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Ninth Circuit Reverses Drug Smuggling Conviction for Improper Exclusion of Evidence of Third-Party Culpability

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a defendant’s conviction for importation of methamphetamine because the district court improperly excluded relevant evidence that someone else committed the crime.

Angelica Urias Espinoza, a citizen of Mexico, ran a business in which she imported clothing from the United States for sale in Mexico. Because the business required regular border crossings, Urias Espinoza obtained a border crossing card that allowed her to legally enter the United States. She made 14 such border crossings between February 27, 2015 and late April, 2015.

On April 22, 2015, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents detained Urias Espinoza as she attempted to legally enter the United States. Agents Tan and Wallis suspected that the car contained hidden drugs. A brief search revealed a suspicious bulge in the back seat of the car. When the back seat was opened, the agents discovered 12 kilograms of methamphetamine.

Urias Espinoza was arrested and charged with importing methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952 and 960. At trial, she presented the “some other dude did it” defense. Specifically, Urias Espinoza attempted to introduce evidence that she did not know the drugs were in the vehicle because her next-door neighbor in Mexico had packed her car with meth without her knowledge, using her as a “blind mule.” To support her defense, Urias Espinoza sought to present evidence from which a jury could conclude that the next-door neighbor knew that she frequently traveled to the U.S., knew that her car was parked on the street, knew how to obtain meth, was unable to cross the border himself, set her up as a “blind mule,” and fled his home immediately upon learning of her arrest.

The actual evidence to support Urias Espinoza’s theory consisted of a screenshot of a Facebook page with her neighbor’s picture and a statement that “he’s been a drug dealer on the streets of L.A.,” the neighbor’s prior convictions for distribution of marijuana and meth, the neighbor’s prior deportation, and photographs of the neighbor. The district court excluded all of this evidence because it determined that Urias Espinoza’s theory was too speculative. As a result, she was convicted and sentenced to 90 months in prison.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reviewed the district court’s exclusion of evidence for abuse of discretion. Because the district court identified and applied an incorrect legal standard, the Court found an abuse of discretion that required reversal.

The lower court erred when it applied the wrong rule for admissibility of third-party culpability evidence. In the Ninth Circuit, United States v. Armstrong, 621 F.2d 951 (9th Cir. 1980) set forth the proper standard: “[U]nder the Federal Rules of Evidence, ‘[f]undamental standards of relevancy, subject to the discretion of the court to exclude cumulative evidence and to insure orderly presentation of a case, require the admission of testimony which tends to prove that a person other than the defendant committed the crime that is charged.’”

The district court erroneously relied on Perry v. Rushen, 713 F.2d 1447 (9th Cir. 1983) and Territory of Guam v. Ignacio, 10 F.3d 608 (9th Cir. 1993), which the lower court believed to stand for the proposition that “[e]vidence of third-party culpability is not admissible ‘if it simply affords a possible ground of suspicion against such person; rather, it must be coupled with substantial evidence tending to directly connect that person with the commission of the offense.’”

The Ninth Circuit ruled that the lower court was mistaken; Perry and Ignacio did not establish the rule for admission of evidence of third party culpability. Rather, Armstrong governs the issue.

The district court erred in relying on Perry because that case involved interpretation of California’s evidentiary standards, not federal standards. Reliance on Ignacio was incorrect because, while the analysis in Ignacio was “less than clear,” it did not change the law as established in Armstrong.

Turning to the case at hand, the Court found that the excluded evidence was “undoubtedly relevant” and, as such, admissible. The government’s case required proof of Urias Espinoza’s knowledge, which was contested; the excluded evidence was relevant to this element of the crime charged.

Specifically, the neighbor’s prior convictions were relevant because they “demonstrated [that] Urias Espinoza’s neighbor had the ‘ability and motive’ to find and transport methamphetamine.” The neighbor’s deportation was relevant because it demonstrated that he needed a “blind mule” since he could not legally enter the U.S. And the Facebook page and photographs were relevant because they identified the neighbor and linked him to the conviction documents.

The Court acknowledged that Urias Espinoza’s theory was somewhat speculative but instructed that, under Armstrong, is no reason to exclude evidence of third-party culpability. Accordingly, the Court reversed her conviction and remanded for retrial. See: United States v. Urias Espinoza, 880 F.3d 506 (9th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Urias Espinoza



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