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United States v. Padilla-Galarza

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

March 23, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee,
v.
JOSE PADILLA-GALARZA, Defendant, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. José Antonio Fusté, U.S. District Judge]

          Lenore Glaser, with whom Law Office of Lenore Glaser was on brief, for appellant.

          Julia M. Meconiates, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, and Mariana E. Bauzá-Almonte, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, were on brief, for appellee.

          Before Kenyatta, Stahl, and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          BARRON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Jose Padilla-Galarza appeals his convictions for possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and for being a prohibited person in possession of ammunition, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). He contends that both convictions must be reversed on the ground that the evidence of his knowing possession of the contraband was insufficient. He argues in the alternative that the convictions must at least be vacated due to various alleged errors in the proceedings below -- principally that he was "forced" to represent himself pro se because, in his view, the District Court did not grant a sufficiently long continuance to enable his preferred court-appointed attorney to prepare for trial as full counsel. He also challenges two aspects of his sentence: a condition of his supervised release that he be evaluated for participation in a mental health treatment program and a child pornography forfeiture order. We affirm his convictions and sentence, subject to a remand for the limited purpose of striking the child pornography forfeiture order.

         I.

         On January 9, 2015, federal law enforcement agents executed a search warrant at a house in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, which the government alleges was Padilla's residence. Padilla, together with two siblings who lived in the continental United States, had inherited the house from their deceased parents. During the search, the agents found ammunition and 1, 293.10 grams of marijuana. A grand jury thereafter indicted Padilla, who has a prior felony conviction, with one count of being a prohibited person in possession of ammunition, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), and one count of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1).

         In pre-trial proceedings, two court-appointed attorneys represented Padilla. However, on August 4, 2015 -- one week before trial was scheduled to begin on August 11 -- Padilla moved to dismiss both attorneys.[1] After a hearing on that motion on August 5, the District Court denied it. But, because Padilla indicated in his motion and at the hearing that he would be forced to represent himself pro se if his two attorneys were not dismissed, the District Court held another hearing on August 7 to ensure that any waiver of Padilla's constitutional right to counsel would be knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. At this second hearing, the District Court offered to appoint a different attorney, whom Padilla preferred, as either full counsel or standby counsel, and the District Court ordered a fifteen-day continuance to enable the attorney to prepare. Apparently because he thought a continuance of that length would not give that attorney sufficient time to prepare for trial as full counsel, Padilla decided to proceed pro se with the assistance of that attorney as standby counsel.

         Padilla was tried on August 26 and 27 of 2015. At the close of the government's evidence, Padilla moved for acquittal on both counts based on the insufficiency of the evidence against him. Padilla's standby counsel presented oral argument for the motion, which the District Court denied. Thereafter, Padilla did not testify or otherwise present evidence on his behalf. The jury then returned a guilty verdict on both counts. Afterwards, Padilla renewed his motion for acquittal, but the District Court denied it.

         The District Court then sentenced Padilla to forty-six months of imprisonment and three years of supervised release. The District Court specified that, among the conditions of his supervised release, Padilla must "participate in an approved mental health treatment program for evaluation and/or treatment services determination." The District Court's written judgment also stated that Padilla must forfeit "[a]ny and all materials or property used or intended to be used in the possession, receipt, distribution or transportation of child pornography, pursuant to Title 18, USC Section 2253."

         Padilla then filed this appeal. This Court appointed counsel to represent him in these proceedings.

         II.

         Padilla first contends that his convictions must be reversed because the government's evidence was insufficient to convict him of either possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute under § 841(a)(1) or being a prohibited person in possession of ammunition under § 922(g)(1). Because Padilla preserved this argument in his motion for acquittal, we review his challenge de novo, "viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government and taking all inferences in its favor." United States v. Piesak, 521 F.3d 41, 44 (1st Cir. 2008).

