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United States v. Duenas

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

June 11, 2018

RAMON COBENA DUENAS, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court No. 1:16-cr-20272-JAL-1 for the Southern District of Florida

          Before ED CARNES, Chief Judge, MARCUS, and EBEL, [*] Circuit Judges.


         After trial by jury, Ramon Cobena Duenas was convicted of conspiring to exchange counterfeit currency, and dealing in counterfeit currency, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371 and 473. On appeal, Cobena Duenas challenges his convictions, claiming that the government failed to prove he knew the transaction involved counterfeit United States currency. After review, we affirm.


         The essential facts adduced at trial are these. On April 4, 2016, Customs and Border Protection agents at Miami International Airport found counterfeit currency in a bag carried by Jose Uceda, a traveler who had arrived from Peru. Uceda was carrying $632, 300 in counterfeit $100 bills, with a fair market value of at least $125, 000. The counterfeit currency was sewn or glued inside of zippered bags found in Uceda's luggage. Secret Service agents determined that Uceda was unaware of the bags' contents, and Uceda agreed to help the Secret Service catch the individuals who planned to pick up the counterfeit money. Uceda agreed to pose as the courier responsible for bringing the bills into the United States in exchange for a fee, and he agreed to make contact with "Patty, " from whom he got the suitcase in Peru. Uceda told Patty he had arrived in Miami and asked her who would pick up the suitcase.

         After speaking to Patty, Uceda received a call from a man identified as "Cesar, " who used a New York number. Cesar turned out to be Milton Cabeza Juarez, Cobena Duenas's co-conspirator. Uceda told Cabeza that he discovered counterfeit currency in the suitcase and that he brought the money to Miami, but that he wanted to be compensated for the risks attendant to transporting the currency to the United States. Cabeza agreed to pay Uceda $5, 000 for his labors, and asked whether Uceda would transport more counterfeit currency in the future. Uceda and Cabeza agreed that the payment of Uceda's fee and the delivery of the counterfeit currency would take place on April 11, 2016 in Miami.

         Cellular phones found in the co-conspirators' possession established that, between April 9 and April 11, 2016, Cobena Duenas and Cabeza called each other 61 times, including 39 calls on April 11 alone. None of the calls lasted more than two minutes, and the substance of the conversations is unknown. Additionally, on April 9, Cobena Duenas sent a text message to a woman named Mia De Los Santos, which read, "My love, wait for me until Monday because I'm going to do a special work now and I don't have money now." And on April 11, the date of the transaction, De Los Santos texted Cobena Duenas, "Good luck, God protect you and guide you." The government's investigation further revealed that Cabeza bought airline tickets from New York to Miami for himself and Cobena Duenas, and that he rented a car for their travel while in Miami.

         The April 11 meeting was arranged to take place at a Miami restaurant, the Latin Bohemia Grill, where undercover police officer Detective Edwin Pagan would accompany Uceda to meet Cabeza. Cabeza and Cobena Duenas traveled together on the same flight from JFK airport in New York to Miami on April 11, 2016. Later that day, Cobena Duenas entered the designated restaurant and stood near the bar, in a small hallway area. Cabeza walked in shortly thereafter and approached Uceda and Detective Pagan as they sat at a table. Cabeza told Uceda and Detective Pagan he was prepared to complete the transaction, but he wanted the exchange to take place in the parking lot, not inside the restaurant. Pagan and Uceda agreed. After the three men negotiated where the transaction would take place, Detective Pagan asked Cabeza if he brought the money for the transaction. Cabeza took Uceda to meet Cobena Duenas, who lifted up his shirt and showed Uceda a large bundle of cash. Cobena Duenas and Cabeza then walked out of the restaurant, and Detective Pagan received authorization to conduct the transaction in the restaurant parking lot.

         Detective Pagan left the restaurant, returned with the counterfeit currency in a truck, and reentered the building. Notably, Cobena Duenas returned alone to the restaurant to meet with Uceda and Detective Pagan. Surveillance footage also showed Cobena Duenas walking to the restaurant alone. During the meeting, the three men walked out of the restaurant, went into the parking lot, and toward Detective Pagan's van. Detective Pagan asked Cobena Duenas if he had the money; Cobena Duenas said "yes, " removed the cash from his waistband, and told Detective Pagan "to count it, it's all there." Cobena Duenas confirmed to Uceda and Detective Pagan that he had carried $5, 000 in cash. While Detective Pagan was counting the money, Cobena Duenas urged him to "do it faster."

         After Cobena Duenas handed the money to Detective Pagan but before he was shown the counterfeit bills, Detective Pagan gave a verbal and visual signal and law enforcement authorities arrested Cobena Duenas. Cabeza was seated in a rental car across the street from the restaurant, in "the general area where [Cobena Duenas] came from, " when the authorities arrested him as well.

         Cabeza and Cobena Duenas were charged in a two-count indictment by a federal grand jury sitting in the Southern District of Florida shortly thereafter. Cabeza pled guilty to the conspiracy charge, and Cobena Duenas proceeded to trial. Following trial, and after deliberating for approximately one hour, the jury sent this question to the court: "For Count Number 1, is [the knowledge element] specific to the counterfeit currency or just the person knowing he is doing something unlawful in general?" After conferring with both parties, the district court responded this way:

It is specific to the counterfeit currency. You will recall that in the general conspiracy charge there were certain elements that had to be proved. There are four elements. One of the elements is that "the defendant knew the unlawful purpose of the plan and willfully joined in it." The purpose of the plan was counterfeit currency.
So please consider this instruction in conjunction with all of the other instructions. Do not dwell on one particular instruction. Consider all of the instructions as a whole. The jury found Cobena Duenas guilty as ...

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