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United States v. Caraballo-Rodriguez

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

August 8, 2013


Argued on March 5, 2013 before Merits Panel Court Ordered Sua Sponte Rehearing En Banc on March 12, 2013

Argued En Banc on May 29, 2013

On appeal from the United States District Court For the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (District Court No. 2-08-cr-00328-002) District Judge: Honorable Cynthia M. Rufe

Zane David Memeger, Esquire United States Attorney Robert Zauzmer, Esquire (Argued) Assistant United States Attorney Chief of Appeals Joseph T. Labrum, III, Esquire Office of United States Attorney, Counsel for Appellant

Christopher D. Warren, Esquire (Argued) Counsel for Appellee



RENDELL, Circuit Judge:

This case is the last in a long line of cases in which the parties and the district courts have had to divine whether, notwithstanding the jury's guilty verdict, there was sufficient evidence—and whether we would conclude there was sufficient evidence—for the jury to have determined that the defendant knew that the object of the conspiracy in which he participated was a controlled substance, as opposed to some other type of contraband. We say that this case is "the last" because, after considerable thought, we have concluded that, in many of these opinions, we failed to apply the deferential standard the law requires on review of sufficiency of the evidence challenges. In those cases, we employed what we have called a "strict approach"—which has been criticized by other judges and commentators[1]—and in doing so, failed to apply the proper deferential standard that we routinely apply in reviewing other criminal cases when a defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence.

A jury concluded that Defendant Richard Caraballo-Rodriguez knew that he was transporting a controlled substance when he participated in a conspiracy to transport approximately five million dollars' worth of cocaine from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[2]Relying on the reasoning of our previous opinions in considering Caraballo-Rodriguez's post-trial motion for acquittal, the District Court disagreed with the jury's verdict because "the evidence only shows that Caraballo-Rodriguez knew that he was being entrusted with a large suitcase which could contain [] a 'wide variety of contraband items . . . including stolen jewelry, laundered money, stolen computer chips, and counterfeiting plates.'" (Supp. App. 44 (quoting United States v. Idowu, 157 F.3d 265, 268 (3d Cir. 1998)).) The District Court therefore granted Caraballo-Rodriguez's motion and entered a judgment of acquittal.

After hearing oral argument in this case, we voted to rehear the case en banc to address "our circuit's seemingly paradoxical standard of review" on sufficiency of the evidence challenges in drug conspiracy cases. United States v. Boria, 592 F.3d 476, 488 n.12 (3d Cir. 2010) (Fisher, J., concurring). We did so to decide whether our review in this discrete area should follow form with the "strict approach" established by our precedent, or whether we will reestablish a familiar course with respect to sufficiency of the evidence challenges in other situations. We have decided to do the latter, returning to the deferential review standard we normally apply.

For the reasons that follow, we will vacate the District Court's order and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


On May 1, 2008, Appellee Richard Caraballo-Rodriguez and one of his co-defendants, Luis Deya-Diaz, triggered the suspicion of the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") when they purchased last-minute one-way airplane tickets from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Philadelphia International Airport in cash, checked no luggage, and held no carry-on baggage.[3] As a result, DEA agents in Philadelphia organized a surveillance team at the airport.

Despite not having checked any baggage, both Deya-Diaz and Caraballo-Rodriguez proceeded to the baggage claim after deplaning. Another co-defendant, Juan Cordero, met the two men at the baggage claim. Deya-Diaz retrieved two suitcases bearing distinctive markings from the baggage carousel and followed Cordero out of the terminal and into a parking garage. Caraballo-Rodriguez stayed in the baggage claim area by himself, collected two additional suitcases with distinctive markings, and then walked with the suitcases to the parking garage.

In the parking garage, two vehicles were parked near each other—a Suburban and a minivan. Deya-Diaz and Caraballo-Rodriguez were each responsible for delivering the suitcases to the Suburban and were then directed by Cordero to get in the minivan. DEA agents then observed the two vehicles leave the parking garage, going opposite directions on Interstate 95. A man named Wilfredo Aquino drove the Suburban northbound, and Cordero drove the minivan southbound with Deya-Diaz and Caraballo-Rodriguez as passengers.

