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United States v. Najera

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

May 21, 2013

Jason Najera, Pedro Garcia, Gonzalo Ramirez, Russell Worthey, Anthony Wright, Joshua Flores, Jesus Flores, Angel Cerda, Juan Torres, Alfredo Beltran-Ruiz, Donte Barnes, Jesus Sanchez, Enrique Gobin, Alfonso Banda-Hernandez, Andrew Gusman, Eusebio Sierra-Medrano, Jayson Vargas, Adam Flores, Fabian Neave, Jesus Torres, Jose Neave, Hernan Quezada, Defendants.



On April 16, 17 and 18, 2013, the court held so-called Daubert hearings with respect to two officers the government has identified as expert witnesses about gang activity in Dodge City, Kansas. Defendants were present with counsel and, following the extensive direct testimony of both officers, all counsel had the opportunity to question the officers with respect to their qualifications and the substance of their anticipated testimony and opinions. Most elected not to question the officers, perhaps recognizing that they had gotten far more details from the officers’ direct testimony than from any Rule 16 disclosures.[1]

Following the conclusion of the three days of testimony, defense counsel were offered the additional opportunity to file objections to the officers’ qualifications and opinions. The court has reviewed defendants’ submissions (Docs. 608, 609, 610, 611, 612, 613, 616, 617, 618, 619, 621, 622, 623, 624, 625, 626, 626-1 and 627). The majority of the defendants simply elected to join in submissions filed by a few of their codefendants.[2]

Although the term “Daubert hearing” has become common to describe challenges to the testimony of expert witnesses, the analysis of the officers’ proposed testimony more properly falls under Fed.R.Evid. 702 and 703 and applicable case law. Therefore, it is important to remember what this case is about, and not about.

On April 16, 2012, the grand jury returned an indictment against 23 defendants. The indictment alleges 38 counts, including charges of violent crimes in aid of racketeering, conspiracy and felon in possession of a firearm. The indictment alleges that defendants were in a criminal organization, the Nortenos gang, whose members engaged in narcotics distribution and acts of violence including murder and robbery. These crimes were alleged to have been committed in Dodge City, Kansas, population around 27, 000. The indictment further alleges that the racketeering conspiracy began in 2008 and continued through the date of the indictment.

It is readily apparent that to a great extent, this case is about gangs, gang membership and gang activity. At least as early as United States v. Robinson, 978 F.2d 1554, 1562-64 (10th Cir. 1992), the Circuit has recognized the admissibility of gang-related evidence. Robinson was decided before Daubert but no post-Daubert Tenth Circuit case has held that expert testimony regarding gangs is inadmissible. A recent example is United States v. Roach, 582 F.3d 1192 (10th Cir. 2009). Over objection, the district judge allowed a Wichita Police Department officer to give the following testimony:

Miller went on to give expert testimony about “the types of tools of the trade that people who are affiliated with gangs, specifically the Neighborhood Crips, carry or maintain, ” explaining that firearms are such a tool and are used to protect drugs and to battle with other gangs. He also testified that gang members commonly use certain slang present in the letters from Roach to Hughes, including replacing the letters “ck” with the letters “cc.” Finally, he told the jury that drug dealers often use colored lights to guide their customers, and that a blue bulb in particular indicates an association with the Crips, who identify with the color blue.

Id. at 1199.

On appeal, the Circuit ruled that admission of the testimony was error, albeit harmless, but not because the detective’s testimony was irrelevant. The error was the court’s failure to make the requisite Rule 702 Daubert analysis and findings. The Circuit noted that “other circuits have similarly allowed expert police testimony on street gang’s use of slang, signifying colors, and other indicia of membership or activity.” Id. at 1207 (citations omitted).

It is reasonable to assume that most, if not all, of the prospective jurors are not now, and have not been, gang members, and will be unfamiliar with gang activity in and around Dodge City. Proper expert testimony, including testimony by defendants’ gang experts, if any, will be helpful to assist the jury to understand the evidence.


The qualifications of the officers, James Nau and Shane Webb, are set forth in their resumes, attached as exhibits 1 and 2. Only three of the defendants have asserted any specific challenges to the officers’ qualifications: Jason Vargas (Doc. 612), Gonzalo Ramirez (Doc. 610) and Joshua Flores (Doc. 624). It is significant that none of the challenges to the officers’ qualifications is supported by reference to applicable case authority; indeed, to any case authority.

Vargas objects to the officers’ qualifications because they do not have specialized education and knowledge of sociology, family studies, anthropology, art history or any of the other social sciences. Vargas does not explain why such specialized education would be necessary, for example, to explain the significance and meaning of gang colors, signs, graffiti and tattoos; how gangs in Dodge City are structured and how rival gangs interact. Vargas goes on to point out that neither officer has published any peer-reviewed articles about gangs or testified as defense experts. This may, or may not, be a persuasive basis for cross-examination at trial but it is not a basis for disqualification.

Vargas asserts that the officers lack qualifications to testify about gangs because they have not been gang members themselves. No authority is cited for this proposition, undoubtedly because there is none.[3] The illogical extension of this proposition would be that a law enforcement officer cannot qualify as an expert witness on the illegal drug trade unless he or she is a drug dealer or a drug addict.

Vargas objects that the fact that officer Webb grew up in Dodge City does not make him any more knowledgeable than any other citizen or potential juror. This objection seems to presuppose that all potential jurors are knowledgeable about gang activity in Dodge City, an especially doubtful supposition since none of the petit jurors will be drawn from Ford County. One might ask: who is more knowledgeable about Dodge City, someone who grew up there or someone, perhaps a defense expert, whose knowledge of criminal activity in Dodge City prior to being hired in this case came from watching reruns of Gunsmoke?

