U.S. v. FUERTES, NO. 13-4755

Decided: August 18, 2015  

The Fourth Circuit held that it was appropriate for the district court to allow evidence of violent acts and threats of violence against competitors and that it was appropriate for the government’s expert witness to testify. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the Fuertes judgment in No. 13-4755 and under Ventura’s appeal, No. 13-4931, concluded that the conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) was erroneous because sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion is not categorically a crime of violence.

Ventura, with the assistance of Fuertes, was operating brothels in Annapolis, Maryland. To guarantee exclusivity of their business, Ventura and Fuertes threatened competitors with violence. Ramirez, an Annapolis-area pimp, received threatening phone calls and eventually was murdered. Following the murder, Fuertes was arrested after an unrelated traffic stop. While providing booking information, Fuertes provided a phone number that matched one of the numbers used to make threatening calls to Ramirez. With warrants, police later uncovered evidence of the brothel and that Ventura was the subscriber for the other number that made the threatening calls to Ramirez. While investigating both Fuertes and Ventura for the murder of Ramirez, they began to uncover evidence of the brothel. The police uncovered expansive evidence of the illegal operations in which Ventura and Fuertes were participating.

On November 29, 2011, a federal grand jury returned an indictment, charging Fuertes and Ventura with “conspiracy to transport an individual in interstate commerce for the purpose of prostitution, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 (Count One); transportation of individuals in interstate commerce for the purpose of prostitution, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2421 (Count Two); and sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a) (Count Six).” Further, Ventura was charged separately with “coercing or enticing an individual to travel in interstate commerce for the purpose of prostitution, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(a) (Count Three); transportation of individuals in interstate commerce for the purpose of prostitution, in violation of 18. U.S.C. §2421 (Counts Four and Five); and possession and use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence – namely, sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion – in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (Count Seven).”

At trial, a jury found Ventura guilty of all counts and Fuertes guilty of Count One and the part of Count Six that was based on events after December 24, 2008. The jury found Fuertes not guilty of Count Two. On appeal, Fuertes and Ventura argue that the district court erred in admitting evidence of violent acts and threats of violence against competitors because: “(1) such evidence was offered for no purpose other than to establish their bad character; (2) the evidence was not relevant, as it did not make it more likely that they actually committed the sex trafficking offenses for which they were charged; and (3) even if the evidence was relevant, its probative value was far outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.”

Rule 404(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence bans evidence of past crimes or wrongs solely to prove a defendant’s bad character; however, such evidence can be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, or knowledge. To be admissible under this rule, the evidence of “bad acts” must be relevant to issues other than character, needed to prove an element of the crime charged, reliable, and “its probative value must not be substantially outweighed by its prejudicial nature.”

The Fourth Circuit determined that the district court did not err in admitting evidence of violent acts and threats of violence against the competitor pimps. The evidence was relevant to Ventura’s familiarity with the prostitution business, as well as their intent to participate in the business, and that they conspired with each other to do so. The decision of the district court to admit evidence of violence and threats of violence was neither legally erroneous nor an abuse of discretion.

Further, Fuentes and Ventura argue that there was error in allowing Dr. Baker, an expert witness to testify regarding the injuries of one of the prostitutes. Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence provides an expert witness is qualified by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education. The Fourth Circuit determined there was no error by the district court to allow Dr. Baker to testify despite her focus being on child abuse because there is no distinction between adults and children when it comes to cutaneous findings.

Additionally, Ventura claims the district court erred in denying his motion of acquittal for Count Seven because sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion was not a predicate offense for his § 924(c) conviction. To be convicted under § 924(c), the government must show Ventura (1) used or carried a firearm and (2) did so during and in relation to a crime of violence. The Fourth Circuit determined that sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion does not qualify categorically as a crime of violence and; therefore, the district court committed obvious error in its instruction to the jury.

Finally, Fuertes argues that the district court erred in denying his motion for acquittal on Count Six. He stated that there was insufficient evidence that he knew or recklessly disregarded that one of the prostitutes was coerced or forced to engage in commercial sex acts. However, the Fourth Circuit determined the district court was proper because a reasonable jury could have found that Fuertes knew or recklessly disregarded that the prostitute was forced or coerced to commit commercial sex acts.

Full Opinion

Austin T. Reed

 

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