United States v. Nunez, No. 19-14181

CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
Writing for the CourtWILLIAM PRYOR, Chief Judge
Citation1 F.4th 976
Decision Date17 June 2021
Docket NumberNo. 19-14181
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Pedro Dino Cedado NUNEZ, Manely Enriquez, Angel Castro Garcia, Mike Castro Martinez, Defendants-Appellants.

1 F.4th 976

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Pedro Dino Cedado NUNEZ, Manely Enriquez, Angel Castro Garcia, Mike Castro Martinez, Defendants-Appellants.

No. 19-14181

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit.

June 17, 2021


Scott Alan Gray, The University of Alabama System, Tuscaloosa, AL, George A. Martin, Jr., U.S. Attorney Service-Southern District of Alabama, U.S. Attorney's Office, Mobile, AL, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Domingo Soto, Madden & Soto, Mobile, AL, for Defendant-Appellant Pedro Dino Cedado Nunez.

Richard Earl Shields, Richard E. Shields, Esquire, Mobile, AL, for Defendant-Appellant Manely Enriquez.

Latisha Vanese Colvin, Kristen Gartman Rogers, Carlos Alfredo Williams, Federal Defender's Office, Mobile, AL, for Defendant-Appellant Angel Castro Garcia.

William K. Bradford, Bradford Ladner, LLP, Mobile, AL, for Defendant-Appellant Mike Castro Martinez.

Before WILLIAM PRYOR, Chief Judge, GRANT and TJOFLAT, Circuit Judges.

WILLIAM PRYOR, Chief Judge:

1 F.4th 980

These appeals present several issues about the convictions of four drug smugglers under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. Three threshold issues involve jurisdiction: whether a vessel lacks nationality when, upon request by the Coast Guard, no member of the crew identifies himself as the master or individual in charge and the vessel otherwise lacks any indicia of nationality or registry; whether a district court must hold an evidentiary hearing to determine jurisdiction under the Act; and whether the district court erred by delaying a jurisdictional ruling. The remaining two issues are whether sufficient evidence supports the smugglers’ convictions and whether the district court deprived them of a fair trial by limiting their cross-examinations of witnesses. We conclude that the United States had jurisdiction over the smugglers’ stateless vessel, no evidentiary hearing was required for that ruling, and any error in delaying it was harmless. We also conclude that sufficient evidence supported the smugglers’ convictions because their indictments did not obligate the government to prove that they knew the identity of the controlled substance they carried. And because the district court afforded them a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense, we affirm their convictions.

I. BACKGROUND

On Christmas Eve 2018, the United States Coast Guard intercepted a small, homemade boat on the verge of sinking in choppy waters of the high seas between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The crew of a Coast Guard airplane first spotted the boat while patrolling the narcotics-trafficking route northeast of the Dominican Republic and northwest of Puerto Rico. The guardsmen considered the boat suspicious because it carried a large number of fuel containers, lacked a visible name or registration number, and used no navigation lights. They reported it to a nearby Coast Guard cutter, the Richard Dixon , which detached a small "over-the-horizon" boat to intercept the suspicious boat.

The Coast Guard's boat caught up to the suspicious boat about 50 nautical miles from the coast of the Dominican Republic. It approached with its lights off and shined a spotlight when it was 20 or 30 feet away from the suspicious boat. Coast guardsmen saw "frantic" activity aboard the suspicious boat as two men threw things overboard. When the guardsmen stopped the boat,

1 F.4th 981

they found six bales in the water tied to each other and to a seventh bale still inside the boat. The suspicious boat was small—just 20 or 25 feet long—and between the four men, seven bales, and a dozen 30-gallon fuel containers, little space remained aboard. The guardsmen took a photo of the boat, which is reproduced below.

A Coast Guard officer asked the men "who was the master, who was in charge." No one answered, so he asked who piloted the boat. One of the men answered that they all took turns. The others appeared to agree, based on their body language. The boat had a hand tiller that each person could operate for only about three hours at a time. The men said they were traveling from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to Dorado, Puerto Rico. They estimated they had been traveling for five or six days, although they later said they had been on the water for between five and seven hours. As winds gusted, the waters grew choppy, so the Coast Guard moved the men into the over-the-horizon boat.

Then the guardsmen searched the smugglers’ boat. They found that the serial number had been filed off its outboard motor. And the boat contained no fishing or recreational equipment and only a few personal items.

With the search complete, the bales gathered, and the four smugglers safe, the Coast Guard destroyed the boat by throwing a flare next to the fuel containers. The over-the-horizon boat returned the smugglers to the Richard Dixon . On board, the four men identified themselves as Pedro Dino Cedado Nunez, Manely Enriquez, Angel Castro Garcia, and Mike Castro Martinez.

The Richard Dixon brought the smugglers to Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands about 10 days later. There, a Homeland Security agent met the smugglers and flew with them to Mobile, Alabama. He interviewed all four men individually that day.

Garcia confessed that two people he did not know offered him $5,000 to travel to Puerto Rico, and he agreed to go. When the agent referred to the boat as carrying "one hundred kilos of cocaine," Garcia denied knowledge of the quantity but did not deny knowing the boat was carrying cocaine.

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The agent responded, "But, that is what it was. ... You were taking cocaine and you were going from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico." "That's where we were going," Garcia confirmed. Garcia also reported that he told the other three men not to throw the bales overboard because they were "already caught."

