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United States v. Batista

March 24, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dora L. Irizarry, United States District Judge


On October 26, 2009, defendant Luis Batista was convicted by a jury of charges of conspiracy to distribute narcotics, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. On November 30, 2009, Batista timely moved for a judgment of acquittal under Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, or, in the alternative, for a new trial pursuant to Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Batista challenges the jury's verdict with respect to the narcotics conspiracy, obstruction of justice conspiracy, and obstruction of justice charges. For the reasons set forth below, Batista's Rule 29 motion is granted as to the conspiracy to obstruct justice charge and otherwise denied. His Rule 33 motion is denied in its entirety.


This Opinion and Order assumes familiarity with the background and procedural history of this case.*fn1 In summary, Luis Batista, a former New York Police Department ("NYPD") detective, was charged in Count One with conspiracy to distribute, and to possess with intent to distribute, cocaine, cocaine base ("crack"), and MDMA ("ecstasy"). The government presented evidence at trial that Batista provided confidential law enforcement information to Virgilio Hiciano, who engaged in drug trafficking and related acts of violence in Brooklyn, New York, between January 1998 and July 2007. The government also introduced evidence that Batista witnessed Hiciano and a confidential informant give cocaine to a woman on numerous occasions, and that he distributed a small quantity of ecstasy to a woman in Hiciano's presence. Counts Seven and Eight charged Batista with conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice for knowingly and intentionally obstructing, influencing, or impeding an Eastern District of New York grand jury investigation and trial.*fn2 Batista challenges the jury's October 26, 2009 guilty verdict with respect to these charges.


On a defendant's motion after the verdict, the court "must enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction." FED. R. CRIM. P. 29(a). Batista argues that the evidence presented against him at trial was insufficient to convict him of the narcotics conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges. The government counters that there was sufficient evidence presented to merit a guilty verdict on these counts.

A. Legal Standards

Rule 29 "imposes a heavy burden on the defendant, whose conviction must be affirmed 'if any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt[.]'" United States v. Cote, 544 F.3d 88, 98 (2d Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). A court's conclusion that "no rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" must be based on its consideration of "all of the evidence, direct and circumstantial[.]" United States v. Eppolito, 543 F.3d 25, 45 (2d Cir. 2008)(citation omitted).

On a post-verdict motion for a judgment of acquittal, a trial court may not "substitute its own determination of the weight of the evidence and the reasonable inferences to be drawn for that of the jury." Cote, 544 F.3d at 99 (internal quotation and typographical marks omitted). Instead, "[t]he court must give full play to the right of the jury to determine credibility, and must draw all possible inferences in favor of the government." Id. In other words, the court must "[v]iew[] the evidence in the light most favorable to the government," which means "crediting every inference that the jury may have drawn in favor of the government, and recognizing that the government's evidence need not exclude every other possible hypothesis." Eppolito, 543 F.3d at45 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). However, "specious inferences are not indulged, because it would not satisfy the Constitution to have a jury determine that the defendant is probably guilty." United States v. Lorenzo, 534 F.3d 153, 159 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Deference to a jury's verdict "is especially important when reviewing a conviction for conspiracy because a conspiracy by its very nature is a secretive operation, and it is a rare case where all aspects of a conspiracy can be laid bare in court with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel." Eppolito, 543 F.3d at 46 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

B. Narcotics Conspiracy

To satisfy its burden of proof on the narcotics conspiracy charge, the government had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that: (1) two or more persons entered into the charged narcotics conspiracy; and (2) Batista knowingly and intentionally became a member of the conspiracy. See United States v. Santos, 449 F.3d 93, 97 (2d Cir. 2006). "To sustain a conspiracy conviction, the government must present some evidence from which it can reasonably be inferred that the person charged with conspiracy knew of the existence of the scheme alleged in the indictment and knowingly joined and participated in it." United States v. Rodriguez, 392 F.3d 539, 545 (2d Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). "Proof that defendant knew that some crime would be committed is not enough." Id.

