May 19, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Confrontation Clause Only Implicated when Statement Admitted to Prove Truth of Matter Asserted

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Ibarra-Diaz on Monday, November 9, 2015.

An undercover detective with the Wichita Police Department set up a methamphetamine purchase from Jesus Ibarra-Diaz through a confidential informant (CI). The detective met Ibarra-Diaz and his girlfriend, Ana Valeriano-Trejo, in a shopping mall parking lot and got in their vehicle. Ibarra-Diaz indicated that another accomplice, Ricardo Estrada, would bring the drugs. When Estrada arrived, he recognized the detective and informed Ibarra-Diaz and Valeriano-Trejo that he was a cop. The detective got out of Ibarra-Diaz’s vehicle and confronted Estrada, and Ibarra-Diaz started to drive away, at which point police officers surrounded his vehicle and arrested him and Valeriano-Trejo.

After searching the two vehicles, officers found suspected methamphetamine in the wheel well of the vehicle Estrada was driving. Estrada, who was in a patrol car, voluntarily spoke to officers, telling them that there was over a pound of meth at the house he shared with Ibarra-Diaz and Valeriano-Trejo. Officers obtained a warrant and searched the residence, finding several pertinent items, including approximately one pound of meth in a container in the laundry room. A federal grand jury indicted the three co-defendants on one count of possession with intent to distribute a substance containing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine. Ibarra-Diaz exercised his right to a jury trial. He was convicted and sentenced to 188 months’ imprisonment.

Ibarra-Diaz appealed, raising several contentions of error. First, he argued that the district court violated his Confrontation Clause rights when it erroneously admitted several hearsay statements. Next, he argued he was denied a fair trial when the detective was allowed to present inflammatory testimony. Third, he contended that certain evidence rendered the indictment duplicitous and therefore denied him a fair trial. Finally, he contended there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction. The Tenth Circuit rejected each argument in turn, noting as an initial matter that all of Ibarra-Diaz’s arguments except his sufficiency challenge were raised for the first time on appeal and were subject only to plain error review.

Ibarra-Diaz argued that the district court erred in admitting through the detective’s testimony several statements of the CI or Mr. Estrada. The Tenth Circuit analyzed each in turn, reminding Ibarra-Diaz that a statement is only testimonial when it is admitted to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Ibarra-Diaz first argued it was error for the detective to testify that the narcotics investigation commenced because a CI gave information to the detective. The Tenth Circuit found no error, since the trial court stopped the detective’s testimony before he could reveal what he learned from the CI. Next, Ibarra-Diaz argued the court erred in allowing the detective to testify that the CI was afraid of Ibarra-Diaz. Because the detective’s remark was stricken from the record and the court gave the jury two separate instructions to consider only testimony that was not stricken, there was no error. Third, Ibarra-Diaz argued it was error for the detective to testify that the CI told him Ibarra-Diaz had “some dope” for sale. The Tenth Circuit found no error because the statement in question was not hearsay since it was offered for a different purpose than to prove the truth of the matter asserted. The Tenth Circuit similarly found no Confrontation Clause violations for the fourth and fifth points of error, since the actions in question were not statements. The next statement was also not hearsay because it was offered to explain the detective’s conduct. Ibarra-Diaz’s seventh challenge similarly failed because the detective was not reciting statements. The Tenth Circuit found that the eighth statement was also not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted.

Ibarra-Diaz’s final Confrontation Clause challenge concerned the detective’s testimony that Estrada told him there was additional methamphetamine at the house. The government conceded that the statement was testimonial and violated the Confrontation Clause, but the Tenth Circuit did not find plain error because the admission did not substantially affect the outcome of the proceeding because even without the statement, overwhelming evidence supported Ibarra-Diaz’s conviction.

Ibarra-Diaz argued that some of the detective’s testimony was inflammatory and unduly prejudiced the jury. Ibarra-Diaz argued the statements unfairly painted a picture of him as a dangerous drug dealer. The Tenth Circuit elected to consider Ibarra-Diaz’s arguments as FRE 403 challenges, and found that the testimony was mostly irrelevant and its probative value was outweighed by the danger of confusing the issues or misleading the jury. However, the Tenth Circuit found that even if the district court erred, the error was not clear or obvious, and any error did not substantially prejudice Ibarra-Diaz. The Tenth Circuit noted that the evidence tended to show that the detective was afraid of Mr. Estrada, not Ibarra-Diaz, and the testimony had no effect on Ibarra-Diaz’s substantial rights.

The Tenth Circuit then turned to Ibarra-Diaz’s contention that he was deprived of a unanimous jury verdict by a duplicitous indictment. Ibarra-Diaz acknowledged that the indictment was not duplicitous on its face, but argued that the presentation of the two separate bundles of methamphetamine, taken from the vehicle and the house, rendered the indictment duplicitous because there were two factual presentations for the same offense. The Tenth Circuit declined to consider the issue, which was raised for the first time on appeal.

Finally, Ibarra-Diaz challenged the sufficiency of the evidence. At trial, the prosecution advanced two theories of Ibarra-Diaz’s guilt: as a complicitor and as a principal. Ibarra-Diaz confined his sufficiency challenge to the aiding and abetting theory, notably not challenging the theory of him as principal. The Tenth Circuit found this fatal to his arguments. Because there was more than enough evidence to support Ibarra-Diaz’s convictions as a principal, there was no need to address the aiding-and-abetting theory. However, the Tenth Circuit found ample evidence to support the complicitor theory as well.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court.

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