Martinez and Enriquez provided similar confessions. Martinez said a friend offered him $5,000 to "take some things" to Puerto Rico. He knew when he got onto the boat that the bales contained drugs. He said he was not in charge of the boat, and he laughed when the agent asked if there was a captain. And he said all four men decided together to turn around and return to the Dominican Republic when the engine started sputtering. For his part, Enriquez said a man he knew offered him $5,000 to take the boat to Puerto Rico. He knew that he was transporting drugs.

The bales weighed about 180 kilograms, and the four men stipulated that they contained cocaine. The cocaine had a street value of $25 or $30 million.

The United States charged the men under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act with possessing cocaine with intent to distribute and conspiring to distribute and to possess cocaine with intent to distribute. 46 U.S.C. §§ 70503(a)(1), 70506(b). The indictment alleged that they "did willfully, knowingly and unlawfully conspire with each other ... to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute approximately 182 kilograms of cocaine." The defendants pleaded not guilty.

Before trial, the government moved for a ruling that the United States had jurisdiction over the smugglers’ boat as a stateless vessel under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. It attached the statements of three guardsmen about their encounter with the boat and its crew. The guardsmen reported that they searched the boat for "indications of nationality" or "markings, paperwork[,] or identification numbers" but found none. The smugglers moved to dismiss the indictment for lack of jurisdiction and requested an evidentiary hearing.

At a pretrial hearing, the district court made a provisional finding of jurisdiction because the Coast Guard intercepted the vessel in international waters, it contained "no flag[,] no vessel registration documents[, and] no other indicia of nationality," and "[n]o crew member claimed nationality or registry of the vessel." It rejected the argument that an evidentiary hearing was required under the Act, especially when the smugglers did not contest the jurisdictional facts and had not identified any evidence they hoped to introduce. The district court told the smugglers they could question the government's witnesses about the jurisdictional evidence outside the jury's presence during the trial.

Before trial, the government also moved in limine to bar the smugglers from introducing evidence about the conditions of their confinement on the Richard Dixon . All four smugglers objected. After discussing the matter during a pretrial hearing, the judge granted the motion. But he said that he might revisit the ruling during the trial if the evidence appeared to be relevant.

The trial lasted two days. As soon as the jury was sworn, all four smugglers moved for a mistrial on jurisdictional grounds. The judge offered them an opportunity to contest the jurisdictional facts by immediately questioning the government's witnesses. Nunez declined because he "was not afforded an opportunity to subpoena the witnesses [he] wanted," but he did not identify any additional witnesses he would have called if he had the chance. The judge

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7 practice notes
  • Thamotar v. U.S. Attorney Gen., No. 19-12019
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • June 17, 2021
    ...per § 1208.16(e), without such evidence in the record, the BIA should have remanded to the Immigration Judge.15 The BIA's failure 1 F.4th 976 to do so was manifestly contrary to law and an abuse of discretion. The government also contends that remand is unnecessary because the BIA was autho......
  • United States v. Walker, 5:19-cv-131-RH/MJF
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Northern District of Florida
    • December 28, 2021
    ...Holmes v. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319, 324 (2006) (quoting Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683, 689-90 (1986)); United States v. Nunez, 1 F.4th 976, 991 (11th Cir. 2021). Generally, “a defendant is entitled to an instruction as to any recognized defense for which there exists evidence sufficie......
  • United States v. Colston, No. 19-13518
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • July 13, 2021
    ...to distribute a controlled substance." United States v. Sanders , 668 F.3d 1298, 1309 (11th Cir. 2012) ; see also United States v. Nunez , 1 F.4th 976, 989–91, No. 19-14181 (11th Cir. June 17, 2021). To convict a defendant under § 846 for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a co......
  • United States v. Valencia-Gamboa, 8:21-cr-121-CEH-JSS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • October 22, 2021
    ...require the government to prove the defendants' mens rea only with respect to controlled substances generally.” United States v. Nunez, 1 F.4th 976, 989 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing United States v. Lewis, 676 F.2d 508, 512 (11th Cir. 1982)). Thus, in a similar case where the Government charged......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
7 cases
  • Thamotar v. U.S. Attorney Gen., No. 19-12019
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • June 17, 2021
    ...per § 1208.16(e), without such evidence in the record, the BIA should have remanded to the Immigration Judge.15 The BIA's failure 1 F.4th 976 to do so was manifestly contrary to law and an abuse of discretion. The government also contends that remand is unnecessary because the BIA was autho......
  • United States v. Walker, 5:19-cv-131-RH/MJF
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Northern District of Florida
    • December 28, 2021
    ...Holmes v. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319, 324 (2006) (quoting Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683, 689-90 (1986)); United States v. Nunez, 1 F.4th 976, 991 (11th Cir. 2021). Generally, “a defendant is entitled to an instruction as to any recognized defense for which there exists evidence sufficie......
  • United States v. Colston, No. 19-13518
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • July 13, 2021
    ...to distribute a controlled substance." United States v. Sanders , 668 F.3d 1298, 1309 (11th Cir. 2012) ; see also United States v. Nunez , 1 F.4th 976, 989–91, No. 19-14181 (11th Cir. June 17, 2021). To convict a defendant under § 846 for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a co......
  • United States v. Valencia-Gamboa, 8:21-cr-121-CEH-JSS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • October 22, 2021
    ...require the government to prove the defendants' mens rea only with respect to controlled substances generally.” United States v. Nunez, 1 F.4th 976, 989 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing United States v. Lewis, 676 F.2d 508, 512 (11th Cir. 1982)). Thus, in a similar case where the Government charged......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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