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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Opinion Of Interest: Eleventh Circuit Affirmed Statement Against Interest Ruling In Drug Deal Appeal

Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3) provides an exception to the rule against hearsay for

A statement which was at the time of its making so far contrary to the declarant's pecuniary or proprietary interest, or so far tended to subject the declarant to civil or criminal liability, or to render invalid a claim by the declarant against another, that a reasonable person in the declarant's position would not have made the statement unless believing it to be true. A statement tending to expose the declarant to criminal liability and offered to exculpate the accused is not admissible unless corroborating circumstances clearly indicate the trustworthiness of the statement.

Of course, for a statement to be deemed a "statement against interest under Rule 804(b)(3), it must be clear that the statement was indeed against the declarant's interest, which was the problem for the appellant in the recent opinion of the Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Huerta, 2010 WL 3638789 (11th Cir. 2010).

In Huerta, Javier Huert was indicted on one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine and three counts of distribution of 5 grams or more of methamphetamine. Meanwhile, Manuel Camacho Barcenas was charged as a co-conspirator and pleaded guilty. The prosecution presented evidence at trial which established that

Peter Strautman, a convicted drug dealer who worked as a confidential informant with the DEA, arranged several controlled buys with Huerta and Barcenas. The deals were captured on audio and video recordings. In the calls and exchanges, Huerta acted as an interpreter for Barcenas and arranged the deals. And during one of the buys, Huerta informed Strautman that he had supplied drugs to a man named Paco, who was Strautman's previous supplier. Huerta said that he and Barcenas, “[w]e make a deal sometimes. Half and half.” Strautman understood this to mean that the two men sold drugs together. During his work for the DEA, Strautman also arranged controlled buys with each dealer alone. The controlled buy Strautman attempted to arrange with Huerta was unsuccessful because, as Huerta later explained to Strautman, Huerta had seen a suspicious car and cancelled the meeting. Strautman was unable to reschedule the buy.

Thereafter,

Huerta testified in his own defense. He explained that he and Barcenas were friends and that he had been helping tow cars to Barcenas's mechanics shop. He stated that he had been lying in the recorded phone calls to shield Barcenas, that he was present at the buys only to protect Barcenas, and that he did not receive any money from the buys. He denied that there was any conspiracy and explained that the deals mentioned in the recordings were car deals. Huerta then testified that he had received two letters from Barcenas while the case was pending. The government objected to the admission of these letters on hearsay grounds. Defense counsel responded that Barcenas was unavailable because, when called as a witness, he had invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify, and that the letters were trustworthy because Barcenas had admitted to the government that he wrote them. The court sustained the government's objection and excluded the letters.

After he was convicted, Huerta appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the district court should have deemed the letters admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3). In one letter, Barcenas wrote that he was involved in “deals” and that he acted “because of the consumption of alcohol.” He further wrote that he would plead guilty, that he “should be responsible for it because no one else should pay the broken plates of someone else's,” and that he “assume[d] the responsibility that you had nothing to do with those charges.”

The Eleventh Circuit rejected Huerta's argument, finding that

Although both Huerta and the government agree that Barcenas was unavailable under Rule 804(a)(1), Huerta cannot show that the letters were admissible. The statements are vague and do not inculpate Barcenas to the extent that he reasonably would not have made the statement unless he believed it to be true. Moreover, the evidence at trial showed that Huerta and Barcenas were working together. Thus, the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the hearsay evidence, and we affirm Huerta's convictions.

I agree with the court. Barcenas indicates that he was involved in "deals" but never wrote what type of deals. Moreover, does it make sense that he would have been involved in drug deals "because of the consumption of alcohol"? Barcenas also made reference to being responsible based upon "broken plates." It is unclear how broken plates would relate to a drug deal. Maybe he was referring to broken license plates, and the "deals" to which he referred were drug deals. Or maybe he was referring to the subject drug deals, but it is impossible to tell from his confusing letters, which is why I think that the court properly found that they did not qualify for admission under Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3).

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/09/804b3-us-v-huertaslip-copy-2010-wl-3638789ca11-fla2010.html

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