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United States v. Espinoza

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

January 22, 2018

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Angelica Urias Espinoza, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued and Submitted March 10, 2017 Pasadena, California

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of California D.C. No. 3:15-cr-01330-LAB-1, Larry A. Burns, District Judge, Presiding

          Michael Marks (argued), Federal Public Defenders of San Diego Inc., San Diego, California, for Defendant-Appellant.

          Colin M. McDonald (argued), Assistant United States Attorney; Helen H. Hong, Chief, Appellate Section; Laura E. Duffy, United States Attorney; United States Attorney's Office, San Diego, California; for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before: Richard A. Paez, Marsha S. Berzon, and Morgan Christen, Circuit Judges.

         SUMMARY [*]

         Criminal Law

         The panel reversed a conviction for importation of methamphetamine and remanded for a new trial in a case in which the district court excluded evidence of third-party culpability.

         The panel held that the district court necessarily abused its discretion by applying an incorrect legal standard when it excluded evidence of third-party culpability for failing to meet the "substantial evidence" threshold discussed in Perry v. Rushen, 713 F.2d 1447 (9th Cir. 1983), and Territory of Guam v. Ignacio, 10 F.3d 608 (1983). The panel explained that nothing in either Perry or Ignacio purports to modify this court's standard for the admissibility of third-party culpability evidence under the Federal Rules of Evidence-"fundamental standards of relevancy."

         Applying that standard, the panel held that the excluded evidence is undoubtedly relevant, and that a neighbor's conviction documents were improperly excluded under Fed.R.Evid. 404(b). The panel concluded that the erroneous exclusion of evidence was not harmless.


          PAEZ, Circuit Judge

         Angelica Urias Espinoza appeals her conviction for importation of methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952 and 960. We consider whether the district court abused its discretion in excluding evidence of third-party culpability.[1] As the district court applied the wrong legal standard in excluding the evidence of third-party culpability, it necessarily abused its discretion. Because the error was not harmless, we reverse Urias Espinoza's conviction and remand for a new trial.[2]


         On April 22, 2015, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent stopped Urias Espinoza at the United States-Mexico border as she attempted to legally enter the United States through the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in California. As a Mexican national, Urias Espinoza had acquired a border crossing card that permitted her to legally enter the United States. In 2014, Urias Espinoza opened a business importing clothing from the United States to sell in Mexico; as a result, she crossed the border often to purchase clothes.

         At the border entry point, the CBP agent asked Urias Espinoza for identification and whether she had anything to declare. She provided her border crossing card and stated that she was not bringing anything into the United States. The border agent suspected otherwise, and after some initial questioning, decided to conduct a search of her vehicle with assistance from several other agents. The search revealed that the car's rear seats had been hollowed out and stuffed with approximately twelve kilograms of methamphetamine.

         The government charged Urias Espinoza with importing methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952 and 960. At trial, the government called two CBP agents to testify about the discovery of methamphetamine in Urias Espinoza's car. Agent Tan testified that he noticed a bulge in the back seat of the car, poked around, and used a density reading machine, which recorded a high reading. Agent Tan further testified that he subsequently discovered cellophane packages underneath the upholstery of the back seats, and that Urias Espinoza did not react when he examined the seat and discovered the drugs. Agent Tan then handcuffed Urias Espinoza and called for backup. Agent Wallis testified next, detailing how he retrieved both the drugs and a cell phone from Urias Espinoza's car.

         Finally, Agent Perea from the Department of Homeland Security testified. He explained that Urias Espinoza had crossed the border fourteen times between February 27, 2015 and April 22, 2015. He also relayed a string of WhatsApp messages found on Urias Espinoza's cell phone that were date-stamped from the week before her arrest. The messages revealed a conversation that discussed delivery of a "product, " as well as Urias Espinoza's plan to apply for a CBP pass that would have allowed her to gain expedited clearance when she entered the United States. Agent Perea confirmed that Urias Espinoza operated a clothing store in Mexico and that several receipts from Los Angeles found in her car matched the dates that Urias Espinoza previously had crossed the border.

         After the prosecution's case in chief, Urias Espinoza presented her defense: that she did not know the drugs were in the vehicle she drove across the border because her next-door neighbor in Mexico had packed her car with methamphetamine without her knowledge and used her as a "blind mule" to smuggle the drugs into the United States. As part of her presentation, Urias Espinoza sought to present evidence from which the jury could conclude that her next-door neighbor knew she frequently traveled to the United States; knew that her car was parked on the street; knew how to obtain methamphetamine; was unable to drive across the border himself because of a prior deportation; set up Urias Espinoza as a "blind mule" to transport the methamphetamine into the United States; and then fled his home after he discovered that Urias Espinoza had been arrested.

          The evidence Urias Espinoza sought to introduce in support of her defense was: (1) a screen shot of a Facebook page with her neighbor's photo and a statement that "he's been a drug dealer on the streets of L.A., " (2) the neighbor's prior conviction for possession with intent to distribute marijuana in Los Angeles, (3) the neighbor's prior conviction for importation of methamphetamine, (4) the neighbor's prior deportation, and (5) photographs of the neighbor. The district court excluded the evidence on the ground that the defense's theory of what happened was too speculative.

         Although the district court excluded the bulk of Urias Espinoza's evidence, she was able to introduce some information through the testimony of four witnesses. The witnesses' testimony revealed that: (1) it was well known that Urias Espinoza traveled to the United States to buy clothes, (2) Urias Espinoza's house and her neighbor's house were in close proximity to each other, (3) Urias Espinoza parked her car on the street, and (4) shortly after Urias Espinoza's arrest, the neighbor's house was found vacant and in disarray. Urias Espinoza argued, however, that without the excluded evidence, the limited evidence that the district court did admit was insufficient to persuade the jury that her neighbor-who had the motive, knowledge, and opportunity to do so-set her up as a "blind mule" to transport methamphetamine into the United States on his behalf.

         After a three-day trial, a jury found Urias Espinoza guilty of importing methamphetamine and the district court sentenced her to a term of imprisonment of ninety months followed by five years of supervised release. This timely appeal followed.


         We review the district court's exclusion of evidence for abuse of discretion. United States v. Evans, 728 F.3d 953, 959 (9th Cir. 2013). First, we "determine de novo whether the trial court identified the correct legal rule to apply to the relief requested." United States v. Hinkson, 585 F.3d 1247, 1262 (9th Cir. 2009) (en banc). If the trial court identified an incorrect legal rule, "we must conclude it abused its discretion." Id. If the trial court identified the correct legal rule, then we must "determine whether the trial court's application of the correct legal standard was (1) illogical, (2) implausible, ...

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