United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division
OPINION OF THE COURT
MORALES HOWARD UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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).
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. Here, the Court provides that opinion.
Summary of the Arguments
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.
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.
Judgment of Acquittal
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)).
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.” 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.
accordance with the foregoing, the Court instructed the jury
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
. . . .
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 ...