United States v. Agramonte-Quezada

Decision Date25 March 2022
Docket Number20-1346
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. William Gregorio AGRAMONTE-QUEZADA, Defendant, Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Tanaira Padilla-Rodríguez for appellant.

Andrew C. Noll, with whom W. Stephen Muldrow, United States Attorney, Mariana E. Bauzá-Almonte, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, Nicholas L. McQuaid, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Robert A. Zink, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Kelley Brooke Hostetler, Criminal Division, Appellate Section, U.S. Department of Justice, and Vanessa E. Bonhomme and Angela J. Clifford-Salisbury, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on brief, for appellee.

Before Howard, Chief Judge, Thompson, Circuit Judge, and Woodcock,* District Judge.

WOODCOCK, District Judge.

On October 23, 2019, a jury convicted William Gregorio Agramonte-Quezada ("Agramonte") of one count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and one count of importation of cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952 and 960. On February 27, 2020, the district court imposed the mandatory minimum sentence of one-hundred-twenty months imprisonment, to be followed by a five-year term of supervised release.

Agramonte appeals his convictions and sentence on three grounds. He contends the district court abused its discretion in (1) admitting evidence, including the testimony of a canine handler, that a drug sniffing dog alerted to his vehicle, on the same ferry route eighteen days prior, as "other-acts" evidence pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) ; (2) admitting testimony of a Homeland Security Investigations agent about the practices of drug traffickers smuggling drugs into Puerto Rico as that of a lay witness opinion pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 701 ; and (3) failing to sua sponte order a competency evaluation prior to (or during) his sentencing hearing. We affirm the convictions and sentence.

I. Background
A. The Charges

The January 17, 2019 two-count indictment in this case charged that on December 28, 2018, Agramonte possessed five kilograms or more of cocaine with the intent to distribute it, an alleged violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and on the same date, that he imported a controlled substance, namely five kilograms or more of cocaine, an alleged violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952 and 960. On January 22, 2019, he pleaded not guilty. Agramonte went to trial on October 21, 2019 and was found guilty on both counts on October 23, 2019. In reciting the evidence presented at Agramonte's trial, we adopt a "'balanced-presentation' approach." United States v. García-Sierra, 994 F.3d 17, 23 (1st Cir. 2021) (quoting United States v. Rodríguez-Soler, 773 F.3d 289, 290 (1st Cir. 2014) ).

B. The Crimes

On December 28, 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection ("CBP") officers conducting inbound inspections for ferry arrivals to San Juan, Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic referred for further inspection a white Ford Econoline van after CBP drug-detection dog Honzo signaled a positive alert to the front of the van. CBP officers contacted the driver and sole occupant of the vehicle, Agramonte, whose bill of lading stated that he had brought appliances and household goods from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic. Upon secondary inspection, CBP officers discovered that the radiator of the Ford van had been modified in that it was abnormally large with fresh paint and non-factory weld marks. Officers removed the radiator, revealing fourteen brick shaped objects, later confirmed to contain approximately thirteen kilograms of cocaine, with a street value of approximately $300,000.

The December 28 border incident was not Agramonte's first instance of a canine alert on his vehicle at the ferry terminal in San Juan. Eighteen days earlier on December 10, 2018, having traveled to the Dominican Republic, Agramonte returned to Puerto Rico on the same ferry in a different Ford Econoline van—this time yellow. Agramonte acquired title to the yellow van in Puerto Rico on November 1, 2018 and made a reservation on November 27 to leave for the Dominican Republic the next day. On December 10, 2018, as Agramonte was making his way back through customs in San Juan, a CBP detection dog alerted to Agramonte's yellow van and the officers inspected the van. During their inspection, CBP officers noticed the van had been modified and was equipped with a bigger-than-usual radiator, had fresh paint, and contained non-factory weld marks. During the officers' inspection, CBP drug-detection dog Baku alerted to the van's front engine area. The officers spent two to three hours unsuccessfully attempting to remove the radiator before letting Agramonte leave with his van. Approximately five days later, Agramonte purchased a different Ford Econoline van, this time white, which he was using on December 28, 2018, when CBP stopped him again upon his return from a trip to the Dominican Republic.

