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Federal Jury Acquits Man After Drug Bust at Fort Lauderdale Airbnb


Every person accused of a misdemeanor or felony in the United States has the right to a trial by jury, but in practice, very few defendants exercise those rights.  The punishments are usually worse if a jury returns a guilty verdict at trial than if the defendant had pleaded guilty.  Sometimes defense lawyers are able to negotiate plea deals that enable defendants to reduce their time behind bars or even avoid incarceration altogether.  In other cases, prosecutors or even public defenders pressure defendants into pleading guilty.  There is no one size fits all answer about which way you should plead in a criminal case.  Here, our South Florida drug crimes defense lawyer explains how a man who could have received a life sentence pleaded not guilty and was acquitted at trial.

The Accusations: Smuggling Cocaine into the United States

In the summer of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Florida, South Florida’s vacation rental business was booming.  A waterfront house in Fort Lauderdale was being rented for $4,000 a night.  Law enforcement became suspicious of the vessels that would dock outside the vacation home for short periods; the house was in just the right location to receive shipments of drugs being smuggled in from the Caribbean.  On July 3, 2019, federal agents carried out a drug bust; they seized nine pounds of cocaine and arrested several men in the house and on the 54-foot yacht that was docked outside.  Gregorio Martinez, a 36-year-old citizen of the Dominican Republic, jumped off the side of the yacht and into the water but could not avoid arrest.  Jointly organized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), it was the third drug bust to have taken place at an Airbnb vacation rental since 2018.

The Charges: Felony Drug Trafficking, Punishable by Life in Prison

Federal prosecutors charged Martinez with four counts of conspiracy to smuggle a Schedule II controlled substance into the United States.  If found guilty of even one count of this offense, he could have been sentenced to life in prison.  He entered a plea of not guilty, and his case went to trial.  At the trial, the prosecution argued that the reason that Martinez was on the yacht at the time of the drug bust was so that he could unload packages containing cocaine off of the vessel.  Martinez’s defense attorneys, however, demonstrated that the prosecution did not have proof that Martinez was an active participant in the drug smuggling operation or that he knew that there were drugs on the vessel or that they would be transferred to the house.  In order to convict a defendant at trial, the prosecution must persuade the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, that its accusations are true.  In this case, there were other, highly plausible, reasons that Martinez could have been present at the site of the drug bust and why he might have jumped into the water to elude capture.  For example, maybe he feared that the ICE agents would accuse him of trying to enter the United States illegally.  Perhaps he feared that he would be detained or deported, for reasons that had nothing to do with drugs.

A Not Guilty Verdict at Trial: What Are the Chances?

Several of the men arrested with Martinez at last summer’s drug bust pleaded guilty to their charges and received reduced sentences in exchange for cooperating with authorities; other defendants were convicted at trial.  Martinez is the only person arrested that night to have been acquitted at trial.  He spoke briefly with the Miami New Times by phone; he said only that he had left Florida and was afraid for his safety, but he did not elaborate as to why According to the Pew Research Center, only one out of every 50 federal cases goes to trial, and about half of those result in acquittals, which means that about one percent of federal criminal cases result in the defendant being acquitted by a jury.  For criminal cases in the Florida court system, 1.53 percent of all criminal charges result in an acquittal at trial; some states have even lower acquittal rates than Florida.  The vast majority of defendants plead guilty, and about eight percent get their charges dropped.

Let Us Help You Today

A Miami drug crime lawyer can help you make an informed decision about whether going to trial is the best option in your case.  Contact Ratzan & Faccidomo for a consultation today.





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