The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Medina-Copete on Wednesday, June 3, 2014.
Maria Vianey Medina-Copete (Medina) and Rafael Goxcon-Chagal (Goxcon) were traveling in a borrowed truck through New Mexico when they were pulled over for following another vehicle too closely. Officer Chavez, who stopped the vehicle, became suspicious that Medina and Goxcon were engaged in drug activity because of the overwhelming odor of air freshener coming from the vehicle, Medina’s nervousness and chanting of a prayer to Santa Muerte, and the changes in Medina’s and Goxcon’s behavior when questioned about the presence of methamphetamine in the vehicle. Chavez, who is not fluent in Spanish, had difficulty communicating with Medina and Goxcon, who are not fluent in English. Eventually, Chavez obtained consent to search the vehicle with a form written in Spanish, and a drug sniffing dog alerted to the glove box on the passenger side of the truck. After a thorough search, a secret compartment was found on the vehicle containing nearly two pounds of 90% pure methamphetamine.
Medina and Goxcon were placed under arrest, and subsequent to their arrests were interviewed by Spanish-speaking DEA officials. They gave conflicting stories to the DEA officials. At the end of her interview, Medina asked to retrieve her personal belongings from the vehicle, a black duffel bag. The officer who retrieved the bag found a handgun under a piece of clothing. In an indictment, Goxcon and Medina were jointly charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, possessing with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and using or carrying a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking crime. Medina was also charged with being an illegally present alien in possession of a firearm and with illegal reentry.
In their joint trial, Medina and Goxcon asserted that they had no knowledge of the drugs in their borrowed vehicle. Two experts testified against them, United States Marshal Robert Almonte of the Western District of Texas and DEA Agent Ivar Hella. Almonte testified about his research into religious iconography and its significance in the drug world, specifically Santa Muerte to whom Medina was furiously praying during the traffic stop. Hella testified about drug trafficking between this country and Mexico, and that blind mules are rarely used as drug couriers because of the risks of accidental discovery of the drugs. Medina and Goxcon challenged both experts’ testimony. The jury returned guilty verdicts against both defendants on all counts, and defendants timely appealed.
Defendants asserted that the trial court erred by allowing Almonte to testify, and that his testimony violated FRE 403, 702, and 704(b), as well as their First Amendment rights. The Tenth Circuit evaluated Almonte’s testimony in light of the factors set forth in Daubert and Kumho Tires, and found that his testimony regarding Santa Muerte did not qualify as explicative of a “tool of the trade,” because it was unclear how praying to a religious figure could be a tool in the drug trade. The Tenth Circuit analogized the religious iconography to finding baggies or a razor blade, which can easily be understood to be tools of a drug trade despite their common household use, and found that there was no similar utility to the religious symbols. The Tenth Circuit noted that the district court’s failure to examine how Almonte’s testimony could assist the jury also affected its reliability. Citing a concurrence from the Eighth Circuit analyzing Almonte’s testimony in a different case, the Tenth Circuit found that there was no causal connection between religious iconography and the drug trade, so his testimony was not sufficiently reliable. Because the Tenth Circuit found error in admitting Almonte’s testimony, it evaluated whether the error was harmless, and determined that it was not. The government did not have a strong case against Goxcon and Medina, so the chance that the religious iconography testimony prejudiced the jury was great.
As to Hella’s testimony, the Tenth Circuit found no error. His testimony was relevant to show that it was less likely that Goxcon and Medina were unaware of the presence of methamphetamine in the truck due to various factors, including the unlikelihood of using blind mules and the strong smell of pure methamphetamine.
The Tenth Circuit also reviewed Medina’s assertion that the government had insufficient evidence to convict her, and disagreed. The case was remanded to the district court to vacate the convictions based on drug trafficking and for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. Because Medina did not challenge her illegal reentry or possession of firearm by an illegal alien convictions, the Tenth Circuit did not vacate them.