TRENTON – Hector Ramos, 45, of Middle Township, along with several others, was arrested, in 2014, and charged as part of a heroin distribution ring, with ties to a Mexican drug cartel.
The investigation, named “Operation White House,” resulted in the seizure of 17 kilograms of heroin, with a street value of approximately $15 million, plus an additional 750,000 individual baggies of heroin, valued at approximately $3.75 million.
Authorities also seized $225,000, believed to be from drug sales, according to a press release from the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office (http://bit.ly/388eZj7).
Some of the heroin was seized from a trailer on Ramos’ property.
At trial, three years later, Ramos was found not guilty of being the leader of a narcotics network, but guilty of several other serious drug offenses, and sentenced to 45 years in prison by Superior Court Judge John C. Porto.
In November 2019, Ramos appealed his conviction and sentence. Judges Carmen Alvarez and Christine Nugent handed down a decision Jan. 29, finding against the appeal arguments, but recommending the sentencing be reviewed by Porto.
Ramos appealed on five points, according to court documents, starting with being deprived of a fair trial because the state repeatedly presented testimony that a judge granted law enforcement authorities the right to obtain electronic wiretap surveillance of his phones, and that there was a court-ordered search warrant for Ramos' van and trailer prior to his arrest.
The second point of appeal stated that the trial court erred by allowing a detective to provide expert testimony that another individual, who was not charged with any crime connected to the case, was working for Ramos to traffic in narcotics.
Point three claims the prosecutor committed misconduct during summation by stating that when the defense does not have the facts, it argues the investigation, and that the state did not test the alleged heroin seized from Ramos' trailer because it wasn't necessary.
The fourth argument claims the trial court abused its discretion by granting the state's motion for the imposition of an extended prison term out-of-time.
Finally, the sentence imposed was manifestly excessive.
According to court documents, the first count was found without merit, stating that prosecutors and the defense could not avoid mentioning the wiretaps and search warrants, and the trial judge gave appropriate instructions to the jury regarding that testimony.
On point two, the Appeals Court ruled that “the objected-to testimony was nothing more than a reiteration of defendant's inculpatory (incriminating) statement regarding his street sellers, and is probative of one or more of the statutory elements of the crime of being the leader of a narcotics network. The passing reference had probative value that was not substantially outweighed by the risk of undue prejudice.”
The court dismissed the argument that the prosecutor made statements that were unduly prejudicial, stating, “A prosecutor can present forceful arguments on behalf of the state. That the prosecutor observed that defendant's defense was an attack on the investigation, not the facts, was fair comment. That was the defense theory - an attack on the investigation in a case with overwhelming state's proofs, including direct testimony against defendant, recordings of him engaging in the business of drug dealing, and his own confession.”
The court also found that for the prosecutor to have observed that the state did not test the heroin seized from the trailer because it was not necessary was similarly unobjectionable.
“A very substantial quantity of similarly packaged drugs was tested. The prosecutor's passing reference was unremarkable in light of defendant's statement and other proofs in the case. In any event, the heroin seized from defendant's van, which was tested, exceeded the statutory requirement of five ounces or more.”
Points four and five of the appeal, regarding sentencing, brought a mixed decision from the court.
Ramos’ defense argued that the court should not have imposed an extended-term sentence because the state filed the recommendation after the allowed period to do so. They also argued the sentence was unduly excessive and punitive.
According to court documents, “the prosecutor argued that defendant was well aware that the state would be seeking an extended sentence, and that the extended term was mandatory. The record supports the state's claim that defendant knew, prior to the motion, that he was subject to extended-term mandatory sentencing up to life imprisonment. Failure to impose a statutorily mandated sentence is itself an illegal sentence.”
Alvarez and Nugent noted that Ramos had a limited criminal history, with one similar conviction in the past.
“It is not clear how the 50-year sentence was necessary to deter defendant specifically, when a lesser sentence can have the same deterrent effect. It is not clear to us that defendant's relatively limited prior criminal history, admittedly including one similar offense, even in the absence of mitigating factors, warrants a sentence that, at best, will see defendant released from state prison at age 67.”
Ramos was found guilty of robbery, in 1992, in Puerto Rico, a disorderly person attempted theft, in 2001, and second-degree drug distribution, in 2002, for which he was sentenced to state prison.
The Appeals Court asked Porto to revisit the weight he accorded the aggravating factors, but offered no sentencing suggestion.
“We do not suggest the number of years to which defendant should be sentenced, but only that a comparatively scant criminal history may not warrant the substantial weight the judge assigned to aggravating factors.”
To contact Carl Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org.