United States v. Maldonado-Peña

Citation4 F.4th 1
Decision Date30 June 2021
Docket Number No. 17-1551, No. 18-1496,No. 17-1432, No. 17-1681, No. 18-1184,17-1432
Parties UNITED STATES, Appellee, v. Idalia MALDONADO-PEÑA, Defendant, Appellant. United States, Appellee, v. Juan Rivera-George, a/k/a Tio, Defendant, Appellant. United States, Appellee, v. Suanette Ramos-Gonzalez, a/k/a Suei, a/k/a Suanette Gonzalez-Ramos, Defendant, Appellant. United States, Appellee, v. Carlos Rivera-Alejandro, Defendant, Appellant. United States, Appellee, v. Joel Rivera-Alejandro, a/k/a "J", Defendant, Appellant.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)

Mariángela Tirado-Vales for appellant Idalia Maldonado-Peña.

José R. Olmo-Rodriguez for appellant Juan Rivera-George.

Raymond L. Sanchez Maceira for appellant Suanette Ramos-Gonzalez.

Rachel Brill for appellant Carlos Rivera-Alejandro.

Rafael F. Castro Lang for appellant Joel Rivera-Alejandro.

Daniel N. Lerman, United States Department of Justice, Criminal Division, Appellate Section, with whom W. Stephen Muldrow, United States Attorney, Mariana Bauza, Assistant United States Attorney, Brian A. Benczkowski, Assistant Attorney General, and John P. Cronan, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, were on brief, for appellee.

Before Lynch, Thompson, and Kayatta, Circuit Judges.

THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.


These appeals arise from the drug conspiracy and distribution convictions of five members of a vast drug trafficking organization. Operating primarily out of the Los Claveles Housing Project ("Los Claveles") and the general Villa Margarita Ward area within the Municipality of Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, fifty-five individuals were indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin, cocaine, cocaine base (aka crack), marijuana, and prescription pills between May 2006 and May 2009. The indictment tagged each of the defendants before us with at least one role in the conspiracy; hierarchical designations ranging from leader, supervisor, drug owner, enforcer, runner, seller, or facilitator. Subsets of the fifty-five were charged with "aiding and abetting in the distribution of" one or more of heroin, cocaine base, cocaine, or marijuana. Some were also charged with conspiracy "to possess firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking crimes."

By the time a jury trial started in the summer of 2014 -- more than five years after the 2009 indictment (which certainly raises our eyebrows) -- most of the defendants had pled guilty. Four of them testified as cooperating witnesses ("CWs") for the government. At the end of the trial in December 2015 only eight defendants remained. The jury convicted seven defendants of some or all of the charges against them and the trial judge dismissed the charges against the eighth defendant.

Five of these defendants -- Joel Rivera-Alejandro, Carlos Rivera-Alejandro, Juan Rivera-George, Suanette Ramos-Gonzalez, and Idalia Maldonado-Peña -- have appealed their convictions (and some their sentences) and we briefly introduce them to you.

• Joel1 was charged as one of the two leaders of the conspiracy as well as an enforcer. He was convicted of two conspiracy charges and all substantive drug charges, and sentenced to 360 months' imprisonment, concurrent.
• Carlos (Joel's brother) was identified as a supervisor, drug owner, seller, and enforcer. He was convicted on all counts against him and sentenced to 324 months' imprisonment, concurrent.
• Juan was tagged as a runner for the conspiracy, convicted on all counts, and sentenced to 235 months' imprisonment, concurrent.
• Suanette was charged for her roles as a seller and a facilitator and convicted of the drug conspiracy charge as well as the substantive marijuana distribution charge. Suanette was sentenced to 24 months' imprisonment, concurrent.
• Idalia (Carlos's wife) was identified in the indictment as a seller and convicted on the cocaine base distribution charge. Idalia was sentenced to 60 months' imprisonment.

The five defendants in these consolidated appeals raise a variety of challenges. In our review of their claims, we will start by addressing the speedy trial contentions before turning to other purported trial errors. We'll provide the background information necessary to place the issues and arguments in context as we proceed.2 For those readers for whom what follows will be tl;dr,3 the short version is that none of the issues raised by these five defendants translate into reversible error warranting vacatur of their convictions or sentences. Thus, we affirm the whole kit and caboodle.


