First Circuit Covers The Basics, From 403 to Improper Closings - Criminal Law - U.S. First Circuit
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First Circuit Covers The Basics, From 403 to Improper Closings

Ever read an opinion and think this would be perfect for a casebook?

United States v. Efrain Matias will not go down in legal annals as a seismic shift in criminal procedure. However, it does provide a good review of some basics, from 401 and 403, to borderline improper statements in closing.

Matias was a drug dealer. He regularly bought weed, in bulk, from Ruiz. Ruiz is a snitch. He told Matias that due to a drug debt, both himself and his family were in danger. As a result, he’d really like to sell some cocaine to Matias. After a few aborted attempts and a lot of recorded conversations, Matias finally agreed to buy twenty-two kilos of blow and met Ruiz, along with an undercover agent, with $214,000 in cash.

Matias was arrested and claimed entrapment. The jury didn't buy it. He appealed, arguing improper evidentiary rulings and improper and unfairly prejudicial statements made in closing arguments by the prosecution.

The Evidence

Matias had cash stashed in a locker. He doesn't dispute that it was his. He merely objected to its admission as evidence because it wasn't directly tied to the crime charged.

When someone claims entrapment, the burden shifts to the prosecutor to show that the person would have engaged in the illegal activity irregardless of the actions of the police. The court cited Rule 401, as the money reflected on his ability to go through with substantial cash and drug transactions.

Perhaps money alone might not suffice as relevant evidence, as it could have been from illegal or legal sources. However, Matias also admitted that, as a trafficker, he used storage lockers to hide drug proceeds.

Furthermore, on a Rule 403 balancing test, the court found the prejudicial effect of introducing the defendant's past trafficking habits into the present case about cocaine is minimal in the context of the mountain of evidence in the present case, including the recorded phone calls and his admissions to being a drug dealer.

Closing Arguments

In order to constitute reversible error, a prosecutor's remarks must be both inappropriate and prejudicial.

In one of the disputed statements, the prosecutor posed two rhetorical questions:

  1. "[W]hen you consider predisposition, if somebody ... drops 22 kilograms of cocaine on your front doorstep, would you have any idea how to distribute it?"
  2. "Have you ever wrapped money in dryer sheets?"

The court first cited and dismissed the "Golden Rule" argument, where the jurors are asked to put themselves in the place of the victim. Instead, the court felt that the two questions merely asked the jurors to put themselves in the defendant's place and use common sense to test the veracity of his entrapment defense.

Beyond those statements, the court also addresses a few others made by the prosecutor. We'll leave those for the opinion itself, but suffice it to say that if you need a lengthy discussion of proper closings for a class or casebook, this would be a good place to start.

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