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United States v. Ranalli

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 16, 2014

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
AUGUST RANALLI, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

YVETTE KANE, District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendant August Ranalli's motion to sever and to partially dismiss Counts One and Two in the above-captioned action, which is currently set for trial on June 2, 2014. (Doc. No. 183.) For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny Defendant's motion.

I. BACKGROUND

This case arises out of an investigation between August 2011 and March 2013 by the Pennsylvania State Police, the York County Drug Task Force, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation into heroin, cocaine, and crack cocaine distribution in York, Pennsylvania, and centered on the activities of the Latin Kings, a street gang with expected ties to drug trafficking. (Doc. No. 195 at 2.) As part of the investigation, law enforcement conducted approximately forty controlled purchases or seizures of drugs from Defendant and his seven co-Defendants.[1] ( Id. at 3.)

During the course of the investigation, informants provided police and law enforcement with multiple accounts of Defendant's involvement in selling and trafficking controlled substances, including cocaine base and crack cocaine, with co-Defendants. ( Id. at 6-7.) These accounts include descriptions of Defendant's presence during alleged drug sales and hand-to-hand transactions between Defendant and various co-Defendants prior to delivery of the drugs. (Id.) In addition to this information, officers directly purchased cocaine base from Defendant on three separate occasions in October and November 2012. ( Id. at 8.) On November 28, 2012, an informant again arranged to purchase crack cocaine from Defendant. (Id.) When he arrived at the scheduled meeting, police arrested Defendant and recovered cocaine base. (Id.) Police subsequently searched Defendant's residence, where they found a variety of documents concerning the Latin Kings street gang. (Id.)

On December 12, 2012, a grand jury indicted Defendant on charges of distribution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a). (Doc. No. 1.) A grand jury issued a two-count superseding indictment on April 17, 2013, charging Defendant and his seven co-Defendants with distribution and conspiracy to distribute cocaine, heroin and cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a). (Doc. No. 22.) The government alleges that Defendant was a member of the Latin Kings known as "King Essence, " and was a source of crack cocaine for the Sunrise Chapter of the Latin Kings in York, Pennsylvania. (Doc. No. 195 at 3.) The government also intends to introduce evidence showing that the Latin Kings sold heroin, cocaine and cocaine base as part of an ongoing criminal conspiracy. (Id.) On January 17, 2014, Defendant filed a motion to sever his trial from his co-Defendants and to partially dismiss Counts One and Two of the superceding indictment. (Doc. No. 183.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

II. DISCUSSION

Defendant first asks the Court to sever his trial from his co-Defendants. (Doc. No. 183.) Specifically, he contends he would be substantially prejudiced in proceeding to trial with the others because he does not believe the government has the evidence to support the charge that he conspired with the co-Defendants to sell heroin. ( Id. at 1-2.) Secondly, Defendant asks the Court to partially dismiss Counts One and Two of the superseding indictment as they relate to 280 grams of cocaine base because Defendant was entrapped as a matter of law. ( Id. at 2-3.) The Court will address these arguments in turn.

A. Motion to sever

Defendant asks the Court to sever his trial from his co-Defendants because he contends there is a risk of substantial prejudice if they are tried together. (Doc. No. 183 at 1-2.) Specifically, he asserts that, although he is charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin, crack cocaine and cocaine base, he has no personal knowledge of any heroin sales. (Doc. No. 193 at 1-4.) Moreover, he asserts that the government does not have evidence to substantiate the heroin element of the charge. (Id.) The government opposes Defendant's motion and contends that there is no substantial prejudice or risk of prejudicial spillover if all Defendants are tried together. (Doc. No. 195 at 9-14.)

