Monday, May 2nd, 2016

Second Circuit rejects claims that District Court erred in limiting cross-examination of prosecution witness and committed various procedural errors at sentencing.

United States v. Rodriguez, No. 14-4267 (2d Cir. Apr. 27, 2016) (Leval, Droney, and Engelmayer).

Rodriguez was convicted by a jury of charges of racketeering conspiracy and conspiracy to distribute narcotics. He argued on appeal that the district court erred by disallowing certain cross-examination of a key prosecution witness, and that the district court committed various procedural errors at sentencing. The Court affirmed.

(a) Cross-examination.

Before trial, the government moved to preclude the defense from cross-examining a key government witness at trial about certain sexual offenses he had committed. Defense counsel argued that the evidence bore upon the witness’s credibility but the district court excluded it under Fed. R. Evid. 403.

The Circuit held that the district court had properly balanced the relevant factors under Rule 403 and had noted that the witness disclosed his sexual misconduct to the government, which undermined the defense’s argument that his sexual offenses indicated dishonesty. The Court also found no abuse of discretion in the district court’s conclusion that the evidence had “insufficient bearing on the witness’s credibility.” The Court stated that the witness was “already subject to extensive cross-examination regarding other misconduct” and had “admitted to the commission of the sexual offenses.” For similar reasons, the Court also rejected the argument that the district court’s rulings violated the Confrontation Clause.

(b) Sentencing.

The defendant argued on appeal that the district court procedurally erred by not considering sentencing disparities between co-defendants. But the Court reiterated that 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6) is concerned with nationwide disparities, and does not require a court to expressly consider disparities among co-defendants.

The Court also rejected the argument that the district court erred by not making an individualized finding that the scope of the conspiracy involved distribution of 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. The jury specifically found that this quantity or more was reasonably foreseeable to the defendant. Thus, the district court at sentencing properly applied the jury’s factual finding regarding drug quantity.

Finally, the Court held that the district court committed no reversible error by failing to comply fully with the “prior felony information” requirements of 21 U.S.C. § 851. The government filed the prior felony information in March 2012, and the prior conviction occurred in September 1997. Because the prior conviction occurred more than five years before the date of the filing of the prior-felony information, the defendant was precluded from challenging the conviction under § 851(e). Accordingly, any procedural error under § 851 was harmless.


— Edward S. Zas

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