II. The Issues
A. The Admissibility of the December 10, 2018 Incident
1. The Pretrial Notices and Motions

On September 30, 2019, the government filed a notice of intent to introduce "other-acts" evidence pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), focusing on Agramonte's December 10, 2018 encounter with CBP, including Baku's sniff and alert on the van's radiator area. The government contended that this evidence was admissible as proof of opportunity, knowledge, intent, identity, and absence of mistake.

On October 2, 2019, Agramonte objected to the "other-acts" evidence on the grounds that the December 10 canine alert was inadmissible character evidence and not probative of what happened on December 28, 2018, as a canine alert is not necessarily proof of a crime or wrongful act and CBP did not find any drugs on December 10.

On October 3, 2019, after the lapse of the district court's September 30 discovery deadline, Agramonte filed a related motion in limine to exclude all canine evidence, arguing that the government had not provided canine-related discovery, namely reports of the December 10 event or identifying information for Baku, the December 10 canine, and for Baku's CBP handler.

2. The October 11, 2019 Pretrial Conference

The district court and counsel discussed the December 10, 2018 incident at the October 11, 2019 pretrial conference. The government requested the opportunity to file a motion in limine and to respond to Agramonte's objection and motion and Agramonte requested discovery concerning the reliability of the canines. The district judge ordered the government to file an amended designation of evidence by October 16 and gave Agramonte until October 18 to oppose the new government designation. The district judge also ordered the government to provide specific information as to the reliability of the canines (training and agreement of confidentiality) and to file a motion for protective order.1

3. The Post-Pretrial Conference Motions and Orders

On October 16, 2019, the government filed an amended notice of intent to introduce expert testimony, designating four law enforcement officers as potential witnesses and attaching their curricula vitae. Two of the four experts were CBP canine enforcement officers: Javier Quiles, handler of Baku on December 10, 2018, and Adriel Castillo, handler of Honzo on December 28, 2018.

On October 17, 2019, the government filed its reply to Agramonte's opposition to its intent to introduce evidence of the December 10 alert. In its reply, the government first argued that the evidence was admissible to explain why CBP agents focused on Agramonte's radiator on December 28, contending they remembered seeing Agramonte on December 10 in a different Ford Econoline with similar modifications. The government went on to emphasize that the previous dog alert "is relevant in showing that the defendant was, at the very least, alerted to the fact that law enforcement detected something in" the van he was driving on December 10, that it goes to his motive to "intentionally change[ ] vehicles to avoid further suspicion," and that this evidence supports a "continuing plan to transport controlled substances from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico in the radiator of his vehicle." The government explained that it anticipated that Agramonte would "raise the matter of his mental condition, and lack of awareness or understanding" that he was smuggling drugs, and maintained that the evidence should be admitted pursuant to Federal Rules of Evidence 404(b) and 403.

4. The Pretrial Order on Rule 404(b) Evidence

On October 18, 2019, the district court granted the government's motion to admit Rule 404(b) evidence of the December 10 incident. The district judge, relying on and citing Rule 404(b), concluded that evidence of the December 10 incident was admissible to prove "state of mind, preparation, plan, knowledge, intent[,] modus operandi, absence of mistake or lack of accident." Agreeing with Agramonte that this evidence could not be used as evidence that he committed a crime on December 10, the district court limited the testimony to "indicating that the K-9 alerted positive consistent with its training and the results of any secondary inspection by law enforcement agents was negative."

5. The Rule 404(b) Evidence at Trial

At trial, the government presented the testimony of CBP Officer Arnaldo Carmona, who was present for both the December 10 and December 28 incidents, and CBP Canine Enforcement Officer Javier Quiles, Baku's handler on December 10. Iglesias and Quiles testified substantially to the events on December 10, 2018 described above.

6. The Closing Arguments on the Rule 404(b) Evidence

In its closing, the government summarized the law enforcement testimony linking the December 10 and December 28 incidents, "[b]oth of them including and involving this defendant. Both of them involving two different vehicles, but Ford Econoline vans. And both of them involving a positive alert from the canine of...

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