The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in United States v. Archuleta on Tuesday, December 17, 2013.
Nathan Archuleta was a leader of the Tortilla Flats gang in New Mexico. The Tortilla Flats are an affiliate of the Sureños, a group of gangs with ties to the Mexican Mafia. In June 2009, Archuleta orchestrated a plan to smuggle methamphetamine from Mexico into the United States. The scheme was unsuccessful and Archuleta was arrested and indicted.
Before trial, Archuleta filed a motion to exclude gang-affiliation expert testimony. The district court held two hearings and ruled that Lujan, the government’s gang expert, could testify about the Sureños gang, the significance of its tattoos, structure, activities, and affiliation with the Mexican Mafia. Archuleta objected, and the court overruled his objection.
A jury convicted Archuleta of possession of methamphetamine, possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, conspiracy to possess methamphetamine with intent to distribute, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Archuleta appealed. On appeal, Archuleta contended that admission of a gang expert’s testimony violated Federal Rules of Evidence 403, 702, and 704(b). Of these three evidentiary rules, only Rule 403 was raised by Archuleta before the district court. As a result, the court’s review of his arguments pertaining to Rule 702 and Rule 704(b) was limited to plain error review.
Rule 403 permits a court to exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence. Fed. R. Evid. 403. After reviewing the record, the Tenth Circuit was not persuaded that the district court abused its discretion in allowing the government’s gang expert to testify. His testimony was not cumulative, confusing or misleading, or unfairly prejudicial.
Rule 702 requires a district court to satisfy itself that the proposed expert testimony will assist the trier of fact, before permitting a jury to assess such testimony. The court held that Archuleta failed to explain how the relevant evidence regarding gangs, which no other witness covered, was unhelpful to the jury’s understanding of the implications of Archuleta’s membership in the Tortilla Flats gang.
Archuleta’s final argument was that Lujan’s testimony violated Rule 704(b) because it was the functional equivalent of an opinion that Mr. Archuleta in fact had knowledge of the smuggling scheme. Under Rule 704(b), in a criminal case, an expert witness must not state an opinion about whether the defendant did or did not have a mental state or condition that constitutes an element of the crime charged or of a defense. The question was whether he improperly testified about Archuleta’s mental state. The court admitted that, even if Lujan’s testimony violated Rule 704(b), Archuleta could not demonstrate plain error. This demanding standard required him to show, among other things, that the error must have affected the outcome of the district court’s proceedings. This he did not show.