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United States v. Ramirez

June 29, 2010

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE,
v.
ARCADIO RAMIREZ, JOSÉ LUIS RODRIGUEZ, APPELLANTS-DEFENDANTS, ALEX LUNA, DEFENDANT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Appeal from convictions for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, challenging the admission of police officer's rebuttal testimony under the "impeachment by contradiction doctrine."

Affirmed.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Barrington D. Parker, Circuit Judge

Argued: December 17, 2009

Before: CALABRESI, CABRANES, AND B.D. PARKER, Circuit Judges.

This appeal stems from the defendants' convictions in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Underhill, J.) for their participation in a large-scale cocaine trafficking conspiracy. The indictment charged Rodriguez with being a major supplier of cocaine to a Danbury, Connecticut drug distribution network from 2002 to 2005, and charged Ramirez with similar conduct from 1998 to 2005. Ultimately, Rodriguez was convicted of conspiracy to distribute 5 kilograms of cocaine or 50 grams of cocaine base, and Ramirez for 500 grams of cocaine or 5 grams of cocaine base. See 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1), 846.

On appeal, Rodriguez challenges his conviction on two separate grounds, while Ramirez challenges his sentence. Rodriguez argues that two rebuttal witnesses -- police officer Waldo Cuba and Maria Robles -- should not have been permitted to testify about collateral matters, and that their testimony severely prejudiced his defense. He also complains that the bill of particulars filed by the government on the eve of trial was inadequate, and that the indictment should have been dismissed. Ramirez, for his part, claims that the sentencing judge improperly found him responsible for 15 kilograms of cocaine, resulting in a 204-month sentence, after the jury expressly rejected such a large drug quantity in its special interrogatory responses. Thus, according to Ramirez, the district court improperly relied on "acquitted conduct" to establish drug quantity at sentencing.

We find that the district court erred in admitting Officer Cuba's testimony to impeach Rodriguez. Nonetheless, we affirm his conviction, ultimately finding this error harmless. Because we reject Rodriguez's other claims, as well as Ramirez's sentencing challenge, the defendants' convictions and sentences are affirmed.

I. BACKGROUND

The defendants were charged and convicted for their roles in a drug distribution conspiracy involving the weekly transport of cocaine from Brooklyn, New York to Danbury, Connecticut. Co-conspirator José Adames (also known as "Pompa" or "Ponpa") led the trafficking operation. From 2002 to 2005, Rodriguez was alleged to be Adames's driver for many of the trips to Danbury, where the drugs were purchased for resale by Alex Luna, another co-conspirator. Ramirez, in his role, also often accompanied Adames to Connecticut, and was responsible for supplying and distributing cocaine in Brooklyn over an even longer period.

Rodriguez was arrested in Massachusetts and, according to the testimony of one of the arresting officers, confessed to his role in the conspiracy while being transported back to Connecticut for prosecution. At trial, the government also offered the testimony of three other co-conspirators who described Rodriguez's involvement with Adames, Luna, and Ramirez in regular cocaine transactions. Finally, the government presented video surveillance of Rodriguez meeting with Adames and Luna in Danbury, although the video did not show any drugs changing hands.

Rodriguez testified in his own defense. He foreswore any knowing involvement in the narcotics conspiracy and denied the alleged confession. Instead, he claimed that, although he had acted as Adames's driver over a period of years, he had no knowledge of any drug transactions. According to Rodriguez, he came to know Adames socially, through friends and family; when Rodriguez later lost his job, Adames began to ask Rodriguez to drive him places, including Danbury, to visit relatives. Rodriguez testified that he never saw or knew of any cocaine on these trips. Because he was without work, Rodriguez says he continued to chaffeur Adames periodically until late 2004 when Rodriguez's mother warned him that Adames was thought to be involved with drugs. Rodriguez claims that he confronted Adames about these rumors and, although they were denied, that he subsequently distanced himself from Adames.

The government sought to undermine Rodriguez's defense by, among other things, cross-examining him about his contact with drugs during this period. Relying on Rodriguez's denial of any involvement with cocaine on both direct and cross-examination, the government also sought to introduce the rebuttal testimony of police officer Waldo Cuba and Alex Luna's girlfriend, Maria Robles. In particular, Officer Cuba reported seeing Rodriguez handling cocaine during an unrelated drug stop shortly after the conspiracy had ended. Robles, for her part, testified about Rodriguez's involvement with drug trafficking during the indicted period. The trial court acknowledged that this testimony had the potential to be extremely damaging; nonetheless, over Rodriguez's objections, it admitted the testimony of both witnesses.

Ultimately, the jury convicted each defendant of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841, 846. Rodriguez was subsequently sentenced to 120 months imprisonment, while Ramirez was sentenced to 204 months imprisonment.

II. RODRIGUEZ

A. Admission of Impeachment ...


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