Aquino was pulled over in the Suburban shortly after leaving the airport. The state trooper who pulled him over obtained consent to search the vehicle and found the four suitcases in the back. According to the trooper, the bags were quite heavy.[4] He then broke the locks on the suitcases and saw bricks of cocaine packed in the suitcases. A search warrant subsequently confirmed that two of the suitcases had twelve kilograms each of cocaine, and the other two suitcases had thirteen kilograms of cocaine each. In total, there were nearly fifty kilograms of cocaine between the four bags.[5] An expert testified that the shipment had a retail value of approximately $5 million.

Meanwhile, the minivan driven by Cordero was stopped by state troopers on I-95 South after a state trooper observed the minivan swerve between lanes and take evasive actions. Cordero, Deya-Diaz, and Caraballo-Rodriguez were all taken into custody. The agents recovered cell phones from the men upon arrest—Cordero's phone was missing the chip that stores information and call history because Cordero had thrown the chip out of the driver-side window before being pulled over. Deya-Diaz was carrying $456 in cash,

Caraballo-Rodriguez had $33 in cash, and Cordero had $1, 173 in cash. At the police barracks, only Deya-Diaz gave a statement—he provided a story about his reasons for traveling to Philadelphia, claiming that he was going to Cordero's house in either New Jersey or New York, and that he had no idea that Caraballo-Rodriguez was also meeting Cordero at the airport.

A grand jury in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania returned an indictment charging Caraballo-Rodriguez, Cordero, and Deya-Diaz with conspiring to distribute cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, and aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and 18 U.S.C. § 2. Deya-Diaz subsequently entered a guilty plea and testified against Caraballo-Rodriguez and Cordero, who both proceeded to trial and were tried jointly.[6]

While on the stand, Deya-Diaz recanted the story he gave at the police barracks and testified that he had previously acted as a courier, shuttling cash between Puerto Rico and New York. Before September 11, 2001, Deya-Diaz would travel with large amounts of cash strapped to his body; after September 11, he transported suitcases with cash from North America to Puerto Rico. Although Deya-Diaz had transported cash on several prior occasions, he testified that he had not knowingly transported drugs before. According to Deya-Diaz, in April 2008, an unidentified Dominican male known to Deya-Diaz as "Domi" called him and offered him $5, 000 to fly to from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia and pick up two suitcases at the Philadelphia airport. Domi told Deya-Diaz that someone would recognize him at the airport and take him to the parking garage, where Deya-Diaz would turn over the suitcases. The trip was originally planned for April 25, 2008. Before the flight, Deya-Diaz met Domi in Puerto Rico, and Domi repaid Deya-Diaz for the plane tickets, showed him the suitcases he was to retrieve in Philadelphia, asked Deya-Diaz to describe what he would wear at the airport, and told Deya-Diaz that he would be paid $5, 000 when he arrived in New York, after being driven from the Philadelphia airport. Domi subsequently called Deya-Diaz and told him that the trip was rescheduled for May 1. Deya-Diaz testified that no one told him that there were drugs in the suitcases, and that he did not know that any other courier would be on the flight.

Deya-Diaz further testified that Caraballo-Rodriguez was not there when Deya-Diaz put his suitcases in the Suburban, but that Caraballo-Rodriguez entered the van after he was already seated. During the ride, Deya-Diaz asked Cordero when he would be paid, but Deya-Diaz did not remember Caraballo-Rodriguez saying anything. Deya-Diaz testified that he, Cordero, and Caraballo-Rodriguez were brought to the police barracks and while there, the three of them discussed concocting a story to explain why they were in Philadelphia.

When Deya-Diaz was questioned about his knowledge of the contents of the suitcases, he initially said "I didn't know it was drugs. I knew that it was something bad that was happening, because nobody is going to pay five thousand dollars for picking up the suitcases." (Supp. App. 308.) The questioning continued:

Q: Now, going back to May 1st of 2008, did anyone tell you what was going to be in the suitcases on that occasion?
A: No.
Q: And what did you understand would be in ...

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