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United States v. Estrada - Lopez

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

May 3, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ERICK ESTRADA-LOPEZ

          OPINION OF THE COURT

          MARCIA MORALES HOWARD UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS CAUSE came before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal (Doc. No. 349; Acquittal Motion) filed on December 20, 2016, as well as Defendant's Motion for New Trial (Doc. No. 334; New Trial Motion), filed on November 28, 2016 (together, the Motions). Following a four day jury trial, on November 14, 2016, the jury returned a verdict finding Defendant Erick Estrada-Lopez (Estrada) guilty as to Count One of the Indictment (Doc. No. 1; Indictment). See Verdict Form (Doc. No. 317; Verdict). Specifically, the jury found Estrada guilty of “conspir[ing] to commit money laundering involving property represented to be the proceeds of specified unlawful activity, with the intent to conceal or disguise the nature, location, source, ownership, and control of the property believed to be the proceeds of the specified unlawful activity[, ]” in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(3)(B) and (h). Verdict at 1; see also Indictment. In the Acquittal Motion, Estrada requests that the Court enter a judgment of acquittal pursuant to Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (Rule(s)) “as the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction.” See Acquittal Motion at 1. In the New Trial Motion, Estrada alternatively requests that the Court grant a new trial pursuant to Rule 33 “as it is required by the interests of justice.” See New Trial Motion at 1. The Government filed responses in opposition to the Motions. See United States' Response to Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal (Doc. No. 356; Acquittal Response); United States' Response to Defendant's Motion for New Trial (Doc. No. 347; New Trial Response).

         On March 13, 2017, the Court scheduled a sentencing for Estrada and 7 others indicted along with him to begin on April 18, 2017, and continue through April 19, 2017. See Endorsed Order (Doc. No. 372). As the dates of the sentencings approached, the Court had determined that the Motions were due to be denied. But, due to the Court's heavy caseload, the Court had not yet finalized its written opinion setting forth the reasons for its decision. Not wanting to delay the sentencings of all defendants, the Court, instead, entered its order denying the Motions with the assurance that the entry of a reasoned opinion would follow.[1] Here, the Court provides that opinion.

         I. Summary of the Arguments

         In the Motions, Estrada advances a number of arguments in support of his request for a judgment of acquittal or a new trial. First, Estrada contends that a judgment of acquittal is warranted because the record evidence does not establish his knowledge that the funds used in the money laundering transaction at issue were represented to be proceeds of illegal activities. See Acquittal Motion at 2. In addressing this argument, the Government contends that Estrada “cherry-pick[ed]” testimony and evidence favorable to his position and “omit[ted]” testimony and evidence that refutes it. Acquittal Response at 3. Next, Estrada argues that the Court should grant a judgment of acquittal because the Government's trial evidence demonstrated - at best - that Estrada believed the funds in question to be the proceeds of the sale of marijuana, whereas the Indictment specifically charged Estrada with conspiracy to launder proceeds from the sale of MDMA, a different drug commonly known as “ecstasy.” See Acquittal Motion at 12. To this point, the Government responds that it merely had to prove that the funds in question were, in fact, represented to be the proceeds of the sale of MDMA and that Estrada believed such funds to represent the proceeds of any unlawful activity enumerated by 18 U.S.C. § 1956(c)(7). See Acquittal Response at 14.

         Alternatively, Estrada avers that a new trial is warranted because “the [G]overnment's key witnesses were impeached and the [G]overnment's case marked by uncertainties and discrepancies.” New Trial Motion at 4. In response, the Government contends that inconsistent testimony regarding ancillary facts does not - under the circumstances - vitiate the witnesses' credibility, especially given that the evidence presented was “more than sufficient” to support the verdict. See New Trial Response at 3, 6. Estrada further maintains that the Court erred by giving a ‘deliberate ignorance' jury instruction because the record evidence did not warrant it. See New Trial Motion at 4. In response to this argument, the Government contends that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to support the Court's decision to instruct the jury on deliberate ignorance inasmuch as the record evidence could support conviction under a theory of either actual knowledge or willful blindness. See New Trial Response at 8-9.