         Padilla's challenge pertains solely to the knowledge requirement for both crimes. To sustain a conviction under either statute, the government must prove, among other things, that the defendant knowingly possessed the contraband. United States v. Guzmán-Montañez, 756 F.3d 1, 8 (1st Cir. 2014) (§ 922(g)(1)); United States v. García-Carrasquillo, 483 F.3d 124, 130 (1st Cir. 2007) (§ 841(a)(1)). Padilla acknowledges that marijuana and ammunition were found inside a bedroom in the house, but he contends that, notwithstanding this fact, the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knowingly possessed the ammunition and the marijuana.[2]

         Significantly, for the purposes of both statutes under which Padilla was convicted, knowing possession of the contraband may be inferred from evidence of actual possession (meaning "immediate, hands-on physical possession") or constructive possession. Guzmán-Montañez, 756 F.3d at 8 (§ 922(g)(1)); accord García-Carrasquillo, 483 F.3d at 130 (§ 841(a)(1)). And, as pertinent here, "[i]n order to show constructive possession, the government must prove that the defendant 'had dominion and control over the area where the contraband was found.'" United States v. Wight, 968 F.2d 1393, 1397 (1st Cir. 1992) (quoting United States v. Barnes, 890 F.2d 545, 549 (1st Cir. 1989)) (discussing constructive possession in the context of both drug offenses and § 922(g)(1)). Thus, the record need show only that the evidence was sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Padilla exercised dominion and control "over the area" in which the contraband was found, as a jury may infer from such a finding of constructive possession that he knowingly possessed the contraband if circumstances would make it reasonable for a jury to do so. Id.

         The evidence in this case more than sufficed to permit a jury to reasonably find as much. To begin with, the jury learned that Padilla had admitted in an interview with federal agents that he was an owner of the house in which the ammunition and marijuana were found, that he had made payments on the mortgage for the house, and that he had installed four surveillance cameras at the house in order to deter break-ins and vandalism. Moreover, a federal agent testified that she conducted drive-by surveillance of the house ten days before the search of the house, and that Padilla was standing outside the house as she drove by it.

         The jury further learned that Padilla admitted in the interview with federal agents that he frequented the house during the daytime and that he sometimes slept at the house overnight. In addition, the government's evidence sufficed to show that the bedroom in which the ammunition and the marijuana were found was in a more organized and clean condition than the rest of the house, from which a jury could have reasonably inferred that Padilla slept in that bedroom when he stayed overnight at the house. See United States v. Matthews, 498 F.3d 25, 31 (1st Cir. 2007) (stating that a jury is "entitled to rely on plausible inferences" from circumstantial evidence). And, as Padilla concedes, the contraband was found in that bedroom together with personal items that indisputably belonged to Padilla, including: photo identification cards; receipts in his name from the previous year; old correspondence addressed to him; and mannequins, decorations, and toy guns that Padilla admitted were his for the purpose of making movies.

         In the face of this evidence, Padilla nevertheless contends that the evidence was insufficient to prove that he knowingly possessed the contraband. He points out that there was no evidence of his fingerprints on the contraband and that the house was "unkempt, disorganized and full of items." But neither of those facts suffices to show that the jury was compelled to find in his favor regarding whether he knew the contraband was in the bedroom, given the government's ample evidence of his dominion and control over that area. In particular, Padilla acknowledges that the evidence showed that the bedroom was relatively "more organized" than the rest of the house, and that the contraband was found in that bedroom "with items belonging to [Padilla]." A jury could reasonably infer from those facts that Padilla exercised dominion and control over the area where the contraband was found. See United States v. Smith, 680 F.2d 255, 259 (1st Cir. 1982) ("[I]f the evidence can be construed in various reasonable alternatives, the jury is entitled to freely choose from among them."). And the jury was then entitled to infer knowledge of the contraband from that evidence of constructive possession, given that such an inference was reasonable under the circumstances, even if there was no evidence of actual possession, such as the type of fingerprint evidence that Padilla demands.

         Padilla also contends that the evidence at trial was too slight because it did not indicate when he inherited his ownership share in the house, when he began "frequenting" the house, or when he stored his personal items in the bedroom inside the house. But, there is no dispute that those events occurred prior to when the contraband was found. And given, for example, the relatively recent dates of the receipts, the comparatively organized and clean condition of the bedroom, and the testimony that Padilla was seen outside the house ten days before the search, a jury could have reasonably found that his dominion and control over the area where the contraband was found continued up to the time of the search.

         We therefore conclude that the government's evidence sufficed to prove that Padilla constructively possessed the ammunition and the marijuana found in the bedroom of the house, from which the jury was entitled to infer that Padilla knowingly possessed the contraband, as that inference was reasonable in these circumstances. We thus affirm the denial of his motion for acquittal.

         III.

         Padilla next contends in the alternative that, even if the evidence against him was sufficient, both his convictions must be vacated due to various ...


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