Vasquez v. United States

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Evidence
  • Date Filed: November 28, 2011
  • Case #: 11-199
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: 635 F.3d 889 (7th Cir.2011)
  • Full Text Opinion

Whether it is reversible error in a criminal case for a trial court to admit recordings of a conversation for the truth of the matter where the witness admits the point on which the government seeks to establish bias, where a logical inference is necessary to establish an inconsistent statement, and where the statements otherwise constitute inadmissible hearsay.

A jury convicted appellant Alexander Vasquez in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois of conspiring to possess more than 500 grams of cocaine with intent to distribute. Vasquez appealed to the 7th Circuit to reverse his conviction and remand the case for a new trial on the grounds that the judge (1) improperly admitted evidence of his prior drug conviction; (2) improperly denied his motion to suppress evidence found during a warrantless search of an automobile; (3) deprived him of a meaningful opportunity to cross-examine and impeach a government witness; and (4) improperly admitted recordings of telephone conversations between a defense witness and a co-defendant that referred to defense counsel's advice that the defendant accept a plea.

The 7th Circuit denied the appeal, reviewing the trial court's decision on each issue for abuse of discretion. With respect to appellant's first argument, the Court of Appeals found that the evidence of the prior conviction was properly admitted to show modus operendi. The Court of Appeals also found that on the facts of the case the police had sufficient probable cause to search the automobile, that the defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to an abandoned vehicle, and that it was within the trial judge's discretion to admit the evidence. The 7th Circuit found that the trial judge erred when he refused to allow defense counsel to refresh a witness's memory with extrinsic evidence, but held that the error was harmless because the trial court properly exercised its rule 611 powers to exclude cross-examination on the matter because it was trivial and collateral. With respect to defendant's final argument, the Court of Appeals found that the government properly introduced the recordings for the purpose of establishing a prior inconsistent statement and the witness's bias, but also found that the trial court improperly admitted the recordings for the truth of the matter. However, the Court of Appeals found that, in light of the other evidence before the jury, the admission was harmless error.

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