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United States v. Gutierrez-Ramirez

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 18, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellee
Adriana Gutierrez-Ramirez, also known as Adriana Peralta Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: April 15, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Springfield

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, ARNOLD and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM.

         Adriana Gutierrez-Ramirez was convicted by a jury for knowingly possessing with the intent to distribute five kilograms or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A). On appeal, she claims that the district court[1] erred by admitting evidence of a prior act under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), as well as by admitting expert testimony from a federal law enforcement officer about the practices of drug dealers, in violation of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Finding no error, we affirm the district court.

         I. Background

         On February 25, 2017, Sergeant Matt Funderburk of the Missouri State Highway Patrol stopped Luis Duarte, who was driving a rental truck, for a traffic violation. Gutierrez-Ramirez was a passenger. Sergeant Funderburk observed that both occupants of the truck appeared overly nervous while he was speaking to them. He also noted that Duarte's and Gutierrez-Ramirez's stories were inconsistent. Based on these observations, Sergeant Funderburk asked permission to search the vehicle. Duarte consented.

         Sergeant Funderburk viewed the contents of the truck's cargo area. He saw mostly broken furniture, non-functioning appliances, and miscellaneous household items randomly spread around the back of the truck. In stark contrast, Sergeant Funderburk saw neatly stacked boxes against the far wall of the truck. Based on his experience, Sergeant Funderburk suspected that the other contents could simply be camouflage for contraband. He searched the boxes and found a one-kilogram bundle of cocaine in one of them. Sergeant Funderburk arrested both Duarte and Gutierrez-Ramirez. A later search located a pillow in the truck that contained four more one-kilogram bundles of cocaine, bringing the total amount seized to five one-kilogram bundles.

         At trial, Duarte testified about the origin of the trip. He said an unidentified person selected him to drive the truck from Arizona to Ohio. He was paid some money in advance and promised more upon completion. Duarte also said that he knew he was transporting drugs but did not know what type or quantity. Duarte met Gutierrez-Ramirez for the first time when he arrived to pick up the truck. Gutierrez-Ramirez provided directions for their journey as needed.

         In a post-Miranda interview, Gutierrez-Ramirez told law enforcement that she knew there was "coke" in the back of the truck. Trial Tr. at 72, United States v. Gutierrez-Ramirez, No. 6:17-cr-3035-MDH-2 (W.D. Mo. Jan. 8, 2018), ECF No. 94. She explained that she agreed to transport the drugs because she needed money and was offered payment for completing the trip.

         Before trial, the government notified the district court that it intended to introduce evidence of a prior act of Gutierrez-Ramirez under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b). Specifically, an Arizona State Trooper had stopped Gutierrez-Ramirez in 2014. The trooper reported observing Gutierrez-Ramirez acting overly nervous during his encounter with her. A vehicle search uncovered a pillowcase containing $60, 000. Gutierrez-Ramirez told the trooper that she had agreed to transport the currency because she was unemployed and needed money. The district court issued a preliminary ruling that this prior act evidence would be admissible, but only for the purpose of discerning intent and willingness to engage in the transport of drug-related assets for money. At the close of trial, the district court reiterated the limited scope of this evidence and issued a limiting instruction to the jury.

         The district court also heard testimony at trial by Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Mark Hooten. Agent Hooten said that, based on his experience in the field, it was unlikely that any drug trafficker would entrust five kilograms of cocaine, worth approximately $211, 000, to persons who were completely ignorant about what they were transporting.

         At the conclusion of trial, Gutierrez-Ramirez moved for a new trial, claiming that the prior act evidence was inadmissible and that Agent Hooten's testimony failed to meet the Daubert standard as reliable expert testimony. As to prior act evidence, the district court affirmed its preliminary ruling. The court found the evidence was relevant to determining Gutierrez-Ramirez's knowledge and intent to commit the charged crime. The court also found it was sufficiently similar to the charged crime, was supported by sufficient evidence, and had greater probative value than prejudicial effect.

         The court rejected Gutierrez-Ramirez's argument that Agent Hooten's expert testimony about the so-called "unknown courier defense" was unreliable under Daubert. The district court acknowledged that "application of extensive experience" is sufficient to meet the Daubert requirements. Order Den. Mot. for New Trial at 3, United States v. Gutierrez-Ramirez, No. 6:17-cr-3035-MDH-2 (W.D. Mo., Feb. 22, 2018), ECF No. 109 (quoting Fed.R.Evid. 702 advisory committee's note to 2000 amendments). The court thus refused to exclude Agent Hooten's testimony that drug traffickers do not typically use couriers who are unaware of their purpose or cargo. In making this second ruling, the district court specifically ...

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