Finally, Vargas speculates that the officers have become hired experts rather than “. . . someone with independent credentials in the field of gang formation and social science.” Whether the officers will be compensated by the government can be the subject of cross-examination. But if compensation is disqualifying, what about defense experts? Will they be appearing pro bono? Hardly, in view of the authorizations for payment already approved by the court. But the bigger question is why would anyone assume that a defense expert will have “independent credentials, ” whatever those are? It has been this court’s experience that virtually every expert has either an agenda or an identifiable bias to the side on which he or she testifies. That’s how they get business and that’s why they’re hired. The court has yet to encounter an “expert” witness who is called by one side notwithstanding having given opinions favorable to the other side of the case.

Ramirez’s objections are similar. He acknowledges that while both officers have “some training” about gangs, it is not specific to the Nortenos. But again, this objection presupposes that out there somewhere is Nortenos/Dodge City-specific training that is essential to the officers’ qualifications but which the officers missed. If there is, counsel has failed to identify it. We’re not talking here about the qualifications of a surgeon who never took basic courses in human anatomy. Will any defense expert have specific Nortenos/Dodge City training? Doubtful, once again.

Flores objects to the officers’ qualifications because neither has written or read academic articles about gangs in southwest Kansas. The officers acknowledged that they have not written any academic articles and counsel is free to cross-examine them on this topic if he believes it will be effective. But it is not disqualifying. As to not having read academic articles about Dodge City gangs, there is no evidence that there are any such articles.

The use of law enforcement officers as expert witnesses about criminal activity is well-recognized. The fact that the expert also may be a fact witness or that some of the testimony technically may be within Rule 701 is not disqualifying, United States v. DeSoto, 885 F.2d 354 (7th Cir. 1989) and United States v. Caballero, 277 F.3d 1235, 1247 (10th Cir. 2002) (“[b]oth Rules 701 and 702 distinguish between expert and lay testimony, not between expert and lay witnesses . . . it is possible for the same witness to provide both lay and expert testimony in a single case.”) See also United States v. Blake, No. 07-8050, 2008 WL 2610474, at *9 (10th Cir. Jul 3, 2008). An expert’s testimony can embrace the ultimate issue, so long as the testimony assists, rather than supplants, the jury’s judgment. United States v. Dazey, 403 F.3d 1147, 1171 (10th Cir. 2005). (This is not to imply that the court endorses such opinions – they are problematic, at best.) The keys are reliability and helpfulness to the jury and, as the cases cited in the next section demonstrate, expert testimony by law enforcement officers is routinely received as helpful to jurors who are not familiar with criminal activity.

In summary, the court finds that officers Webb and Nau are sufficiently qualified by knowledge, education, training and experience to offer expert testimony about general aspects of gang activity in and around Dodge City, Kansas, subject to the requirements discussed in the following section.

Substance of the Testimony

Defendant Garcia’s objections on the substance of the officers’ opinions are adopted by many of the co-defendants so his will be examined first. (Doc. 608 at 5-6). Garcia objects that the government has not “proffered any evidence of reasoning and methodology used or applied . . .” by the officers. The court disagrees. Unlike law enforcement expert testimony which identifies the kind and purity of a controlled substance by the use of scientific tests and procedures, the methodology and reliability of an officer’s testimony regarding gang activity must be evaluated by a non- scientific approach. In other words, for example, there is no recognized scientific test to determine the meaning of gang graffiti. This is made clear in cases like United States v. Mejia, 545 F.3d 179 (2nd Cir. 2008) (“An appropriate (admissible) example of such expertise would have been an expert’s explanation of how the graffiti near a body indicated that the murderer was a member of MS-13 . . .”) Id. at 195. Rather, the reliability of the expert’s opinion must be based on law enforcement methodology which, to a considerable extent, must turn upon the training, education and experience of the officer on that particular subject. Scientific methods are not required. See United States v. Garza, 566 F.3d 1194, 1198-99 (10th Cir. 2009). “The Daubert factors (peer review, publication, potential error rate, etc.) simply are not applicable to this kind of testimony from a gang expert, whose reliability depends heavily on the knowledge and experience of the expert, rather than the methodology or theory behind it.” United States v. Thomas, No. 10-4725, 2012 WL 2951410, *5 (4th Cir. July 20, 2012)(quoting United States v. Hankey, 203 F.3d 1160, 1168 (9th Cir. 2000)); A couple of examples are illustrative.

In its expert disclosure (Doc. 297), the government mentioned gang graffiti. It is highly unlikely that jurors will be able to decipher the meaning and significance of the graffiti displayed at the hearings. Webb and Nau’s ability to interpret gang graffiti was acquired, at least in part, by conversations with individuals who may or may not be Nortenos members. (Both officers testified that they spoke frequently with gang members.) Such conversations, if directly related to jury, may be hearsay but as many defendants’ submissions acknowledge, Rule 703 permits an expert’s opinion to be based on hearsay which, itself, does not need to be recited to the jury. Rather, if such hearsay is reasonably relied upon by law enforcement officers involved in investigation of gang activity (and the evidence sufficiently established that it is), then the opinion is admissible, hearsay notwithstanding.

Another example is the roles or titles of gang members (“shot callers, ” “foot soldiers, ” “pee wees”). The government’s disclosure identifies roles of gang members but not specific titles. The court is satisfied that Webb and Nau can give reliable testimony on this subject. The fact that the written disclosure ...

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