Proving Drug Conspiracy – US Circuit Court of Appeals Reduces Government’s Burden of Proof

In United States v. Anderson, the Second Circuit of the US Court of Appeals has significantly reduced the burden of proof regarding drug conspiracy and possession charges.  In Anderson, a case decided by the Court on March 4, 2014, the defendant was alleged to have been involved in a drug trafficking conspiracy that involved almost $1,000,000 worth of ecstasy pills.

The People’s proof at trial included testimony from federal border patrol agents that observed the defendant driving across the border.  The fact that the defendant was driving a rental car combined with his alleged nervousness, border patrol agents followed the defendant for hours, until they stopped him after he met with a female on a rural, dead-end road.  More than 20 pounds of ecstasy and other drugs were found in a bag in the female’s truck.

The defendant denied having any knowledge of the contents of the bag and claimed that he was simply sneaking into the United States.  He was convicted after trial, but in a rare move, the trial judge set aside the verdict and dismissed the indictment.  The basis for the trial judge’s decision was the lack of evidence that showed the defendant was aware of what was contained in the bag, mere presence at the scene of a crime being insufficient to support a conviction.

The prosecution appealed to the US Court of Appeals, Second Circuit.  In a 2-1 decision, the Second Circuit reversed the trial judge’s decision and reinstated the jury verdict.   The majority held that since there was evidence that the defendant had extensive contact with Anderson, and followed her to a remote location and was apparently ready to accept the monetarily valuable bag of drugs, they disbelieved the claim that the defendant did not know what was inside the bag.  The evidence the court seized on was the testimony of the People’s cooperating witness (an indicted co-defendant) who testified that the drug-ring would not have entrusted the defendant with the bag of drugs if he was not “in on it” with them.

The dissenting opinion called the majority’s decision “erroneous and dangerous” stating that it “all but eliminates the government’s burden to prove knowledge beyond a reasonable doubt in possession conspiracy cases.”  Chiefly, the dissenting opinion stated that “the majority holds . . . that a jury may now infer a defendant’s knowledge of the contents of a bag he never possessed based simply on the fact, demonstrated at trial, that the bag contained ‘high value’ drugs and there exists a record of some number of phone calls of unknown content between the defendant’s cell phone and the cell phones of the principals of the conspiracy.”  The dissent belittled the majority’s “common sense” determination that “the high value of the drugs in the bag is evidence of a significant trust relationship when considered in conjunction with third-party testimony about the state of mind of the principals of the conspiracy.”

The dissent warned that the majority was breaking with long-standing precedent on the need to establish knowledge in possession based conspiracy charges; and provided an apropos hypothetical to show that the majority was opening a Pandora’s Box by paving the way for it to be even easier for the feds to prove a conspiracy, which if anyone practices in this area will know, is already all to easy to prove as it is.

For those interested, the case can be viewed at the Second Circuit’s website or by clicking here.