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United States v. Huerta

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

February 13, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent,
v.
JESUS HUERTA, Petitioner.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          J. RONNIE GREER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Petitioner Jesus Huerta (“Huerta” or “petitioner”) has filed a motion to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 [Doc. 1417]. The United States has responded to the motion, objecting to Huerta's requested relief [Doc. 1421]. The matter is now ripe for consideration. The Court has determined that the files and records in the case conclusively establish that the petitioner is not entitled to relief under § 2255 and, therefore, no evidentiary hearing is necessary. For the reasons set forth herein, petitioner's § 2255 motion lacks merit and will be DENIED and the case (No. 2:14-CV-84) DISMISSED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 10, 2009, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging thirty-three defendants with multiple drug and firearms charges. [Doc. 228, Second Superseding Indictment]. In Counts One and Two, Huerta was charged with a conspiracy to manufacture marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 (Count One), and possessing a firearm in furtherance of the drug trafficking offense in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(Count Two). In Counts Three and Seven, Huerta was charged with a conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 1, 000 kilograms or more of marijuana (Count Three), and possessing, or aiding and abetting the possession of, multiple firearms in furtherance of the drug trafficking offense (Count Seven). On January 4, 2010, the Court dismissed Count Two on the government's motion, leaving only Counts One, Three and Seven for trial [Doc. 865, Order].

         On January 6, 2010, Huerta, along with six other co-defendants proceeded to a trial by jury [Doc. 872, Courtroom Minutes]. Huerta was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana (Count One) and conspiracy to distribute marijuana (Count Three), but was acquitted of the firearms charge (Count Seven) [Doc. 916]. After the Court granted Huerta a new trial on Count One [Doc. 1268], the government moved to dismiss that count without prejudice [Doc. 1269]. The Court dismissed Count One, which left only Count Three for sentencing.

         The United States Probation Office found Huerta responsible for 1, 301 kilograms of marijuana, resulting in a corresponding base offense level of 32 [PSR ¶ 23, 29]. It also found that Huerta possessed a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking crime, under Section 2D1.1(b)(1) of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“USSG”), and increased his offense level by two levels, to level 34.[1] [Id. at ¶ 30]. Huerta's criminal history was category II, resulting in an advisory guideline range of 168 to 210 months' imprisonment [Id. at ¶ 29, 30, 34, and 45]. Given the offense of conviction, the PSR noted that he was subject to a mandatory minimum of ten years' imprisonment [Id. at ¶ 62].

         Both the government and Huerta filed objections to the PSR. The government objected to the failure of probation to enhance the offense level based on Huerta's role in the offense, arguing that he was, under Section 3B1.1, an organizer or leader of criminal activity that involved five or more participants [Doc. 1322, Transcript of Sentencing Hearing, pg. 28].

         Huerta objected to the firearms enhancement under Section 2D1.1(b)(1). The government also presented evidence of alternative bases to support the firearm enhancement under Section 2D1.1(b)(1) of the Guidelines.

         Prior to sentencing, the Court conducted an evidentiary hearing that spanned three days. On the first day, the government called William Bradford, an inmate who had pled guilty to a drug conspiracy charge, and who claimed to have provided Huerta a firearm [Doc. 1322, Transcript, at 30]. Bradford testified that he had provided Huerta a Sig 9 millimeter sometime in July or August 2008. [Doc. 1322, Transcript of Sentencing hearing, at 39-40]. Huerta's counsel moved the Court to continue the sentencing hearing as he claimed he did not have any notice of this witness and needed additional time to prepare to cross-examine effectively his testimony. The Court granted that request and continued the sentencing hearing [Id. at 57].

         On the second day of the sentencing hearing, Huerta's counsel cross examined Bradford about his allegations. At that hearing, Bradford again testified that Huerta took the gun with him to Gatlinburg and left it in “Mundo's” RV and that Huerta eventually recovered the firearm [Doc. 1323, Transcript, at 40]. At the conclusion of Bradford's testimony, Huerta's counsel objected to the Court even considering Bradford's testimony regarding the firearm [Doc. 1323, Transcript, at 46-49]. The Court denied that request and continued the hearing to a third day.

         On the third day, Huerta took the stand and testified about his role in the conspiracy. [Doc. 1324, Transcript, at 4]. He denied he had any managerial or supervisory role in the offense. He claimed he had no control over anyone [Id. at 26-27]. He also denied ever possessing a firearm and disputed Bradford's account that Bradford had given him a Sig 9 millimeter firearm. [Id. at 50-52, 116]. He also denied knowing anything about the firearms or ammunition that were found at his residence on 750 Georgia Street [Doc. 1324, at 93-94, 112- 13]. In rebuttal, the Government called Lt. William Gregg, who testified that 9 millimeter ammunition was found at Huerta's home [Doc. 1324, at 129].

         The Court noted that Probation applied the firearm enhancement because it found that “it was reasonably foreseeable to … Huerta that a firearm would be possessed in connection with the offense.” [Id. at ¶ 30]. Probation noted that “[w]hen Wiley Barnett was arrested after the traffic stop on September 23, 2008, a loaded .45 caliber handgun was found inside one of the bags of marijuana. On September 23, 2008, Jesus Huerta told Esquivel-Jaimes to ‘be sure to bring the pistol out with the marijuana.' Esquivel-Jaimes placed the firearm in his backback.” [Id. at ¶ 30]; [Doc. 1324, at 134].

         The government argued that the enhancement was also supported by the trial testimony of Jeremy Bennett, who testified that he had traded Huerta a shotgun with a “loose stock” in exchange for marijuana. [Doc. 1325, pg. 134]. In fact, a shotgun with a loose stock was found at Huerta's residence. The government also argued the Bradford's testimony supported the application of the firearm enhancement. Id. at 134-35.

         In ruling on the objections, the Court found that the firearm cited in the PSR was not connected to the offense of conviction. Count One had been dismissed. Id. at 141. However, the Court found that both Jeremy Bennett's trial testimony and Bradford's testimony at the sentencing hearing were adequate to support the firearm enhancement. Bennett had testified that he sold Huerta a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun for a half pound of marijuana, and a 9 millimeter handgun with an extended clip in 2007. [Doc. 1324, at 154]. The Court made the following observation:

[Huerta's counsel] argues that at best Mr. Bennett is no more credible than Mr. Huerta. The Court disagrees. I have previously found based upon my observations of Mr. Bennett at trial, based upon my own evaluation of his credibility, based on his demeanor at trial and the answers to the question that he gave at trial that his testimony was truthful….I find Mr. Bennett's testimony that he traded this shotgun to Mr. Huerta for marijuana; that he sold him a handgun for $250 to be credible….Certainly Mr. ...

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