United States v. Mahecha-Onofre
936 F.2d 623 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 112 S. Ct. 648 (1991)

BREYER, Chief Judge.

Luis Mahecha Onofre appeals his conviction and 146 month prison sentence for unlawfully bringing cocaine into the United States....

First, Mahecha says that the evidence was not sufficient to support the convictions, in particular the conviction for possessing cocaine with intent to distribute it to others. The evidence shows, however, that, on July 27, 1989, Mahecha was a passenger on Iberia Airlines flight 910, which stopped in Puerto Rico on its way from Bogota, Colombia, to Madrid, Spain. Customs officials, examining passenger luggage, found two odd (especially heavy and hard) suitcases that had a strong chemical odor and screws instead of rivets. They scratched the sides of the suitcases and performed a field test that indicated the suitcases themselves were made of cocaine. Later testing showed that the suitcases contained about 2.5 kilograms of cocaine bonded chemically with the acrylic suitcase material. Customs agent Carlos Ruiz testified that the suitcases had name tags with Mahecha's name and two baggage tags with numbers that matched claim checks on Mahecha's airline ticket. Mahecha admitted the suitcases were his, but he said he was a legitimate businessman, on his way to Spain to look for parts for machines which produce polyethylene and to establish a wholesale shawl distributing system. He added that he had bought the suitcases in April at a warehouse that sold stolen goods in Bogota.

This evidence, in our view, is more than sufficient to sustain a conviction. The jury might have disbelieved Mahecha's testimony. It might have thought it most unlikely that a legitimate businessman would set out for Spain knowing as few details about machines which produce polyethylene or the shawl industry as Mahecha's testimony suggests he knew. It might have questioned that Mahecha was on a business trip when the company he allegedly represented did not pay for his airline ticket or give him money (or a letter of credit or otherwise authorize him) to buy the equipment Mahecha said he thought was available in Spain. It might have thought it most unlikely that one could buy suitcases made of cocaine at a Bogota warehouse. It might have thought (to mention one detail) that Mahecha pasted old Eastern Airlines stickers all over the suitcases to make them look used and less suspicious since Mahecha testified that he had never in fact flown on Eastern Airlines. And, it might then have concluded that a person carrying suitcases with about 5 pounds of cocaine chemically bonded with the suitcase material was part of a professional drug smuggling operation. We cannot say that a reasonable juror could not reason in this way; or that such a juror must have a reasonable doubt about the conclusion. That being so, we must find the evidence sufficient.

Second, Mahecha says that the Government did not properly authenticate the suitcases that it introduced into evidence at his trial. That is to say, it did not show that the suitcases introduced at trial were both 1) the suitcases that customs officials seized at the airport and 2) the suitcases that Drug Enforcement Agency chemists in Miami found contained the cocaine. As the federal rules of evidence point out, however, the "authentication [requirement is] ... satisfied by evidence sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what its proponent claims." Fed. R. Evid. 901(a). And, here the evidence was more than sufficient. The record shows that the two bags introduced into evidence at trial were black, made of a cocaine/acrylic mixture, were oddly shaped and unusually hard, had scratched upon them the initials of customs agents, that they had several blue scratches where they had been field tested for cocaine, that they had Eastern Airlines tags pasted on them, and that they had each had a baggage tag tied to the handle, one with the number 004501 and the other with the number 004502. A customs official, Carlos Ruiz, testified at trial that the bags that he seized at the airport matched this description, that he had scratched his initials on them, and that his testing them at the airport for cocaine involved scratching them and exposing them to a chemical that (in the presence of cocaine) turned them blue. The customs agent also noted that the suitcases contained unusual rivets, which were handmade. A DEA agent, Victor Ayala, also testified at trial that the suitcases admitted into evidence were the same ones which he took to the DEA laboratory in Miami. In addition, Mahecha testified at trial that the bags introduced into evidence were his. Finally, the chemist from the Miami laboratory identified the bags at trial as the ones he had tested. He said that he had placed a special laboratory seal on the bags he had tested and he identified that seal as the one placed on the bags. There is no evidnce of any tampering with the suitcases from the time they left the airport until the time they arrived in the courtroom. Consequently, authentication was legally proper....


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