Monday, December 11, 2006

Evidence Sufficient to Support Finding BRD That Defendant Knew He Possessed Drugs As Opposed to Some Other Form of Contraband

United States v. Mireles, No. 05-40936 (5th Cir. Nov. 29, 2006) (Jones, Davis, Garza)

Mireles is another knowledge-of-drugs-in-hidden-compartment case. Mireles worked as a tow truck driver for Arnold's Wrecker Service in Falfurrias, Texas. Arnold's was one of several wrecker companies contracted to tow vehicles for the Brooks County Sheriff's Office (BCSO). "Mireles frequently retrieved abandoned or seized vehicles along Highway 281, often passing through the Falfurrias [Border Patrol] Checkpoint. Mireles was also friends with BCSO Deputy Sheriff Homer Morales, Jr., and often rode on patrol with Morales." Slip op. at 2.

On two separate occasions, Border Patrol agents at the Falfurrias checkpoint found marijuana hidden inside vehicles that Mireles was towing (in the cab of a pickup truck and the trunk of a Mercury Grand Marquis). The agents didn't arrest Morales on the first occassion because they didn't believe they had any evidence that Morales was aware of the marijuana. They arrested him the second time because of apparently false statements he made at the time of the first marijuana discovery, as well as his apparent nervousness while the agents were searching the second vehicle.

Mireles was convicted at trial of possession more than 50 kilograms of marijuana with intent to distribute. "On appeal, Mireles [did] not argue that the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that he was knowingly transporting some sort of illegal contraband in the two towed vehicles. Instead, Mireles contend[ed] that the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mireles knew he was transporting drugs." Slip op. at 7.

The court disagreed. It concluded that "Mireles could only have reasonably thought he was smuggling drugs or illegal aliens" because 1) Border Patrol agents testified at trial "that the Falfurrias Checkpoint is known for drug trafficking and smuggling of illegal aliens[,]" and 2) the jury could have inferred that Mireles was aware of that fact because he frequenty rode along with BCSO Deputy Morales. Slip op. at 8. The court further held that the jury could have reasonably concluded that Mireles knew he was transporting drugs on both occasions because 1) the first vehicle was a flat-bed pickup truck with no apparent place where people could be concealed, and 2) the fact that he'd seen the agents pull the marijuana out of the pickup truck and that he "nevertheless attempted to smuggle contraband across the Falfurrias Checkpoint on October 8th in a manner similar to the first incident . . . removes any reasonable doubt that Mireles believed he was transporting some illegal contraband other than drugs on October 8th." Slip op. at 8-9.

In addition to challenging his conviction, Mireles also argued that there was a conflict between the oral pronouncement of sentence and the written judgment with regard to one of the conditions of his supervised release. The oral pronouncement contained a condition that "in the event that you are stopped on the highway while you're engaged in commercial activities as a truck driver or as a wrecker driver, you will advise the authorities that your [sic] are on Supervised Release for drug trafficking and that they may search your car and your person." Slip op. at 10-11. The written judgment, however, was more detailed and omitted the "engaged in commercial activities" language. Mireles argued the written judgment was broader than the oral pronouncement, and therefore in conflict. The court of appeals read the oral pronoucement fairly broadly, and rejected Mireles's argument.


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