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Judges ‘disturbed’ by linking of drugs to defendant’s nationality

January 3, 2013

Even though the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was “disturbed” by a government agent’s improperly admitted testimony linking a defendant’s Mexican nationality to the methamphetamine at issue, the court declined to grant a new trial.

Juan Ramirez-Fuentes was charged and convicted of one count each of possession with the intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine and possessing firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. He received 295 months in prison. The convictions are based on Ramirez-Fuentes’ admittance that 3.1 kilograms of methamphetamine and two firearms found at his brother’s apartment were actually his.

In United States of America v. Juan Ramirez-Fuentes, 12-1494, he argued that the District Court in Hammond erred in admitting testimony from Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Jon Johnson, who described the recovered drug as “Mexican methamphetamine,” which he noted is produced by “Mexican nationals;” and Johnson’s testimony about violence associated with drug trafficking. Ramirez-Fuentes’ attorney did not object to that testimony at trial, so the 7th Circuit examined it for plain error.

“We find unconvincing Ramirez-Fuentes’s argument that the district court should have excluded Agent Johnson’s testimony about drug trafficking under Rule 403 because it caused jurors to associate Ramirez-Fuentes with violent behavior,” Judge Joel Flaum wrote. “Agent Johnson’s discussion of the relationship between guns and drugs, during which time he referenced the violence that is part of the drug trade, was highly probative of Ramirez-Fuentes’s guilt on the firearm possession charge and any potential for prejudice was slight.”

But the judges were not pleased with the court allowing Johnson’s testimony regarding the “Mexican” nature of the methamphetamine. The 7th Circuit agreed with other Circuit courts that had held the admission of government-proffered testimony tying the race or ethnicity of a defendant to the racial or ethnic characteristics of a special drug trade is improper.

“Here, Agent Johnson made unnecessary and avoidable references to Ramirez-Fuentes’s nationality in response to questions from the prosecution. The references to 'Mexican methamphetamine' invited the jury, albeit implicitly, to consider Ramirez-Fuentes’s nationality in reaching its decision in the case. Thus, even if the evidence was at all relevant under Rule 401, it should have nonetheless been excluded under Rule 403 because of the danger of unfair prejudice inherent in its admission,” Flaum wrote.

But under plain error review, Ramirez-Fuentes hasn’t shown probable acquittal but for the District Court’s error. He confessed to possession of the drugs and guns, and he also admitted he had been given money in exchange for holding on to the drugs, which he hid in his brother’s apartment.

The appellate court rejected Ramirez-Fuentes’ arguments that his imprisonment is unreasonably long and because of his convictions, he will ultimately be deported. The District judge did consider the defendant’s family circumstances when sentencing him and imposed a sentence on the low end of the guideline range. The 7th Circuit saw no reason to overturn the sentence.

 

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