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United States v. Martinez, Jr.

No. 22-1167. 12/20/2023. D.Colo. Judge Kelly. Drug Trafficking—Expert Testimony—First Amendment—Spontaneous Announcement During Trial—Jury Instruction.

December 20, 2023

Martinez sold a confidential informant 443 grams of methamphetamine at Martinez’s autobody shop. Agents then executed a search warrant at the shop and found digital scales, baggies, firearms, ammunition, and a shrine to Santa Muerte, who is known as the patron saint of drug traffickers. At trial, the government introduced the expert testimony of Detective Jeffers, who testified, among other things, that Santa Muerte is a saint that drug traffickers pray to for protection and that he would expect someone who possessed a shrine to be associated with drug trafficking. During Martinez’s testimony, a spontaneous robocall announcement played over the courtroom speakers stating that criminals were seeking to defund the police and soliciting public support for police against these efforts. The judge immediately told the jury to disregard the robocall and took a recess to resolve the issue, and when the jury returned, the judge again instructed it to disregard the robocall interruption. Martinez was convicted of possession with intent to distribute and distribution of 50 grams or more of methamphetamine.

On appeal, Martinez argued that the admission of testimony about the Santa Muerte shrine’s connection to drug traffickers was plain error because it conflicts with United States v. Medina-Copete, 757 F.3d 1092 (10th Cir. 2014), where the Tenth Circuit held that an expert who testified about Santa Muerte worship was improperly vetted under Fed. R. Evid. 702. In Medina-Copete, the court abused its discretion in admitting the expert’s testimony because it was unreliable. Here, Detective Jeffers’s testimony was based solely on his 22 years of law-enforcement experience, with approximately 18 years focused on narcotics, and it thus fell within the scope of Rule 702. Consequently, Medina-Copete is inapplicable, and the testimony was properly admitted.

Martinez also contended that the testimony violated his First Amendment rights to free association because it was not relevant. Here, however, the Santa Muerte shrine was relevant to the fact that Martinez was predisposed to drug trafficking, a key issue in his entrapment defense, so there was no constitutional error.

Further, even if admission of the Santa Muerte testimony was plain error, it did not affect Martinez’s substantial rights because he was able to cross-examine Detective Jeffers, and the government introduced ample other evidence to rebut Martinez’s entrapment defense and prove his predisposition to drug trafficking.

Martinez also asserted that the district court erred by instructing the jury to disregard the robocall rather than declaring a mistrial. Here, the court twice instructed the jury to ignore the interruption, and recessed the trial briefly to ensure that it would not happen again. Additionally, the robocall was a brief event that occurred once, and there is no indication the jury had time to process what was said in the robocall announcement. Accordingly, the district court did not plainly err in handling the robocall interruption.

The judgment was affirmed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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