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Sufficiency of Evidence

7th Circuit Court of Appeals

Case Name: United States of America v. Michael L. Chaparro

Case No.: 18-2513

Officials: FLAUM, HAMILTON, and BARRETT, Circuit Judges.

Focus: Sufficiency of Evidence

A jury found Michael Chaparro guilty on three felony charges for viewing and transporting child pornography. The charges arose from three crimes separated by significant gaps in time: viewing child pornography on a hard drive in July 2013, transmitting child pornography files over the Internet in August 2014, and viewing child pornography on a smartphone in November 2014. Chaparro was sentenced to three concurrent prison terms of 210 months each. On appeal he challenges his convictions on three distinct grounds: the sufficiency of the evidence that he was the person using the electronic devices; the admission at trial of a statement that he made to Pretrial Services; and allegedly improper remarks by the prosecutor during rebuttal.

The first and third challenges were not raised in the district court and provide no basis to disturb the convictions. Granted, the government’s case could have been stronger as to the identity of the devices’ user. The computer forensics led investigators to a home, not to an individual, and little evidence showed that Chaparro resided at the relevant street address before December 2014. Nevertheless, there was sufficient evidence to sustain the convictions on plain-error review. Any improper rebuttal comments did not affect Chaparro’s substantial rights.

The admission of Chaparro’s pretrial services statement was an error, though. When Congress created Pretrial Services, it made pretrial services information “confidential” and specifically prohibited its admission “on the issue of guilt in a criminal judicial proceeding.” 18 U.S.C. § 3153(c)(1) & (3). This rule may protect some accused defendants, but its most important benefits accrue to the judicial system as a whole. Confidentiality helps pretrial services officers obtain the information needed to make quick and accurate recommendations about pretrial release and detention.

This case concerns a judge-made impeachment exception to Congress’s mandate of confidentiality. In his pretrial interview, Chaparro had said that he lived at the scene of the crimes on all the relevant dates. The government left the record blank on that key point during its case in chief. Chaparro’s lone witness, his uncle Eddie Ramos, then testified that Chaparro did not live at the address until just before his arrest. As rebuttal, the government sought to call the pretrial services officer who interviewed Chaparro. The district court allowed the testimony, over objection, relying on cases from other circuits that have recognize an exception to pretrial confidentiality for impeachment. See, e.g., United States v. Griffith, 385 F.3d 124 (2d Cir. 2004).

Those precedents were inapposite, and it was a legal error to admit Chaparro’s statement to Pretrial Services. Chaparro’s words were not a prior inconsistent statement by Ramos, the testifying witness. Instead, the government used them for “impeachment by contradiction” against Ramos. Despite the “impeachment” label, someone else’s contradictory statement is relevant only if it is offered for the truth of the matter asserted. The statement by Chaparro was thus offered as evidence of guilt, a purpose specifically prohibited by statute. This error was not harmless for two of the three convictions. Considered for its truth, Chaparro’s statement filled a key gap in the government’s cases on the July 2013 and August 2014 charges. Those convictions must therefore be vacated. Chaparro is entitled to a new trial on those charges or, in the alternative, to resentencing on the remaining conviction.

The convictions as to Count One and Count Three of the indictment are REVERSED, and the sentence on Count Two is vacated. The case is remanded to the district court for a new trial on Counts One and Three and/or resentencing on Count Two in a manner consistent with this opinion.

Reversed and remanded in part Vacated in part.

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Derek A Hawkins is trademark corporate counsel for Harley-Davidson. Hawkins oversees the prosecution and maintenance of the Harley-Davidson’s international trademark portfolio in emerging markets.

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