United States v. Rivera-Ruiz (1st Cir. August 2022)

The Federal Docket

August 24, 2022

Luis Rivera-Ruiz and 6 other police officers within the Puerto Rico Police Department were charged with RICO conspiracy based on 20 separate acts of racketeering between 2014 and 2018. Specifically, Rivera pled guilty to participating in the conspiracy by committing 2 separate acts in furtherance of it—both involving the confiscation of money from a traffic stop that was never disclosed as a seizure.

The PSR included 10 administrative complaints filed against Rivera during his time at PRPD. In 8 of these instances, the only details listed in the PSR were the complaint number, the date of filing, and the general nature of the accusation (e.g., illegal search, use of excessive force, etc.), stating that the specific “circumstances of this complaint are unknown.” However, the remaining 2 complaints, both pertaining to illegal searches, did include additional detail—that one had been found unsubstantiated while, in response to the other, Rivera admitted to conducting an unlawful search and lying about the circumstances, which earned him a 5-month suspension.

Rivera made no objection to the PSR, which calculated an applicable guideline range of 27—33 months. The district court sentenced him to 60 months, stating that the guidelines had only partially contemplated the nature and circumstances relevant to his conduct, rendering the recommended sentencing range inadequate. In discussing the factors relevant to the upward variance, the district court discussed the administrative complaints contained in the PSR, stating it wasn’t drawing any conclusions from them but was just “mentioning” them, as their similarity to the charged conduct underscored Rivera’s “blatant disregard for the law, his oath of office, and the integrity of the judicial system.”

On appeal, the First Circuit found the district court’s sentence procedurally unreasonable and harmful error. First, the panel likened administrative complaints, without more, to “bare arrest records or mere charges unsupported by an[] admission or…other evidence.” Having already deemed such allegations insufficiently reliable on their own to justify an upward departure, the same should be true, the Court held, in the context of an upward variance. And, in either context, the administrative complaints at issue here call for even more scrutiny since they were not made upon probable cause as are arrests. Thus, these complaints are only properly considered if it’s shown by probable cause that the underlying misconduct occurred.

Applying those principles to the complaints here, the trial court did not err in considering the illegal arrest complaint that had triggered a suspension, as the PSR contained sufficient detail that it was not clear error to presume those facts were proven by a POE. However, reliance on any complaints lacking detail would be clear error. Given the trial court’s comments during sentencing, the First Circuit held it could not find the error harmless.

Appeal from the District of Puerto Rico

Opinion by Howard, joined by Thompson and Kayatta

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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