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Media Alerts - United States v. Fuertes, et al. - Fourth Circuit
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September 14, 2015
  United States v. Fuertes, et al. - Fourth Circuit
Headline: Brothels in Unexpected Places - Fourth Circuit Vacates Annapolis Pimp's Conviction on Gun-Possession Charge

Areas of Law: Criminal Law; Criminal Procedure

Issues Presented: (1) Whether the district court erred in instructing jurors that sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion is a crime of violence; (2) whether the district court erred in admitting evidence of the appellants' violent acts against other pimps under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b); (3) whether the district court erred in admitting expert testimony concerning the physical abuse of a key witness; (4) whether the district court erred in denying Fuertes' motion for acquittal on the conviction of sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion.

Brief Summary: From 2008 to 2010, Kevin Fuertes and German Ventura ran brothels in Annapolis and Easton, Maryland, as well as in Portsmouth, Virginia. They advertised their prostitution ring through business cards, and retained payment records regarding the sexual encounters each prostitute had with other men. Some of the women who worked in the brothels did so voluntarily, but Ventura forced one woman, Rebeca Duenas Franco, into prostitution through physical abuse. Franco later became a key prosecution witness.

Fuertes and Ventura also maintained control of their prostitution business through violence and threats of violence against other area pimps. The police suspected that the men murdered an Annapolis-area pimp after cell phone evidence related to the murder was discovered during Fuertes' arrest for an unrelated traffic violation, and during a consented search of his home. This search also revealed evidence that the home was being used as a brothel. Due to the murder suspicion and further investigation into Fuertes and Ventura's activities, the police conducted several raids of Annapolis and Easton-area brothels, which led to the arrests of the men in 2010. Though later acquitted for the murder of the Annapolis-area pimp, both men were charged with and convicted of a number of sex-trafficking and related offenses, including Ventura's conviction for possession of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence.

Fuertes and Ventura appealed their convictions to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, asserting that the district court committed four errors regarding evidentiary rulings, jury instructions, and the sufficiency of the evidence. The appellants asserted two of the errors jointly and two individually. After analyzing the four arguments, the Fourth Circuit vacated Ventura's conviction for possession of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, but affirmed the sex-trafficking convictions against both men.

Turning first to Ventura's firearm conviction, the Fourth Circuit held that sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion does not qualify categorically as a crime of violence. In order for an offense to be considered a crime of violence, the offense must be a felony that has elements of physical force being used, attempted, or threaten to be used against a person or personal property, or the nature of the crime involves a substantial risk that physical force may be used against a person or personal property. The court explained that when a criminal statute involving a felony offense has a single, indivisible set of elements, a categorical approach shall be used to determine if an offense qualifies as a crime of violence. Under the categorical approach, the court only looks to the statutory definition of the crime rather than the actual facts of the conviction to determine whether the offense is a crime of violence. A criminal statute that sanctions both violent and non-violent means of committing a crime cannot be a categorical crime of violence. The court reasoned that sex trafficking can be committed non-violently through fraud or coercion. The court also found there is not a substantial risk in every case of the defendant using physical force against the victim to complete the crime. Therefore, the court concluded that the district court erred in instructing the jury that sex trafficking is categorically a crime of violence.

Fuertes and Ventura also contended that the district court erred in admitting evidence of the violent acts and threats of violence they committed against other local pimps. In the appellants' view, that evidence only served to prove bad character, which violated Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b). Additionally, the men argued that those acts were not relevant to the sex-trafficking offenses, and if the acts were relevant, the probative value was far outweighed by the unfair prejudice against them. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, finding the district court did not abuse its discretion when it admitted the evidence of violent acts. The appellants' attempt to eliminate rival pimps demonstrated their participation in the prostitution business. The court also rejected the defendants' argument regarding the admissibility of an expert's testimony concerning Franco's abuse. In particular, the court found the expert did not opine on Franco's credibility, and did not offer an opinion as to who caused her injuries. The court noted that expert testimony which simply tends to corroborate the testimony of another witness is not grounds for exclusion of the testimony. Lastly, the court declined to set aside the jury verdict against Fuertes for the count of sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion, because there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Fuertes knew about Duenas being forced into prostitution.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Davis, Keenan, and King

Argument Date: 05/13/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 08/18/2015

Docket Numbers: No. 13-4755 and No. 13-4931
Decided: No. 13-4755 affirmed; No. 13-4931 affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: J'Naia Boyd, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Nicholas J. Vitek, VITEK LAW LLC, Baltimore, Maryland; Michael Daniel Montemarano, MICHAEL D. MONTEMARANO, P.A., Columbia, Maryland, for Appellants. Sujit Raman, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Rod J. Rosenstein, United States Attorney, P. Michael Cunningham, Rachel M. Yasser, Assistant United States Attorneys, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Davis

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 09/14/2015 10:12 AM     4th Circuit  

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