from the United States District Court No. 1:16-cr-20272-JAL-1
for the Southern District of Florida
ED CARNES, Chief Judge, MARCUS, and EBEL, [*] Circuit Judges.
MARCUS, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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 ...