The defendants waited five years for trial

(Joel & Carlos)

"[T]he right to a speedy and public trial" is guaranteed to criminal defendants via the Sixth Amendment. United States v. Lara, 970 F.3d 68, 80 (1st Cir. 2020) (quoting U.S. Const. amend. VI ). Therefore, criminal charges must be dismissed when the government violates this right. Id. (quoting United States v. Dowdell, 595 F.3d 50, 60 (1st Cir. 2010) ). Joel and Carlos claim that their constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated because, after they were arrested and arraigned in mid-2009, the trial (which took 128 days to complete) didn't start until five years later.4

Below, the defendants voiced speedy trial complaints during the pretrial period. In April 2013, Joel filed a motion to dismiss his indictment alleging his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated. Carlos joined the motion. The magistrate judge to whom the motion was referred issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") in July 2013. The magistrate judge found the trial date had either been vacated or rescheduled eight times and attributed much of the delay to change of plea motions filed by forty of Joel's codefendants. He also cited the numerous pretrial motions Joel filed requesting new counsel which resulted in continuation motions so that each new counsel (three in all) could get up to speed. The magistrate judge also determined Joel had not shown prejudice from the delay and recommended the district court deny the motion to dismiss.

Joel objected to the R&R (and Carlos adopted that objection), focusing on the failure of the R&R to discuss the numerous pretrial motions the government had filed up to that point which had contributed to the delay of the trial's start date. According to Joel, in the four years between his indictment and his speedy trial motion to dismiss, he had filed 4 continuation motions whereas the government had filed 22 motions to either continue the trial date or extend the time to respond to a pending motion. Joel further argued the length of the delay was presumptively prejudicial as per our case law and the magistrate judge should not have required him to show the ways in which he'd been prejudiced. Responding to the objection, the trial judge entered a one-paragraph order agreeing with the R&R and concluding there had been no speedy trial violation.

On appeal, Joel and Carlos reprise their complaints.5 We have consistently reviewed a district court's resolution of a defendant's motion to dismiss his indictment on the basis of a Sixth Amendment violation of his right to a speedy trial for abuse of discretion.6

Lara, 970 F.3d at 80. When we evaluate such a challenge, we consider, primarily, four factors as set forth in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 530-32, 92 S.Ct. 2182, 33 L.Ed.2d 101 (1972) : "(1) ‘the length of delay’; (2) ‘the reason assigned by the government for the delay’; (3) ‘the defendant's responsibility to assert his right’; and (4) ‘prejudice to the defendant, particularly to limit the possibility that the defense will be impaired.’ " Lara, 970 F.3d at 80 (quoting United States v. Handa, 892 F.3d 95, 101 (1st Cir. 2018) ). However, "none of the four factors" is "either a necessary or sufficient condition to the finding of a deprivation of the right of speedy trial. Rather, they are related factors and must be considered together with such other circumstances as may be relevant." Barker, 407 U.S. at 533, 92 S.Ct. 2182. Further, our case law tells us to presume delays of one year or more are prejudicial and to proceed with an analysis that "balance[s] all four of the factors to determine whether there has been a violation, as [no one factor] carries ‘any talismanic power.’ " Lara, 970 F.3d at 81 (quoting Dowdell, 595 F.3d at 60 ).7 Additionally, the Supreme Court has been clear that the inquiry into the four factors is completely dependent on the circumstances of each individual case. See Barker, 407 U.S. at 530-31, 92 S.Ct. 2182. Joel and Carlos argue all four Barker factors weigh in their favor. We turn now to examine them.

Everyone agrees that the first factor -- length of delay -- weighs in Joel's and Carlos's favor. There is no doubt that the time between the defendants' May 2009 indictments and the July 28, 2014 trial start date was more than one year.8

The second factor -- reasons for the delay -- is the "focal inquiry." Lara, 970 F.3d at 82 (quoting United States v. Souza, 749 F.3d 74, 82 (1st Cir. 2014) ). Joel, joined by Carlos, and the government are quick to point fingers at each other. Both defendants argue the root of the delay was the government's decision to indict and prosecute fifty-five defendants at the same time, exacerbated by the government's many motions to continue the trial date. According to Joel and Carlos, the delay was made more egregious by the trial judge's decision to wait to begin the trial until all the other defendants seeking to change their plea had done so, as well as the length of time she took to resolve pretrial motions such as Joel's motions to suppress. In particular, Carlos points out that defendants shouldn't have to choose between filing pretrial motions and getting to trial faster. The government argues the defendants principally caused the delays because of their numerous pretrial motions -- specifically, that the four defendants who bring speedy-trial claims (Joel, Carlos, Suanette, and Juan) filed ninety-nine pretrial motions -- and further say Joel's repeated change of couns...

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