Saturday, July 24, 2010
Conspiracy Theory: First Circuit Finds Co-Conspirator Admissions Present No Problems Under Crawford & Bruton
In Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), the Supreme Court found that that the Confrontation Clause of the U.S. Constitution is violated when hearsay is "testimonial," admitted against a criminal defendant, and the hearsay declarant does not testify at the defendant's trial, unless (1) the declarant was unavailable for trial, and (2) the defendant was previously able to cross-examine the declarant. And, in Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968), the Supreme Court held that when there is a joint trial of a defendant and a co-defendant, the admission into evidence of the non-testifying co-defendant's out-of-court confession violates the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment if the confession incriminates the other defendant. As the recent opinion of the First Circuit in United States v. De La Paz-Rentas, 2010 WL 2813810 (1st Cir. 2010), makes clear, however, if a statement qualifies as a co-conspirator admission under Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2)(E), it does not present any problems under either Crawford or Bruton.
In De La Paz-Rentas, the First Circuit was
presented with appeals by four defendants who were found guilty on firearms charges and, in one case, a drug charge, all of which stemmed from an undercover investigation into a weapons ring in Puerto Rico. The four defendants [we]re Pedro Molina-Bonilla..., Natanael De La Paz-Rentas..., Victor Sanjurjo-Nuñez..., and Waldemar Torres-González.
One piece of evidence linking Torres-González to the weapons and drug charges was the testimony of undercover officer Julio Ginés, who indicated that Nelson Font-González, another alleged co-conspirator, made statements implicating Torres-González in the crimes. Font-González did not testify at trial.
After he was convicted, Torres-González appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the admission of Font-González's statements violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause. The First Circuit disagreed, first finding that Font-González's statements qualified as co-conspirator admissions under Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2)(E) because they were made "by a coconspirator of a party during the course and in furtherance of the conspiracy."
The court then found no problem with the statements under Crawford because "Crawford does not apply to statements deemed non-testimonial, and statements made in furtherance of a conspiracy 'by their nature [are] not testimonial.'" The court similarly found no problem under Bruton because Bruton "is concerned with the indirect impact on a defendant of a confession made by another defendant in a joint trial...; it does not bar the use of a co-conspirator statement made in furtherance of the conspiracy and admissible under a traditional hearsay exception."