hogar Crea drug point be murdered. The men were ambushed and killed by defendant, Hernandez-Vega, and other members of defendant's enterprise.

The indictment charged that the continuing criminal enterprise and conspiracy started on or about August 1, 1990, and continued until on or about April 10, 1997.


The issues are essentially stated as phrased by defendant.

1. Whether a statement made by defendant while in custody should have been suppressed.

After being arrested, defendant, along with other codefendants, was taken into custody to be interrogated, photographed, and finger-printed. Before any police interrogation started, another arrestee, Medina-Sanchez, asked defendant if he had been arrested for running a criminal enterprise and supervising a drug point. Defendant replied "that was before . . . about the drug point . . . now I only supervise the kitchen. . . ." In the parlance of the drug trade a "kitchen" is that part of a drug operation in which the drugs are prepared for sale. Unfortunately for defendant, two federal agents overheard the conversation and included it in their report. The statement was used against defendant at trial. Defendant contends "that the statement should have been suppressed because (1) he should have been warned of his constitutional rights under Miranda and (2) the statement was not voluntarily made."

In denying defendant's motion to suppress, the district court examined the totality of the circumstances and found:

[I]t is clear that the statements which defendant made while waiting to be booked at the Federal Building were indeed voluntary. Defendant merely responded to questioning from another arrestee. Although he was being closely supervised by various agents who were present to ensure that things were under control, those agents did not address him directly, except to allegedly ask him routine questions, such as his name, nickname, prior employment, and whether he had any addiction problems.

Our prior case law establishes the standard of review. We held in United States v. Taylor, 985 F.2d 3, 7 n.5 (1st Cir. 1993), that "[n]ormally, 'clear error' is the standard employed in reviewing findings of fact. In the present case, however, none of the relevant facts are in dispute . . . . Thus, the determination as to whether police 'interrogation' occurred depends on the totality of the circumstances, a balancing analysis commonly considered amenable to plenary review" (citations omitted). We held in United States v. Sealey, 30 F.3d 7, 9 (1st Cir. 1994), that "[i]n scrutinizing a district court's denial of a suppression motion, the court of appeals will review findings of fact for clear error, while at the same time subjecting the trial court's ultimate constitutional conclusions to plenary oversight."

Neither party here disputes the circumstances surrounding defendant's statement. The only questions presented for review are whether the district court erred in holding that defendant's statements were voluntary and that the custodial situation did not amount to the functional equivalent of an interrogation. Because these issues involve questions of law, we apply plenary review.

First, we reject defendant's argument that he was entitled to Miranda warnings. In order for Miranda rights to be invoked, there must be (1) custody and (2) interrogation. SeeUnited States v. Ventura, 85 F.3d 708, 709-10 (1st Cir. 1996). It is undisputed that defendant was in custody at the time of his statement. Because he does not allege that there was ever an actual interrogation, the crux of his appeal hinges on whether the environment within which defendant made the statement amounted to the functional equivalent of an interrogation.

The Supreme Court discussed the concept of the functional equivalent of an interrogation in Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291 (1980), holding:

. . . Miranda safeguards come into play whenever a person in custody is subjected to either express questioning or its functional equivalent. That is to say, the term "interrogation" under Miranda refers not only to express questioning, but also to any words or actions on the part of the police (other than those normally attendant to arrest and custody) that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the suspect . . . . A practice that the police should know is reasonably likely to evoke an incriminating response from a suspect thus amounts to interrogation. But, since the police surely cannot be held accountable for the unforeseeable results of their words or actions, the definition of interrogation can extend only to words or actions on the part of police officers that they should have known were reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.

Id. at 300-01 (citations omitted).

Here, defendant alleges only that the police performed their routine activities of fingerprinting and photographing him and other defendants. He points to no words or actions on the part of the federal agents that were likely to elicit his incriminating words about "supervising the kitchen." Hence, there is nothing to support his contention that he experienced the functional equivalent of interrogation such that Miranda warnings were warranted.

Nor did the district court err in holding that defendant's statements were voluntary. The Supreme Court has held that "[t]he admissibility of the respondent's statement as a constitutional matter [is] governed . . . by the contemporary case law elaborating the due process standard of voluntariness. The question [is] whether the will of the defendant had been overborne so that the statement was not his free and voluntary act, and that question [is] to be resolved in light of the totality of the circumstances." Procunier v. Atchley, 400 U.S. 446, 453 (1971); see also United States v. Melendez, 228 F.3d 19, 22 (1st Cir. 2000) (holding that Miranda has no force outside of interrogations where interrogators do not have the "capacity to dominate the scene to such an extent...

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