Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Monday, October 03, 2005

Ramirez. Booker plain error where court felt it had no discretion

In U.S. v. Ramirez, No. 04-12040 (Sept. 30, 2005), the Court (Tjoflat, Anderson & Birch) affirmed the defendants’ cocaine-trafficking convictions, but vacated the sentences, finding "plain error" under Booker.
Co-defendants Ramirez and Angulo-Quinones were arrested on the high-seas; they had been aboard a go-fast vessel which contained more than 400 kilos of cocaine. Over Angulo-Quinones’ objection, the district court admitted in evidence, during his cross-examination, the fact of his arrest for a prior incident also involving a go-fast vessel and large quantities of cocaine.
The Court rejected Ramirez’ challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. The Court concluded that his presence in proximity to a large quantity of cocaine in clear view on board his vessel, coupled with his changing account of events, sufficed to convict.
The Court also rejected Ramirez’ argument that his case should been severed, because of the prejudicial impact of the admission of Angulo-Quinones’ prior arrest for a similar offense. The Court found that any prejudicial impact was mitigated by the judge’s limiting instruction.
The Court also found no basis for a mistrial in the trial court’s instruction to the jury, in response to a question from the jury during deliberations, that it need no concern itself with this question. The Court found the instruction proper in the circumstances.
The Court found no reversible error in the admission of Angulo-Quinones’ prior arrest for a similar crime. The evidence was introduced during cross-examination, and was sufficiently relevant to Angulo-Quinones’ denial of not being acquainted with an accomplice in both incidents, and to his intent for the instant offense.
The Court rejected the "double-counting" challenge to the Guideline increase in Angulo-Quinones’ sentence for being a captain of a vessel, and for being the "leader and organizer" of the offense. The Court noted that it has approved the imposition of both enhancements in like circumstances in U.S. v. Rendon, 354 F.3d 1320 (11th Cir. 2003), and it rejected Angulo-Quinones’ attempt to distinguish this case on its facts, pointing out that Rendon did not require "specific facts" to be present for the two enhancements to be simultaneously applicable. Further, the district court correctly determined that Rendon controlled the double-counting challenge. However, because the Court was vacating the sentence under Booker, and because it could not be certaint that the district court would have given both enhancements in light of Booker, the Court instructed the district court to "revisit" the organizer/leader and captain of the boat enhancements
on remand.
Finally, the Court found plain error under Booker in the sentences. During sentencing, the district court said that it might have imposed a different sentence had it had "any discretion in this matter." Instead, the court said it felt bound by the Guidelines, and imposed sentences of 235 months and life on Ramirez and Angulo-Quinones, respectively. This showed plain error. The Court therefore vacated the sentences and remanded for resentencing. http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200412040.pdf