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United States v. Celaya Valenzuela

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

December 9, 2015

United States of America
v.
Rafael Humberto Celaya Valenzuela Opinion No. 2015 DNH 226P

ORDER

JOSEPH N. LAPLANTE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Before the court is defendant Rafael Humberto Celaya Valenzuela’s (“Celaya”) post-verdict motion for reconsideration of this court's denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal. Fed. R. Crim. P. 29. Celaya’s motion implicates two issues: 1) whether the motion is properly before the court; and 2) if so, the evidentiary requirements to prove a drug conspiracy under 21 U.S.C. § 846.

In July 2012, a superseding indictment charged Celaya and several others with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a). His trial began in October 2014. After the government rested its case Celaya filed a motion for acquittal, pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a). This court denied the motion. Celaya was subsequently convicted.

In April 2015, on the eve of sentencing that had been twice continued, Celaya filed a motion for reconsideration of the acquittal motion, to which the prosecution objected. After a conference with the court, and adhering to an agreed-upon briefing schedule, each side filed supplemental memoranda. Upon review of the motion for reconsideration, objection thereto and supplementation, and after oral argument, the motion is denied both procedurally, and in the alternative, in substance.

I. Procedural History

Celaya’s mid-trial motion for acquittal under Rule 29 posited two bases for acquittal. First, he asserted that the prosecution failed to prove that Celaya joined the conspiracy alleged in the operative indictment. Specifically, Celaya argued that:

While there was substantial evidence introduced by the Government that could reasonably be understood by the jury to show that the Sinaloan cartel wanted to expand its drug trafficking network into Europe, and perhaps the United States, the evidence failed to demonstrate that the cartel actually agreed to include Celaya in that conspiracy. To the contrary, the evidence clearly shows that the cartel considered, and then rejected, the idea of having Celaya participate in whatever conspiracy it wanted to create.

(Doc. no. 185)(emphasis added). Celaya also argued that the District of New Hampshire was not a permissible venue for his trial. The court denied the motion by oral order.

After being granted a pair of sentencing continuances, Celaya filed, roughly a week before his sentencing hearing was scheduled, a motion for reconsideration of the Rule 29 motion the court denied approximately six months earlier. In addition to reiterating the previously rejected venue argument, Celaya asserted for the first time that the conspiracy that formed the basis of his conviction had no nexus to the United States, and therefore the government could not prosecute him within the bounds of due process. The prosecution objected, first arguing that the motion was barred because it was, in effect, an untimely filed motion for acquittal. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(c)(1) (“A defendant may move for a judgment of acquittal, or renew such a motion, within 14 days after a guilty verdict or after the court discharges the jury, whichever is later.”). The government further argued that Celaya failed to satisfy the requirements of a valid motion for reconsideration because he was merely raising arguments that could have been presented in his original motion. Finally, the government asserted that Celaya’s nexus and venue arguments fail substantively.

After a conference with the court, transcripts were made available to the parties, who agreed on a schedule to supplement their submissions.

II. Analysis

In addressing a motion for judgment of acquittal under Rule 29(c), the court must determine whether, “after assaying all the evidence in the light most amiable to the government, and taking all reasonable inferences in its favor, a rational factfinder could find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the prosecution successfully proved the essential elements of the crime.” United States v. Thomas, 467 F.3d 49, 53 (1st Cir. 2006) (quoting United States v. Carucci, 364 F.3d 339, 343 (1st Cir. 2004)). Because it is the jury's responsibility to assess the credibility of witnesses, “[c]redibility issues must be resolved in favor of the verdict.” United States v. Pérez-Ruiz, 353 F.3d 1, 7 (1st Cir. 2003) (citing United States v. Alicea, 205 F.3d 480, 483 (1st Cir. 2000)). Although the prosecution has the burden of proof at trial, on a Rule 29 motion, the defendant “bear[s] the heavy burden of demonstrating that no reasonable jury could have found [him] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” United States v. Munoz, 36 F.3d 1229, 1234 (1st Cir. 1994) (citing United States v. Innamorati, 996 F.2d 456, 459 (1st Cir. 1993)).

Before turning to the motion at issue, the court notes that it initially discounted the prosecution’s timeliness argument because it viewed Celaya’s motion as one challenging the court’s jurisdiction to hear the case, a matter which can be raised at any time. However, as the government correctly points out, Celaya’s nexus argument goes to the merits of the prosecution, not the jurisdiction of the court to hear the case. See UnitedStates v. Yousef, 750 F.3d 254, 259-60 (2d Cir. 2014) (citing Morrison v. Nat'l Australia Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. 247, ...


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