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 14(a) provides: "If the joinder of offenses... in an indictment... appears to prejudice a defendant or the government, the court may order separate trials of counts... or provide any other relief that justice requires." Fed.R.Crim.P. 14(a). Under Rule 14, a defendant bears a "heavy burden in gaining severance." United States v. Quintero , 38 F.3d 1317, 1343 (3d Cir. 1994). The defendant must "pinpoint clear and substantial prejudice resulting in an unfair trial." United States v. Riley , 621 F.3d 312, 335 (3d Cir. 2010). A motion to sever under Rule 14 should only be granted "if there is a serious risk that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right of one of the defendants, or prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence." Zafiro v. United States , 506 U.S. 534, 539 (1993). A defendant is not entitled to severance solely because he may have a better chance of acquittal in separate trials. See United States v. McGlory , 968 F.2d 309, 340 (3d Cir. 1992). The question of prejudice hinges on whether a jury can "compartmentalize" the evidence as it relates to each separate count, considering the volume of evidence and limited admissibility. See United States v. Davis , 397 F.3d 173, 182 (3d Cir. 2005). Once a defendant has met his burden of demonstrating prejudice, the Court may exercise its discretion to grant the motion to sever after "balanc[ing] the potential prejudice to the defendant against the advantages of joinder in terms of judicial economy." United States v. Sandini , 888 F.2d 300, 305 (3d Cir. 1989). Because Rule 14 is discretionary, it does not necessarily require severance even when prejudice is shown. United States v. Saferstein, No. 07-557, 2009 WL 1046128, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 17, 2009).

First, the Court finds that any prejudice to Defendant is minimal. His motion appears to be premised on the theory that the Government's evidence that he sold heroin is much weaker against him than against any of his co-Defendants, and he would therefore be prejudiced by the presentation of evidence at trial that his co-Defendants sold heroin. (Doc. No. 193 at 1-4.) However, variation in the quantity of evidence as to individual co-Defendants is not grounds for severance. See United States v. Eufrasio , 935 F.2d 553, 568 (3d Cir. 1991) ("Neither a disparity in evidence, nor introducing evidence more damaging to one defendant than others entitles seemingly less culpable defendants to severance.").

Moreover, because Defendant and his co-Defendants are alleged to be part of the same conspiracy, and because acts committed by one co-conspirator in furtherance of the conspiracy are admissible against other co-conspirators, even were the Court to grant Defendant's motion to sever his trial, the evidence in question would still be admissible against him. See United States v. Hart , 273 F.3d 363, 370 (3d Cir. 2001). Thus, Defendant's claim that he will suffer prejudice unless the Court grants him a severed trial is unavailing. See United States v. DeLuca , 137 F.3d 24, 36 (1st Cir. 1998) ("[S]ince any evidentiary spillover is vitiated where the evidence in all events would have been admissible against the movant, in the context of conspiracy, severance will rarely, if ever, be required."). Finally, the Court finds no reason to believe that a jury will be unable to compartmentalize the evidence against Defendant, or that the Court will be unable to issue instructions in that regard. See United States v. Williams, No. 06-719-5 , 2009 WL 1285519, at *2 (E.D. Pa. May 7, 2009) "[The Court] can ensure [Defendant] will receive a fair trial because it will issue jury instructions directing the jury to consider the evidence separately as to each defendant and each count."); United States v. Saferstein, No. 07-557, 2009 WL 1046128, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 17, 2009) ("[Defendant's argument] that severance is necessary since a jury will have a difficult time separating or ascertaining which evidence against him is meant to prove which set of charges is also overcome, since the Court is in a position to evaluate each situation should any occur and to respond appropriately with limiting instructions at trial, if necessary.").

Further, the Court finds that the preference for judicial economy is compelling and weighs against severance. "There is a preference in the federal system for joint trials of defendants who are indicted together." Zafiro , 506 U.S. at 537. This preference for joinder "promote[s] efficiency and serve[s] the interest of justice by avoiding the scandal and inequity of inconsistent verdicts." Id. at 537 (quoting Richardson v. Marsh , 481 U.S. 200, 210 (1987)). Additionally, because this is a conspiracy case, evidence in furtherance of the conspiracy is admissible against Defendant regardless of severance. Therefore, granting Defendant's's request would result in the Court essentially repeating the same trial, which runs counter to established principles of judicial economy. See Eufrasio , 935 F.2d at 568-69 ("The public interest in judicial economy favors joint trials where the same evidence would be presented at separate trials of defendants charged with a single conspiracy."); United States v. Lacerda, No. 12-303, 2013 WL 3177814, at *7 (D.N.J. June 19, 2013) (noting ...


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