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United States v. Ramirez

decided: July 14, 1986.


Appeals from the he United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 84 CR 646 -- Milton I. Shadur, Judge.

Author: Noland

Before WOOD and COFFEY, Circuit Judges, and NOLAND, District Judge.*fn*

NOLAND, District Judge. The defendants were convicted of conspiring to possess cocaine with an intent to distribute, 21 U.S.C. § 846 (1982),*fn1 and the use of a "communication facility" -- a telephone -- in furtherance of that conspiracy, 21 U.S.C. § 843(b) (1982).*fn2 The primary question raised by the defendants-appellants in this appeal are (1) whether the evidence at trial was sufficient to convict Ramirez of the named offenses, (2) whether the evidence established a single conspiracy or multiple conspiracies, and (3) whether the trial court impermissibly extended the scope of a federal agent's testimony. On appeal Ramirez raises all of these issues, while Cordoba raises only the third. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the jury's verdicts.

I. Factual Background

In November of 1983, while the FBI was conducting an undercover investigation unrelated to narcotics, certain undercover FBI agents became aware of a potential drug trafficking ring. The agents met with, and conducted drug transactions with, Edgar and Miriyam Cordoba. In the course of these meetings, Edgar stated that rather than using actual drug names during a transaction, code names such as "tires" or "books" were employed as a precaution. In addition, in order to facilitate the drug transactions, Edgar and Miriryam gave the agents their home telephone number.

In July of 1984, the FBI conducted an electronic surveillance of the Cordobas' home phone, and the government introduced the following four phone conversations against Ramirez at trial:

July 9, 1984: Ramirez telephones collect from Miami, Florida and speaks to Edgar Cordoba, Elmer Velasquex and Henry Cordoba. He asks them to wire him $1,000 tells them he has "apparatus" and wants to negotiate. Velasquez offers to pay "$32" and Ramirez responds that they are "beautiful 95% tires." Further reference was made to negotiate "that stuff" and arrangement were made to pick Ramirez up at the airport. Ramirez inquires about "Flacko" and is told that Flacko is "working very hard . . . he's pushing faster.

"July 12,1984: Ramirez telephone Miriryam Cordoba. They make arrangements to meet and Cordoba asks Ramirez about his "female cousins." Ramirez in turn asks Cordoba whether she "needs some of" his cousins and whether she needs "a little or what." Cordoba answers yes to both queries.

July 15, 1984: Ramirez calls a "Mike" form the Cordoba phone and discusses a transaction involving the exchange of "music," "long plays," and the "Perico." Ramirez repeatedly asks Mike if he "understands" and Mike responds affirmatively. Mike tell Ramirez that "many people have been waiting for one LP . . . since yesterday."

July 18, 1984: Ramirez calls Miriryam Cordoba collect from "down here . . . in the orange grove."

Other evidence introduced against Ramirez consisted of a signed invoice from Liberty Volkswagen, a traffic citation, a Texaco credit card application and photos taken of Ramirez in the bedroom of Velasquez, all of which were found in a search of Velasquez's bedroom. Other phone conversations closely proximate to the July 9th conversation apparently dealt with the sale of the same merchandise -- described as "books," "undershirts" and "stuff".

At trial, the government's principal witness regarding the interpretation of the telephone conversations was FBI agent Larry Damron, who was one of the undercover agents during the investigation. Damron testified that (a) he had 13 years with the FBI as a special agent, (b) that he had handled 100 narcotics cases, (c) that he was trained at the FBI academy, (d) that he investigated drug cases in 1977, (e) that he had had a special two hour course on drug code words, (f) that he had read periodicals and had discussions with other agents, but (g) that he was unable to point to a glossary, article, or manual as a source of his knowledge. The defense challenged the "expert" status of Damron after voir dire. Although his ruling lacked lucidity, the trial judge ruled that even though he would not "label" Damron an "expert" to the jury, Damron would be allowed to testify as an expert under the Federal Rules of Evidence. The trial judge explained that he was reluctant to label Damron an expert to the jury as it was his perception that such a label confused juries. The trial judge gave the jury the stock Seventh Circuit instruction on expert witnesses, but he omitted the word "expert" from the instruction. All of the attorneys had previously agreed to the instruction. After giving the instructions, the trial judge asked each of the attorneys for the defendants and the government whether any of the instructions were objectionable and no objections were made.

II. Discussion

A. Sufficiency of the ...

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