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United States of America v. Cristobal Vargas

January 6, 2011

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
CRISTOBAL VARGAS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Matthew F. Kennelly, District Judge:

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

A jury convicted Cristobal Vargas of attempting to possess more than 500 grams of cocaine with intent to distribute. Mr. Vargas has moved for entry of a judgment of acquittal or for a new trial. His motion did not clearly delineate the grounds for his motion other than a simple statement that the evidence was insufficient (the motion's summary of the trial made reference to some adverse rulings but did not say which Mr. Vargas contended were erroneous). His reply brief, however, identifies five grounds, and the Court will take that as a complete statement of the basis for the motion.

Discussion

1 & 5. Meeting of the minds / sufficiency of the evidence. Mr. Vargas argues (issue #1) that the evidence failed to show a meeting of the minds between him and the government's informant Esteban Rojo for the sale (by the informant) and purchase (by Mr. Vargas) of cocaine. He also argues generally that the evidence was insufficient to convict (issue #5). These arguments are two variations on the same theme.

At this stage of the proceedings, the Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the government and asks whether a rational jury could have found the evidence sufficient to prove Mr. Vargas guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. See, e.g., United States v. Johnson, 592 F.3d 749, 754 (7th Cir. 2010). The answer to that question is yes.

Mr. Vargas (among other things) interprets his recorded conversations with Mr. Rojo as involving something other than cocaine; points out that the money he had at the final meeting with Mr. Rojo was more than $10,000 short of what was needed to buy three kilograms of cocaine; and says there was no evidence that he made an agreement with Mr. Rojo to buy cocaine from him. The jury, however, was not required to interpret the conversations as Mr. Vargas suggests. There was more than enough evidence to permit a reasonable jury to understand the conversations as a coded discussion to set up a cocaine deal and an agreement on terms. Mr. Vargas in fact did not have enough money to buy three kilos, but that does not make him any less guilty of attempting to purchase cocaine. The jury reasonably could find that he came to the meeting with the money he had, hoping to obtain the cocaine partly on credit, buy less than the full amount, or make some other arrangement.

A person attempts to possess cocaine with intent to distribute when he acts with the specific intent to commit the underlying offense and takes a substantial step toward its completion. See, e.g., United States v. Magana, 118 F.3d 1173, 1198 (7th Cir. 1997). As described above, the jury reasonably could find that Mr. Vargas specifically intended to possess more than 500 grams of cocaine -- a distribution quantity -- and came to the meeting with Mr. Rojo intending to carry out the offense. The evidence was sufficient to convict.

2. Mr. Vargas's exculpatory post-arrest statement.

Law enforcement officers were monitoring Mr. Vargas's meeting with Mr. Rojo, and after matters developed, they came to the scene en masse with guns drawn and took Mr. Vargas into custody. The following exchange occurred:

Agent: Let me see your hands! Let me see your hands! You too, big man.

Get over here.

Agent: I got one here. One in custody.

Agent: What you guys doing in here?

Vargas: I was meeting my friend over ...


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