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By Malorie Letcavage

On August 18, 2015 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its published opinion in the criminal case of United States v. Fuertes. In this case, the Court had to review the conviction of German de Jesus Ventura and Kevin Garcia Fuentes for conspiracy to commit and commission of sex trafficking and related offenses. The Court affirmed Fuertes’ conviction and vacated Ventura’s conviction on Count Seven and remanded for judgment of acquittal.

Background

German de Jesus Ventura was operating brothels in Annapolis, Maryland with the help of Kevin Garcia Fuentes. Ventura threatened any local competitive pimps with violence. A local competing pimp, Ramirez, received threatening phone calls and was subsequently murdered. When Fuertes was arrested for a traffic violation, the phone number he gave matched the one that made the threatening phone calls to Ramirez. Fuertes also had business cards for his prostitution services on him when he was arrested. Fuertes consented to a search of his home and the police found that it was being used as a brothel. The police continued to monitor Fuertes and Ventura because they believed the two had murdered Ramirez. The police discovered that Ventura was also running brothels. Rebeca Duenas Franco testified that she had a violent history with Ventura, and that he forced her to commit sexual acts against her will through violence and threats. She also stated that she witnessed Fuertes and Ventura celebrating Ramirez’s murder.

The police continued surveillance and learned of other brothels the Defendants were running. They had intelligence that the two would be transporting a prostitute across state lines and that another local pimp was assaulted at the behest of Fuertes and Ventura. The Defendants were arrested in 2011 and indicted on seven charges relating to prostitution and sex trafficking. Fuertes and Ventura appealed their guilty charges claiming errors regarding evidentiary rulings, jury instructions and sufficiency of evidence.

Evidence Under 404b

Defendants claimed that the evidence of violent acts and violence against competitors was improperly admitted. The Court disagreed and held it was properly admitted under the Federal Rules of Evidence 404(b). This rule allows evidence of bad acts if they are admitted for a purpose other than to prove character. The evidence must also be necessary to prove an element of the crime, be reliable, and its probative value must not be substantially outweighed by prejudice. The Court found the violent acts relevant because they showed evidence of Defendant’s participation in the sex trafficking business and that they knowingly conspired to participate in that business. Since the jury had to find an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy, the threat to use violence against competitors went towards that element.

Further, Defendants did not offer evidence that the information was unreliable or unfair. Since there was already substantial evidence about the violence committed against Duenas, the further evidence of violence was no more likely to cause the jury to react with their emotions instead of their intellect than her testimony of Defendants’ violent behavior. The Court held that the admission of the evidence of violence against other pimps was allowed, and not an abuse of discretion.

Expert Testimony Properly Admitted

The Defendants also argued that the testimony of Dr. Baker was improperly allowed because her experience was mostly with juveniles and was only attempting to bolster Duenas’ credibility about the source of her injuries. The Court disagreed based on Rule 702 concerning expert witnesses. It held that the scientific nature of the testimony meant that the district court as the gatekeeper had properly determined that it was relevant and reliable. It found that Dr. Baker had twenty-five years of experience with abuse cases, and had been qualified to testify as an expert in two dozen other cases. The Court found that it did not matter that her experience with abuse focused on juveniles because there is no distinction between adults and children when it comes to abusive injuries and her training would go to weight, not admissibility.

The Court further held that Dr. Baker did not comment on Duenas’ credibility or guess as to who caused her injuries. Just because her testimony corroborated Duenas’ testimony, did not mean it had to be excluded. The Court thus held that the decision to admit Dr. Baker’s testimony was not an abuse of discretion.

Classification as a Violent Crime

Ventura claimed that he should be acquitted for sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a), which was a predicate for his 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) conviction, because it is not categorically a crime of violence. The Court reviewed the district court’s decision for plain error. To prove a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a), the government must prove that the Defendant 1) used or carried a firearm and 2) did so during or in relation to a crime of violence. A crime of violence is defined as “an offense that is a felony and—(A) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another, or (B) that by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”

To determine whether it is a crime of violence the Court used the categorical approach to determine whether the defendant was in fact convicted of a crime that qualifies as a crime of violence under the force clause of the § 924(c)(3)(A). Because the definition of the offense allows that it may be committed nonviolently, it does not qualify as a categorical crime of violence under the force clause. The Court also found that it did not qualify as a crime of violence under the residual clause, § 924(c)(3)(B). There was not a substantial risk that the defendant would use physical force against the victim in completing the crime, so sex trafficking could not be categorically considered a crime of violence.

The Court then held that there was clear error when the District Court instructed the jury that sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion was categorically a violent crime. It held that the error affected Defendant’s substantial rights and the fairness of the judicial proceedings. The Court vacated Ventura’s §924(c) conviction and remanded it for judgment of acquittal.

Evidence was Sufficient

The Defendants argued that there was insufficient evidence that Fuertes knew or recklessly disregarded that Duenas was coerced or forced to engage in commercial sex acts. The Court found that when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the government, a reasonable trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court held that a reasonable jury could have found that Fuertes knew or recklessly disregarded that Duenas was forced or coerced to commit commercial sex acts because he witnessed Ventura beat her with a belt and was heavily involved in the prostitution business.

Conclusion

The Court affirmed the district court’s conviction of Fuertes because the evidence of violence was relevant to proving his involvement in sex trafficking and the expert testimony of Dr. Baker was properly admitted because she was a qualified expert. The Court also vacated Ventura’s conviction under 18 U.S.C. §924(c) because sex trafficking is not categorically a violent crime. The Court remanded that count for acquittal.

 

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