Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bernal: No Improper Prosecution Bolstering

In U.S. v. Bernal-Benitez, the Court affirmed the convictions and sentences of defendants convicted of attempted cocaine-trafficking.

The Court rejected the argument that the evidence was insufficient because the government failed to establish that the cocaine “was actually cocaine,” noting that the government only had to prove that Bernal intended to obtain cocaine.

The Court also rejected Batson challenges to the government’s strike of a black juror, finding that the lower court could properly rely on the justification that the struck juror was “less educated” than the others in the venire.

The Court also rejected a challenge to the prosecutor’s improper “bolstering” arguments. The Court found that when the prosecutors asked why the FBI agents would lie and “put their badges on the line” when they testified, they were “merely acknowledging that adverse legal consequences would flow from lying under oath.”

The Court also rejected the argument that the prosecutors shifted the burden of proof when they argued that “nobody has submitted any evidence . . . to suggest to you why federal agents with years of experience [would lie].” The arguments focused on defense counsel’s ability rather than obligation to introduce evidence to support their credibility arguments.

The Court rejected the argument that one co-defendant’s Miranda rights were violated. The Court noted that even though the defendant had not signed his Miranda waiver form, this was not conclusive evidence. The district court therefore justifiably credited the agents’ testimony that the defendant had orally waived his Miranda rights.

The Court also rejected the defendant’s challenge to the voluntariness of his statement. The defendant pointed out that his written statement was in English, a language he did not speak. The Court, however, credited the agents’ testimony that the statement was translated for him.

Turning to sentencing, the Court rejected two defendants’ challenges to the denial of a minor role sentence reduction. The defendants pointed out that they remained in the vehicle while the drug buy was being negotiated, and had played no role in its planning. Further, they only brought cash in the amounts of $3,000 and $8,000 to a meeting to buy $35,000 of drugs. The Court found that all defendants “were engaged in a joint enterprise and that contributing $3,000 or $8,000 to a $35,000 drug buy was significant involvement.”