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United States v. Soils

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

February 13, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
Elsa Solis Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: September 28, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Little Rock

          Before WOLLMAN, KELLY, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM.

         Elsa Solis was convicted of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A), and 846 (Count 1); possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine in violation of §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(A) (Count 2); and misprision of a felony in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 4 (Count 3). She appeals, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support her convictions, that the Fifth Amendment bars her misprision conviction, and that the district court erred in refusing to give her proposed "mere presence" jury instruction. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

         I. Background

         The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began investigating a methamphetamine trafficking ring in Batesville, Arkansas, in December 2014. Solis held title to one of the four houses under DEA surveillance. She lived in the house with five individuals: her three children; her boyfriend, Ivan Pedraza (Pedraza); and her boyfriend's brother, Fredy Pedraza (Fredy), who served as the methamphetamine "cook." Solis was also the registered owner of four vehicles used by the Pedrazas in conducting drug deals and investigated by the DEA. During a controlled purchase on May 13, 2015, Solis sat in the passenger's seat of a car with Pedraza while he exchanged methamphetamine for money with a confidential informant through the passenger's window.

         Further evidence of Solis's involvement in the conspiracy included a package addressed to Solis's house containing an air conditioning unit stuffed with methamphetamine, surveillance of Pedraza and Fredy leaving Solis's house to sell drugs and later returning to the house, and intercepted calls between Pedraza and Solis discussing Solis's plan to purchase acetone, which is a cleaning product used to remove adulterants from methamphetamine.

         Using one of Solis's vehicles, Pedraza drove Solis and two of her children to Dallas, Texas, on July 17, 2015, where he planned on purchasing ten kilograms of methamphetamine. Before they left, Pedraza called Fredy and asked for some car seats. Fredy responded that the car seats were filled with "stew," a slang term for drugs. Pedraza at first asked him to "take the stew out of them," but later said that he would instead purchase car seats before driving to Dallas.

         After Pedraza, Solis, and the children arrived in Dallas, DEA agents intercepted a phone conversation in which Solis asked Pedraza if he had "fix[ed] everything there." An agent testified that Solis was asking whether Pedraza worked out all the details of the drug deal. Solis and Pedraza drove back to Batesville on July 19, 2015. DEA agents informed local law enforcement that Solis's vehicle likely contained cash and methamphetamine, and a state trooper stopped the car for a traffic violation. Solis consented to a search of the vehicle. After the trooper found a cordless screwdriver with a single Phillips bit and a suitcase containing Ziploc bags, he examined the car seats and found them abnormally heavy. Using the cordless drill and the Phillips bit, he disassembled the car seats and found $19, 000 in rubber-banded cash and 2.5 kilograms of methamphetamine. He found another $1, 796 in rubber-banded cash in Solis's purse.

         DEA and local law enforcement agents executed search warrants on the four houses associated with the drug trafficking ring. Agents found $18, 000 in cash stashed in various places in Solis's residence. Searches of the sparsely furnished stash houses revealed distributable amounts of methamphetamine, along with Ziploc bags, digital scales, acetone, and a car seat.

         Solis was indicted on the counts set forth above. Before trial, Solis requested a jury instruction stating that mere presence in a jointly occupied vehicle would be insufficient to establish possession of illegal substances. The district court declined to include the instruction, finding it duplicative and slightly inaccurate. The jury convicted Solis on all three counts. The district court sentenced Solis to 235 months' imprisonment on the drug distribution offenses and 36 months' imprisonment on the misprision offense, to run concurrently.

         II. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         Solis argues that the evidence is insufficient to support her convictions. We review de novo the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain a conviction, "viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict and reversing the verdict only if no reasonable jury could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Ramos, 852 F.3d ...


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