         II. Discussion

         A. Judgment of Acquittal

         1. Standard

         Rule 29 provides the Court with authority, where appropriate, to enter a judgment of acquittal following a guilty verdict. Rule 29(c)(2). A motion for judgment of acquittal under Rule 29 “is a direct challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence presented against the defendant.” United States v. Aibejeris, 28 F.3d 97, 98 (11th Cir. 1994); see also United States v. Ward, 197 F.3d 1076, 1079 (11th Cir. 1999) (“In considering a motion for the entry of judgment of acquittal under [Rule 29(c)], a district court should apply the same standard used in reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain a conviction.”). In ruling on such a motion, a district court must “‘determine whether, viewing all the evidence in the light most favorable to the Government and drawing all reasonable inferences and credibility choices in favor of the jury's verdict, a reasonable trier of fact could find that the evidence established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.'” United States v. Grigsby, 111 F.3d 806, 833 (11th Cir. 1997) (quoting United States v. O'Keefe, 825 F.2d 314, 319 (11th Cir. 1987)).

         2. Analysis

         In the Indictment, the Government alleged that Estrada, along with others, conspired “to conduct and attempt to conduct financial transactions . . . involving property represented to be the proceeds of specified unlawful activity, to wit: distribution of MDMA . . . with the intent to conceal or disguise the nature, location, source, ownership, and control of property believed to be the proceeds of specified unlawful activity, ” in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(3)(B) and (h). Indictment at 3. The conspiracy charge originated from a Government sting operation in which an undercover agent approached Estrada's associates to conduct money laundering transactions with funds which the agent represented to be proceeds of the sale of MDMA. See id. at 2. The Government alleged that, on or about December 13, 2012, Estrada conducted a money laundering transaction with Alex Rodriguez (Rodriguez), a co-conspirator, using these same funds. See id. at 6. Because the Government charged Estrada with conspiracy to commit money laundering, as opposed to the substantive offense of money laundering itself, at trial the Government was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt: “(1) an agreement between two or more persons to commit a money-laundering offense; and (2) knowing and voluntary participation in that agreement by the defendant.”[2] United States v. Castronuovo, 649 Fed.Appx. 904, 911 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting United States v. Moran, 778 F.3d 942, 962 (11th Cir. 2015)) (additional citations omitted). Notably, “no evidence of willfulness or specific intent is required [], and a conviction does not require proof of an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.” Id.

         In accordance with the foregoing, the Court instructed the jury as follows:

         Title 18 U.S.C. § 1956 makes it a Federal crime to knowingly engage in certain kinds of financial transactions commonly known as money laundering. A Defendant can be found guilty of this offense only if all the following facts are proved beyond a reasonable doubt:

(1) the Defendant knowingly conducted or attempted to conduct a financial transaction;
(2) the transaction or attempted transaction involved property that a law-enforcement officer represented as coming from a specified unlawful activity; and
(3) the Defendant engaged in the transaction or attempted transaction with the intent to conceal or disguise the nature, location, source, ownership, or control of property believed to be the proceeds of specified unlawful activity.
In this case, the Government alleges that the property involved in the financial transaction was represented as coming from the distribution of MDMA, commonly known as “ecstasy, ” in violation of Title 21, United States Code Section 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(C). Distribution of MDMA is a specified unlawful activity under the law.
. . . .
In this case, Erick Estrada-Lopez is not charged with the substantive offense of money laundering. Instead, he is charged with conspiring to engage in money laundering or transactions involving the proceeds of specific unlawful activity that violate 18 U.S.C. § 1956.
Conspiracy to engage in money laundering is a separate Federal crime.
. . . .
A Defendant can be found guilty of this crime only if all the following facts are proved beyond a reasonable doubt:
(1) two or more people agreed to try to accomplish a common and unlawful plan to violate 18 ...

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