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Under the plain error standard, the error must be clear under current law and impact substantial rights, having prejudiced the defendant by affecting the trial's outcome. Moreover, the court of appeals will not reverse unless the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.
Evans Santos Diaz was charged, along with five co-defendants, with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute drugs. One of the co-defendants, Jeffrey Guzman, orchestrated the conspiracy. He distributed to co-defendants Richard Chalmers, Louis Bracey, Landy Then, and Diaz, and periodically involved his mother, co-defendant Magdalena Alvarez, as well. All five of Diaz's co-defendants pled guilty, but Diaz chose to exercise his right to a trial. The jury convicted Diaz of conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute heroin, cocaine, and crack. Diaz challenged his conviction.
Was Diaz’ conviction proper notwithstanding the alleged error?
The court held that though the district court improperly admitted a Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force Officer's conclusory testimony about Diaz’ role in a conspiracy, as well as testimony about his impressions of communications, in violation of Fed. R. Evid. 701(b), the plain error standard of review prevented reversal because the improper testimony did not prejudice Diaz so as to affect his substantial rights. The prosecution introduced considerable evidence of Diaz’ involvement in the conspiracy, and the prosecutor did not rely on any of the officer's improper testimony in summation. The district court had ample basis for determining that Diaz was responsible for at least 20 grams of heroin under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 2D1.1(c)(12) because Diaz undisputedly bore responsibility for bagging at least 500 bags, or 15 grams, of heroin.