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United States v. Santacruz

September 1, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Oliver W. Wanger United States District Judge



On April 23, 2010, a jury convicted Pioquinto Larios Santacruz ("Defendant") of distributing methamphetamine and cocaine, possessing methamphetamine and cocaine with the intent to distribute, and conspiracy.

Defendant filed a motion for judgment of acquittal pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29 or in the alternative for a new trial under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33 on May 7, 2010. (Doc. 269). The United States filed opposition to Defendant's motion on May 20, 2010 (Doc. 284).


On or about November 7, 2008, Defendant was arrested and taken to the Tulare County Jail, where he was interrogated by Todd Keuhnlein ("Keuhnlein"), an agent with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency ("DEA"). Because Defendant did not indicate that he spoke English, Kuehnlein employed the assistance of a Spanish-speaking correctional deputy at the Tulare County Jail, Dario Davalos ("Davalos"). Defendant made incriminating statements during the interview.

Davalos testified at trial that he was working on November 7, 2008 as a booking officer and a floor deputy responsible for classifying inmates. Davalos testified that he speaks Spanish in addition to English. Davalos stated the primary language in his household while he was growing up was Spanish, that he has spoken Spanish his entire life, and that he speaks Spanish at work when booking prisoners. According to Davalos, he routinely serves as an interpreter during prisoner interrogations. Davalos had no specific recollection of interpreting Defendant's interrogation, however, when asked if he served as an interpreter for Kuehnlein, Davalos stated "if that's what he said I did, I did." (Ex. 1 at 6). Davalos testified that he had no independent knowledge of the DEA's investigation of Defendant. Davalos stated that although he could not specifically remember Defendant's interrogation, it was his practice and custom to always read Miranda cards at the outset of the interrogation. Defendant's counsel chose not to cross-examine Davalos.

Kuehnlein's trial testimony included testimony regarding the incriminating statements Defendant made during the November 7, 2008 interrogation. Defendant's counsel objected to Kuehnlein's testimony regarding Plaintiff's statements on the grounds of hearsay and the Sixth Amendment right to confrontation, and after a side bar in which the Government and Defendant's counsel each stated their positions, the court overruled Defendant's objections. The court found that Davalos qualified to act as a translator of the Spanish language, admitted Kuehnlein's testimony as a party opponent admission, and instructed Defendant's counsel that although Kuehnlein's testimony was admissible, counsel was free to argue that the weight of the evidence was diminished by the fact that the statements were related through a translator who did not have any memory of the interrogation.

Kuehnlein testified that prior to interrogating Defendant, he spoke to Davalos and told him that any question he asked should be translated to Defendant verbatim. Kuehnlein stated that he had no reason to doubt that Davalos followed his instructions. Kuehnlein testified that through Davalos, Defendant told him his name was Pioquinto Santacruz, and that he also used the alias Noe Rios. Defendant stated that he lived at 162 West Wade in Tualre, California. In response Kuehnlein's questions regarding a drug transaction in September 2006, Defendant stated that he knew a man named Pat, who came to his house with another individual to conduct a drug deal. Kuehnlein testified that he asked Defendant if the transaction was for five pounds of cocaine and five pounds of methamphetamine, and Defendant responded affirmatively. Defendant also indicated that he worked for Hamstra Dairy in Tulare under the name Noe Rios. Defendant was convicted of all three charges against him based in part on Kuehnlein's testimony.


A. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29 provides that a judgment of acquittal is warranted if the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction. Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a). "The evidence is sufficient to support a conviction if, 'viewing the evidence 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.'" E.g. United States v. Magallon-Jimenez, 219 F.3d 1109, 1112 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979)). Under Rule 29, all reasonable inferences are to be drawn in favor of the government, and any conflicts in the evidence are to be resolved in favor of the jury's verdict. United States v. Alvarez-Valenzuela, 231 F.3d 1198, 1201-02 (9th Cir. 2000). When a district court reserves ruling on a Rule 29 motion, it must decide the motion on the basis of the evidence at the time the ruling was reserved; i.e., at the close of the government's case. Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(b).

B. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33 provides that "[u]pon the defendant's motion, the court may vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires." Fed. R. Crim. P. 33. A motion for a new trial is "directed to the discretion of the district judge" and "should be granted only in exceptional cases in which the evidence preponderates heavily against the verdict." United States v. Pimentel, 654 F.2d 538, 545 (9th Cir. 1981). A district court may ...

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