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United States v. Lopez-Monzon

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

March 1, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
HECTOR FELICIANO LOPEZ-MONZON, Defendant-Appellant

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before SMITH, CLEMENT, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.

          EDITH BROWN CLEMENT, Circuit Judge:

         Hector Feliciano Lopez-Monzon appeals from his convictions for possessing with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine and importing 500 grams or more of methamphetamine. He challenges the sufficiency of the evidence only as to the knowledge element of his convictions. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

         I

         Lopez-Monzon, accompanied by Luis Fernando Rivera-De Leon, brought two tractor-trailers to Hotel Pena in Mexico, located near the United States border. Lopez-Monzon hired Juan Buentello-Garcia and Santiago Guadiana, freelance truck drivers, to drive the tractor-trailers into the United States. On December 26, 2014, Buentello-Garcia drove the first tractor-trailer-a white Freightliner with a car hauler ("Freightliner")-with instructions to leave it at Transmigrante Mireya, a business located just inside the United States border. Guadiana did not drive the second tractor-trailer into the United States because it had a mechanical problem.

         Buentello-Garcia entered the United States at the Los Indios, Texas port of entry. During an inspection by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol ("CBP"), liquid methamphetamine was discovered in the Freightliner's passenger-side fuel tank. Buentello-Garcia was arrested, and in his interview he asserted that he was unaware that the fuel tank contained methamphetamine. A specialist later calculated that a total of 200.3 kilograms of methamphetamine hydrochloride had been dissolved in the 100-gallon fuel tank, resulting in 411.4 kilograms of a substance containing methamphetamine. That amount of methamphetamine was worth up to $3 million in Houston, Texas. When Guadiana learned of Buentello-Garcia's arrest, he refused to drive the second tractor-trailer into the United States.

         The next day, Lopez-Monzon and De Leon entered Texas on foot at the Los Indios Bridge port of entry. Later that day, at a gas station near the port of entry, Lopez-Monzon approached CBP Agent Jaime Vidal about the Freightliner. Lopez-Monzon identified himself as the owner of the Freightliner. Agent Vidal called for backup and escorted Lopez-Monzon and De Leon to the customs area.

         Homeland Security Investigations Agent Angelico Santiago interviewed Lopez-Monzon and De Leon. Lopez-Monzon was nervous and anxious during the interview. Lopez-Monzon told Agent Santiago that he owned the Freightliner, and that he had bought the Freightliner with a man named Ruben "four to five months" earlier. He asserted that he did not know about the methamphetamine in the fuel tank, and that "if someone had put something in the gas tank, it would have been Ruben."

          Lopez-Monzon also told Agent Santiago that he and De Leon traveled together from Guatemala. He said that De Leon drove the Freightliner, and that Lopez-Monzon "follow[ed]" in a Ford F-150 pickup truck. Lopez-Monzon admitted that "he noticed that one of the tanks was not functioning properly" but told Agent Santiago that the defective fuel tank "did not bother him." Lopez-Monzon explained that "he thought that the tank was full and the fuel inside was left there by . . . the previous owner."

         Lopez-Monzon and Buentello-Garcia were charged with four counts: (1) conspiring to possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A) ("Count One"); (2) possessing with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A), and 18 U.S.C. § 2 ("Count Two"); (3) conspiring to import 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 963, 952(a) and 960(b)(1) ("Count Three"); and (4) importing 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952(a), and 960(b)(1), and 18 U.S.C. § 2 ("Count Four"). The government dropped the charges against Buentello-Garcia after further investigation, and he was instead considered a material witness. Lopez-Monzon pleaded not guilty to all counts.

         The government presented numerous exhibits and extensive testimony during a three-day jury trial. Lopez-Monzon moved for a judgment of acquittal at the end of the government's case in chief, and again at the close of all evidence. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a). The district court denied those motions. The jury found Lopez-Monzon guilty of Counts Two and Four and not guilty of Counts One and Three. Lopez-Monzon again moved for a judgment of acquittal. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(c). The district court again denied his motion.

         The district court sentenced Lopez-Monzon to 292 months in prison and five years of supervised release. Lopez-Monzon timely appealed. He challenges the sufficiency of the ...


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