United States v. Soler-Montalvo (1st Cir. August 2022)

The Federal Docket

August 24, 2022

Rafael Soler-Montalvo was convicted by a federal jury of attempted coercion and enticement of a minor. During his trial, Soler-Montalvo put up a clinical psychologist as an expert in the field of internet sexual behaviors. After a series of rulings before and during the trial, the district court ordered that this expert’s testimony should be limited such that he could not discuss Soler-Montalvo himself at all. As a result, the jury never heard the proffered testimony that would have discussed the typical patterns seen in the online conversations of child predators nor the witness’s opinion that Soler-Montalvo’s chats did not meet these patterns. The issue was properly preserved, and Soler-Montalvo appealed.

Reviewing the trial court’s evidentiary decision for an abuse of discretion, the First Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial. Though Federal Rule of Evidence 704(b) bars an expert from directly opining about the defendant’s intent, the circuit’s precedent has consistently held that the rule does not forbid expressing an opinion about predicate facts and circumstances from which a jury could infer or not infer such intent.

Additionally, the district court abused its discretion in excluding the evidence under Rule 403 as well. The trial court’s findings that the evidence had no real probative value and that it had a high probability of confusing the jury were both incorrect. The proffered testimony was directly relevant to the question of whether Soler-Montalvo had known he was speaking to a real minor, and the danger of confusion was low, since the expert was not speaking directly to intent.

Judge Woodcock wrote separately, disagreeing that the issue had been properly raised below but concurring in the judgement because the same conclusions would be reached under plain error review.

Appeal from the District of Puerto Rico

Opinion by Thompson, joined by Howard and Woodcock (by designation from the District of Maine)

Concurrence by Woodcock

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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