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United States v. Watts

September 11, 1996

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

NYGUYEN A. WATTS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, East St. Louis Division. No. 95 CR 30030 Paul E. Riley, Judge.

Before BAUER, FLAUM, and KANNE, Circuit Judges.

BAUER, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED MAY 31, 1996

DECIDED SEPTEMBER 11, 1996

A jury convicted Nyguyen A. Watts of possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. sec. 841(a)(1). On appeal, Watts challenges the sufficiency of the evidence against him, as well as the admission of testimony of Rudy McIntosh, a surveillance officer who saw Watts in possession of the drugs. We affirm.

Background

The case against Watts began on February 6, 1995, when the East St. Louis Police Department "Delta Team" arrested Ricky Walls for possession of crack cocaine. The following day, Walls returned to the police station and told Detective Tony Mino, the officer who had arrested him, that he could put the police in touch with someone who could sell him drugs. With Mino in the room, Walls called Watts' pager from the police station. Watts returned the call, and Walls asked him if he could buy "a couple" at the "regular location." Watts initially demurred, but enticed by Walls' offer to share some marijuana with him, agreed to meet Walls at a gas station in East St. Louis.

East St. Louis Police Officers searched Walls and his van before giving him $402.00 in "buy money" to purchase the crack cocaine. Walls also was under constant surveillance as he proceeded to the designated meeting place. When Watts drove up, Walls signaled to him to follow his van down a nearby street. Watts pulled over near Walls' van, got out of his car, and entered the van from the passenger side. At this point, the stories differ. Watts, who testified on his own behalf, claims that he immediately saw Walls with money and crack cocaine and therefore tried to exit the van to avoid being set up. Officer McIntosh, an undercover member of the Metropolitan Enforcement Group of Southwestern Illinois and the first officer to arrive at the scene, saw things differently. Upon arriving at the van, Officer McIntosh saw Watts holding a bag and then saw him drop it on the front seat of Walls' van. When the police arrested Watts outside the van, they recovered a bag of crack cocaine on the front seat.

A grand jury indicted Watts on a single count of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. sec. 841(a)(1). In the course of preparing for trial, the defense obtained a copy of Detective Mino's arrest report, which identified other members of the surveillance team, including Detective James Mister and Officer Corey Harris. The arrest report stated that none of the officers at the scene saw Watts with the drugs or money. However, on Friday, June 16, with Watts' trial set to begin the following Monday, the government disclosed that Officer McIntosh had seen Watts "holding the dope."

At trial, Mino, Mister, and Harris testified consistently with Mino's arrest report--i.e. that they did not see Watts handle the drugs or the money. With respect to Officer McIntosh's testimony, however, the defense filed a motion in limine to preclude the government from presenting "any evidence of any officer who allegedly saw drugs in the hands of the defendant." As grounds for the motion, the defense cited the government's failure to disclose the information until three days before trial. The district court denied the motion, and Officer McIntosh testified that he saw Watts drop the drugs on the front seat of Walls' van. Walls, the only other person who might have seen Watts possess the drugs, never testified. The jury returned a guilty verdict. Watts appeals the sufficiency of the evidence that supports his conviction, as well as the district court's denial of his motion in limine.

Analysis

A. Sufficiency of the Evidence

To convict Watts, the government had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he "knowingly or intentionally possess[ed] with intent to distribute a controlled substance." 21 U.S.C. sec. 841(a)(1). Once convicted, however, Watts bears a heavy burden in challenging the sufficiency of the evidence. See United States v. Hickok, 77 F.3d 992, 1002 (7th Cir.) (citations omitted), cert. denied, 116 S. Ct. 1701 (1996). We consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, drawing all reasonable inferences in its favor. United States v. Strang, 80 F.3d 1214, 1219 (7th Cir. 1996).

In this case, the evidence more than amply supports Watts' conviction. Watts' theory is that Walls possessed the crack cocaine and lured him to the van so that he could set him up. However, the police searched Walls and the van prior to his leaving the police station, and the surveillance team kept Walls under constant observation throughout the transaction. In response to this evidence, Watts presented expert testimony that a complete search of Walls' van would have taken much longer than the five to ten minutes that the police allotted. However, the same expert also conceded that it would take only a relatively short time to search the area of the van accessible from the driver's seat. Watts' view of the evidence also fails to take into account the testimony of Officer McIntosh, who actually saw Watts in ...


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