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Second Circuit: Jury Instructions Regarding Defendant’s Motive to Testify Falsely Improper

Juan Solano was arrested after transporting a shipping container from the Red hook Container Terminal in Brooklyn to a warehouse in the Bronx on June 7, 2016.  The container, which had previously contained several packages of cocaine disguised as produce, was under the surveillance of a Homeland Security Investigations (“HIS”) task force.

During questioning after his arrest, Solano told investigators that his boss, Edwin Pacheco, had declined to pick up the container because he wasn’t feeling well.  The importer-exporter, Jimmy Machuca, asked if Solano could deliver the container, and for the usual $600 fee, Solano agreed to do so, especially since he had a delivery to Red Hook anyway.  However, produce wholesaler Javier Montalvo warned Solano that the load was suspicious, which Solano took to mean that Machuca didn’t pay drivers on time.

When Solano arrived at Red Hook, he noticed a vehicle he believed to be law enforcement, so he contacted Special Agent Brian Dalrymple with HSI – Solano had been questioned by Dalrymple about other shipments before and had his number – to make sure the cargo wasn’t problematic.  Dalrymple reassured him (despite knowing the container was under surveillance), but Solano texted him the container’s delivery address and Machuca’s contact info anyway.

These facts were recounted at trial without dispute.  However, agents claimed Solano admitted during his second interview that the container had drugs in it.  Despite this critical admission, agents failed to provide notes of the interview that referenced the admission, any audio recording of the supposed confession, or any written statement by Solano that he was waiving his Miranda rights and making a confession.

Later, Solano’s trial essentially boiled down to a credibility contest between Solano and the agents who interviewed him as to whether Solano knew he was transporting drugs.  A jury instruction was given which stated that “any witness ... may have an interest in the outcome of the trial” and “such an interest in the outcome creates a motive on the part of the witness to testify falsely.”

Solano was convicted of attempted possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and he appealed on the ground that the jury instruction improperly undermined the credibility of his testimony.

The Second Circuit had previously dealt with a similar instruction in United States v. Gaines, 457 F.3d 238 (2d Cir. 2006).  In Gaines, the district court issued an instruction which explicitly stated that a defendant has a motive to testify falsely because of a “deep personal interest in the result of his prosecution.”  The Court of Appeals pointed out that all defendants, whether innocent or guilty, have a “deep personal interest” in the outcome of the case, but only a guilty defendant has a motive to lie.  Thus, giving an instruction that highlights this interest or states this motive implies that a defendant is guilty, which violates the defendant’s right to a presumption of innocence.

Similar situations were addressed in later cases and found to be in violation of Gaines.  In United States v. Brutus, 505 F.3d 80 (2d Cir. 2007), the district court issued an instruction which imputed the motive to testify falsely on the defendant but was ultimately ruled harmless because it was not a “close case.”  In United States v. Munoz, 765 F. App’x 547 (2d Cir. 2019), the district court said that “any” witness has a motive to “testify in a way that advances his or her own interests,” and the Court of Appeals ruled this was an error which violated the defendant’s rights.

In the present case, the Court found that not only did the jury instructions violate Gaines and its progeny by undermining Solano’s credibility, but the outcome of the case rested on whether the jury believed Solano or the agents regarding his knowledge of the drugs in the container. Thus, the Court concluded that the erroneous jury instructions met the standard of plain error.

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Related legal case

United States v. Solano



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