Argued: January 30, 2019
from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Virginia, at Alexandria. Liam O'Grady,
District Judge. (1:17-cr-00197-LO-1)
Caroline Swift Platt, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER,
Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant.
L. Trump, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria,
Virginia, for Appellee.
C. Kamens, Federal Public Defender, Shannon Quill, Assistant
Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC
DEFENDER, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant.
Zach Terwilliger, United States Attorney, Christopher K.
Grieco, Special Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF
THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for
GREGORY, Chief Judge, RICHARDSON, Circuit Judge, and DUNCAN,
Senior Circuit Judge.
GREGORY, Chief Judge
Rodriguez-Soriano was found guilty of knowingly making a
false statement to a licensed firearms dealer in the
acquisition of a firearm, stating that he was the actual
purchaser of the firearms when he was acquiring them for
another individual. He appeals the district court's
exclusion of proposed expert testimony at trial, as well as
denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal.
Rodriguez-Soriano challenges the district court's
determination that proposed expert testimony related to false
confessions, excluded pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence
702, was not reliable or relevant, and that the risk of
prejudice outweighed its probative value, and thus it was
also properly excluded under Federal Rule of Evidence 403. We
conclude that, for the reasons stated below, we need not
determine whether the expert testimony was properly excluded
because the evidence introduced at trial was insufficient to
independently corroborate Rodriguez-Soriano's confession.
We therefore reverse the district court's judgment of
conviction and remand for the entry of a judgment of
25, 2015, Rodriguez-Soriano purchased two firearms, a Ruger
P95 9mm pistol and a Beemiller Hi-Point C9 9mm pistol, from a
Northern Virginia location of Gander Mountain Company, a
licensed firearms dealer. At the time of purchase,
Rodriguez-Soriano completed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms ("ATF") Form 4473, "Report of
Multiple Sale or Other Disposition of Pistols and
Revolvers," which listed him as the purchaser of both
firearms. He marked the box indicating that he was the actual
buyer of the firearms listed on the form. Gander Mountain
completed another ATF-required document, a "Multiple
Sale Summary," documenting that Rodriguez-Soriano
purchased both firearms in a single transaction.
November 2016, a Washington, D.C. homicide detective sought
the assistance of the ATF after receiving information that
one of the firearms Rodriguez-Soriano purchased was used in a
homicide. Based on this information, ATF Special Agent David
Burkholder and ATF Task Force Officer Kevin McConnell
interviewed Rodriguez-Soriano on two occasions about his gun
initially told the agents that the two firearms he purchased
were stolen sometime in late 2015 and described the
circumstances surrounding their theft. According to
Rodriguez-Soriano, he didn't know exactly when they were
stolen, and didn't notice they were missing until
mid-November. At some point during that time period he found
the closet where he kept the guns in disarray, but its
condition did not alert him to the theft. He then revealed to
the agents he suspected that a friend had broken the lock on
his basement door to enter and steal the guns, but he
didn't immediately notice the lock was broken and could
not say which of his friends knew he had firearms. He later
identified one, who he referred to as "D."
asked why he purchased two guns, Rodriguez-Soriano responded
that the Hi-Point pistol "kept jamming" at the
shooting range, so he returned to purchase the other firearm.
The agents immediately knew this statement was false because
the ATF forms documenting the purchase indicated that the two
firearms had been purchased in a single transaction. The
agents then "pivoted," expressing doubt as to the
veracity of his story. J.A. 420. The agents informed
Rodriguez-Soriano that straw purchasers often say that guns
they have purchased were stolen and informed him it was a
crime punishable by up to five years in prison to lie to
federal agents. They revealed that they knew he had purchased
the guns for someone else because the person had told them
so, the situation was very serious because one of the guns
had been used in a homicide, and they were giving him the
opportunity to "come clean." J.A. 420-21. They
characterized the purchase of the gun as "minimal"
compared to what had been done with it, but warned him about
continuing to "go down the path" of lying about the
guns being stolen. J.A. 421.
then confessed to the agents that he purchased the two 9mm
handguns at the request of an acquaintance named
"Ron." He revealed that Ron approached him in late
May 2015 about buying two handguns for him. Rodriguez-Soriano
did not immediately accept Ron's offer, but when their
paths crossed again, Rodriguez-Soriano told him, "I can
do that favor for you." Ron gave Rodriguez-Soriano $650
to buy two guns. After the purchase, Rodriguez-Soriano met
Ron and his friend, "D," in the parking lot of a
convenience store where Rodriguez-Soriano entered their car,
showed them the guns, and left the guns on the back seat.
Rodriguez-Soriano confessed, the agents reviewed Form 4473
with him. He admitted it was his name, information, and mark
in the box indicating that he was the actual buyer of the
firearms. At a follow-up interview conducted eighteen days
later, Rodriguez-Soriano confirmed the statements he made in
his prior interview. Rodriguez-Soriano was indicted on one
count of knowingly making a false statement to a licensed
firearms dealer in the acquisition of a firearm, stating that
he was the actual purchaser of the firearms when he was
acquiring them for another individual, in violation of 18
U.S.C. § 924(a)(1)(A).
Burkholder, an ATF records management employee, and Gander
Mountain's former general manager, as the representative
of the licensed firearms dealer, testified for the government
at trial. But the homicide detective and the men who,
according to Rodriguez-Soriano's confession, gave him the
cash for and took possession of the guns he purchased did
not. The gun used in the homicide was not introduced into
evidence. Rodriguez-Soriano did not present any evidence in
response to the government's case. He instead moved for a
judgment of acquittal under Federal Rule of Criminal
Procedure 29, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to
support his conviction because the only evidence of criminal
activity was Rodriguez-Soriano's own uncorroborated
statement to the ATF agents. The district court denied the
motion, finding that "given the other evidence
surrounding his confession," further corroboration was
not "legally necessary" because the government
produced sufficient evidence as to each of the elements of
the offense. J.A. 233-34; 239. The jury found
Rodriguez-Soriano guilty of the offense charged.
Court reviews de novo the district court's
denial of the motion for acquittal under Federal Rule of
Criminal Procedure 29. United States v. Jaensch, 665
F.3d 83, 93 (4th Cir. 2001); Fed. R. Crim. P. 29. In
reviewing a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, an
appellate court must ask whether "there is substantial
evidence, taking the view most favorable to the Government,
to support" the conviction. Glasser v. United
States, 315 U.S. 60, 80 (1942). "[S]ubstantial
evidence is evidence that a reasonable finder of fact could
accept as adequate and sufficient to support a conclusion of
a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
United States v. Burgos, 94 F.3d 849, 862 (4th Cir.
1996) (en banc); see also United States v. Kasai,
736 Fed.Appx. 414, 415 (4th Cir. 2018) (citing United
States v. Cowden, 882 F.3d 464, 474 (4th Cir. 2018).
"[A]ppellate reversal on grounds of insufficient
evidence . . . will be confined "to cases where the
prosecution's failure is clear." Burgos, 94
F.3d at 862 (citing Burks v. United States, 437 U.S.
1, 17 (1978); see also United States v.
Palomino-Coronado, 805 F.3d 127, 130 (4th Cir. 2015);