Batista contends that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to establish that he knowingly and intentionally became a member and participated in the charged conspiracy, as required to satisfy the second element of a conspiracy charge. The government responds that it presented sufficient evidence regarding at least eight ways in which Batista knowingly and intentionally associated himself with the narcotics conspiracy, any of which alone would have been enough for a guilty verdict. The government presented evidence at trial that Batista:

(1) warned Hiciano about impending police actions and raids; (2) checked Hiciano's driver's license; (3) ran a computer check of 1127 Decatur Street in Brooklyn, the address for a house in which Hiciano stored large quantities of cocaine; (4) delivered a car to enable the delivery of narcotics; (5) enhanced Hiciano's status as a drug dealer; (6) distributed ecstasy; (7) checked whether Hiciano had any outstanding warrants; and (8) checked the false identity documents of Hiciano's drug supplier. The court agrees with the government that this evidence is more than sufficient to sustain a guilty verdict on the narcotics conspiracy charge.

(1) Police Actions and Raids

At trial, Hiciano testified that Batista would warn him by telephone, using code, of police activity in and around 441 Wilson Avenue in Brooklyn ("441 Wilson"), the main location from which the narcotics conspiracy operated. (Trial Transcript ("Tr.") 9/24 at 494-96.) Hiciano testified that he would call Batista while Batista was in the precinct. (Id. at 487, 494.) When there was impending police activity at 411 Wilson, Batista would tell Hiciano that he was working, and would advise Hiciano to "be careful." (Id.) Hiciano would then call his workers and warn them to be cautious about their drug-related activities, because the street was "hot," that is, subject to surveillance or other law enforcement activity. (Id. at 487, 494, 522-23.) When Batista had no police activity to report, he would tell Hiciano that "everything was fine." (Id. at 522-23.) According to Hiciano, on several occasions, he thanked Batista for his assistance, to which Batista responded "[t]hat we were friends and that's what we were friends for." (Id. at 496.)

The defense contends that Hiciano's lack of specificity as to dates or years for Batista's participation in the charged conspiracy precludes a finding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Batista knowingly and intentionally took part in the charged narcotics offenses. According to the defense, Hiciano's testimony that Batista warned him of police activity is fatally contradicted by evidence showing that the dates for the only search warrants executed at 441 Wilson, on May 28, 2004, May 4, 2005, April 10, 2005, and November 3, 2005, did not coincide with any telephone calls between Batista and Hiciano. For this proposition, Batista relies in part upon defense witness NYPD Detective Christopher Rodrigo, who testified that, other than these specific warrants, there were no other warrants executed at 441 Wilson. The defense further maintains, based on testimony from defense witness NYPD Captain Timothy Trainor, that Hiciano's testimony is undermined by the absence of evidence that Batista ever had access to any of the information allegedly relayed to Hiciano. Finally, while the defendant concedes that "if one were to consider Hiciano's testimony alone, in a vacuum, it might support a finding of guilt," he argues that the jury's verdict is unreasonable in light all of the evidence because Hiciano was not a credible witness. His contention is based in part on the fact that Hiciano denied receiving information of police activity from Batista during two early meetings with the government following his arrest. All these arguments fail as contrary to law and the evidence adduced at trial.

To prevail, the government need not prove that the defendant was fully informed as to all of the details, time frame, or the scope of the conspiracy. See, e.g., Eppolito, 543 F.3d at 47-49. Moreover, the government need not corroborate every aspect of Hiciano's testimony to sustain its burden of proof against Batista, as the testimony of an accomplice may be enough, by itself, for conviction if the jury finds that the testimony establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. See United States v. Florez, 447 F.3d 145, 155 (2d Cir. 2006) ("The law is well established that a federal conviction may be supported by the uncorroborated testimony of even a single accomplice witness if that testimony is not incredible on its face and is capable of establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Thus, the purported ambiguities identified by Batista are insufficient to warrant reversal of his conviction.

The purported contradictions in statements made by Hiciano in his early meetings with the government and his testimony at trial likewise do not render the jury's verdict unreasonable as a matter of law. The court must "defer to a jury's assessments with respect to credibility, conflicting testimony, and the jury's choice of the competing inferences that can be drawn from the evidence[.]" Lorenzo, 534 F.3d at 159.

Furthermore, under the circumstances of this case, the court finds it inappropriate to adopt Batista's proposed interpretation of the evidence regarding the four search warrants executed at 441 Wilson. See Eppolito, 543 F.3d at45 (the court must credit "every inference that the jury may have drawn in favor of the government") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Detective Rodrigo was asked only about search warrants executed from December 2004, whereas, according to Batista, Hiciano and Batista met in 1996. (Tr. 10/13 at 2160, 2259; see also Tr. 9/22 at 412.) Detective Rodrigo was not asked about search warrants preceding December 2004, nor about other types of police actions at 441 Wilson. ...

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