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United States v. Garcia

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

February 22, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
ARACELI GARCIA, Defendant-Appellant

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

          Before REAVLEY, SMITH, and OWEN, Circuit Judges.

          REAVLEY, Circuit Judge:

         A jury convicted Araceli Garcia of bringing unlawful aliens into the United States for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain, a violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(2)(B)(ii). Garcia appeals her conviction, arguing only that the Government failed to prove that she acted with the requisite financial purpose. We conclude, however, that the totality of the evidence allowed the jury to reasonably infer such a purpose. Garcia's conviction is affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On May 13, 2016, a Cadillac Escalade travelled from Mexico and arrived at the Lincoln-Juarez Bridge, which serves as a port of entry into the United States by way of Laredo, Texas. Araceli Garcia (the owner of the vehicle) sat in the passenger's seat, her 17-year-old daughter was the driver, and five or six other children occupied the vehicle's remaining seats.

         United States Customs and Border Protection Officer Andrew Lewinski approached the vehicle, and Garcia informed him that the vehicle was overheating. Yet, Lewinski observed that the vehicle's air conditioning was running full blast, no warning lights appeared on the dash, and none of the vehicle's occupants were sweating. As for the group's itinerary, Garcia explained that her daughter and grandchildren drove from Houston toward Monterrey to visit family, but upon discovering that the Monterrey relatives were not home, the family turned around to stay with other relatives in Laredo. This explanation was dubious, too, given the vehicle's lack of luggage.

         Lewinski then collected identification documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.) from each person in the vehicle, and he began to read aloud the names to match the documents to the passengers. Two of the child passengers responded to names found on a pair of Texas birth certificates: Stephanie Soto and Adrian Soto. But a brief investigation called into question the validity of those identities; neither child spoke English, and "Stephanie" misspelled the name on her purported birth certificate. Ultimately, officers discovered that "Stephanie" was in reality D.I.P.M. and "Adrian" was M.G.M.-both Mexican siblings and both without prior permission to come into the United States.

         A grand jury indicted Garcia on two counts of bringing unlawful aliens into the United States for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(2)(B)(ii). At trial, several officers explained the factual circumstances of the offense. And, importantly, D.I.P.M. herself shed further light on the smuggling endeavor. D.I.P.M. confirmed that arrangements were in place to smuggle her and her brother into the United States and that Garcia was the person designated to do so. D.I.P.M. was not related to Garcia and had never seen her before meeting for the first time in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. There, Garcia supplied the children with the birth certificates and other biographical information to corroborate the false identities. The group's ultimate goal was to cross into Laredo and travel to Garcia's home in Houston. D.I.P.M. and M.G.M. had been living apart from their mother (a New York resident), the logical inference being that the smuggling attempt was meant to reunite the family.

         When asked whether Garcia "was going to be paid money in order to have [the children] smuggled into the United States, " D.I.P.M. testified: "I only know that she was going to [be] paid the expenses that we would have on the journey." D.I.P.M. learned of this payment from her mother but did not know how much money it entailed.

         After the Government rested, Garcia moved for acquittal under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29. The district court denied the motion, the defense rested without calling a witness, and the jury convicted Garcia on both counts. Because the statute of conviction carries a three-year mandatory minimum, the district court sentenced Garcia on each count to three years' imprisonment with a three-year term of supervised release, each sentence to run concurrently. 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(2)(B). Garcia appealed, challenging only the sufficiency of the evidence with respect to whether she acted "for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain."

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing Garcia's preserved legal-sufficiency challenge, we must affirm her conviction "if, after viewing the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Vargas-Ocampo, 747 F.3d 299, 301 (5th Cir. 2014) (en banc) (citing Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979)). At the same time, we remain obligated to evaluate "whether the inferences drawn by a jury were rational, as opposed to being speculative or insupportable, and whether the evidence is sufficient to establish every element of the crime." Id. at 302.

         III. ...


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