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United States v. Diaz-Doncel

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

January 27, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee,
v.
FERRISON DÍAZ-DONCEL, Defendant, Appellant

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO. [Hon. Francisco A. Besosa, U.S. District Judge].

Jennie M. Espada, with whom Espada Esquire Legal Services PSC was on brief, for appellant.

Tiffany V. Monrose, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom, Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, and Nelson Pérez-Sosa, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, were on brief, for appellee.

Before Torruella, Hawkins,[*] and Barron, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

BARRON, Circuit Judge.

This appeal follows defendant Ferrison Díaz-Doncel's straight plea of guilty to all three counts set forth in a criminal indictment. The first two counts were for conspiracy to possess, and aiding and abetting the possession of, cocaine on a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, in violation of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (" MDLEA" ). 46 U.S.C. § § 70501 et seq.; 18 U.S.C. § 2. The third count was for aiding and abetting a failure to heave. 18 U.S.C. § § 2237, 2.[1] On appeal, Díaz argues that Congress exceeded the scope of its Article I powers in enacting the MDLEA and that his MDLEA convictions must therefore be reversed. But precedent makes clear that Díaz waived his right to bring this challenge when he entered his guilty plea.

The undisputed facts can be briefly stated. On June 28, 2013, a United States Coast Guard (" USCG" ) cutter ordered a cigarette boat in the Caribbean Sea to heave to. Following a chase, a Dutch war ship with USCG personnel on-board interdicted the cigarette boat. The USCG personnel then boarded the cigarette boat, arrested the crew, including Díaz, and seized the vessel.

Following the arrest, Díaz was indicted by a federal grand jury on three counts. He then filed a late motion to dismiss the indictment. The motion argued that Congress had exceeded the scope of its powers under Article I of the United States Constitution in enacting the MDLEA. The District Court denied the motion as untimely. The District Court ruled that no exception could be made for Díaz's late filing, because his challenge was not a challenge to the Court's subject matter jurisdiction.

On the second day of the trial, Díaz entered a straight plea of guilty to all three counts. The District Court then sentenced Díaz to 168 months of imprisonment on each of the MDLEA counts, and to 60 months of imprisonment for failing to heave, to be served concurrently. On appeal, Díaz challenges only his MDLEA

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convictions, which he contends must be reversed because Congress exceeded the scope of its Article I powers in enacting that statute.

" Ordinarily a guilty plea, entered unconditionally --that is, without reserving an issue or issues for appeal -- establishes guilt and forfeits all objections and defenses." United States v. González, 311 F.3d 440, 442 (1st Cir. 2002) (citing United States v. Cordero, 42 F.3d 697, 699 (1st Cir. 1994)). There are, however, " a few exceptions to this principle." Id. And the one that Díaz relies on " applies where the claim on appeal is that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case." Id.[2]

Our precedent makes clear, however, that this exception does not apply here. As we have held before, a constitutional challenge to Congress's " jurisdiction" to pass the MDLEA pursuant to its Article I powers is not a challenge to a district court's subject matter jurisdiction over a criminal case brought under the MDLEA. United States v. Nueci-Peña,711 F.3d 191, 197 (1st Cir. 2013); United States v. Cardales-Luna,632 F.3d 731, 737-38 (1st Cir. 2011). And the D.C. Circuit recently agreed in concluding that a guilty plea barred a defendant from asserting an Article I challenge to the MDLEA on appeal. See United States v. Miranda,780 F.3d 1185, 1189-91, 414 U.S.App.D.C. 305 (D.C. Cir. 2015). Thus, whatever the merits of Díaz's constitutional argument, see Cardales-Luna, 632 F.3d at 738-51 (Torruella, J., ...


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