Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Circuit Reverses Grant of Acquittal in Drug Conspiracy

United States v. Boria, No. 08-2550, 2009 WL 282088 (Jan. 26, 2010). Following a jury verdict of guilty on charges of aiding and abetting and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, the district court entered a judgment of acquittal, finding the evidence of his knowledge of the objective of the conspiracy, i.e. the transportation of cocaine, insufficient. The Circuit reversed, holding that the conconspirator’s "crucial" testimony, combined with suspicious circumstances under which defendant became involved with the tractor-trailer carrying the drugs, established that defendant knew drugs were involved.

The evidence at trial showed that another conspirator, Diaz, brought to Philadelphia a tractor-trailer which contained one hundred kilograms of cocaine. A DEA informant, Alvarado, received a phone call from another conspirator, Morel, who was searching for a garage which could fit a tractor-trailer for unloading. Alvarado met with Morel and four other Mexican nationals, none of which were Boria. An overnight parking location was chosen. The next morning Alvarado returned to the parking lot to take Diaz to breakfast. When the two arrived at the diner, Alvarado received a phone call from Morel informing Alvarado that he had sent someone to take the tractor-trailer to a garage for unloading. Alvarado testified that he was told by Morel that Boria "was supposed to take the tractor-trailer from [Alvarado] and take it to a garage to unload the drugs that were in the back of the tractor-trailer." On cross, Alvarado maintained that Boria was responsible for "taking the truck from [his] hands to take it to another garage to unload it," and for "tak[ing] the driver of the tractor-trailer to finish off what needs to be done inside the truck." Morel informed Alvarado and Diaz that this man would identify himself as "Ruben," and Alvarado identified Boria as Ruben. When Alvarado and Diaz pulled into the parking lot. Boria identified himself as Ruben and confirmed that Morel had sent him. Alvarado acknowledged he had never before seen Boria. Diaz then climbed into the driver's side of the truck and Boria climbed into the passenger's side. The truck left its location with Alvarado following, at Morel's request, and eventually stopped in a K-Mart parking lot. Alvarado exited his car and approached the truck to ask Boria why they had stopped there because it was a "hot area." When Alvarado reached the tractor, Boria was on his cell phone. After Boria hung up, Alvarado asked where the truck was heading. Boria responded that he was going to a garage in North Philadelphia, but that he was waiting for someone to open it. When the truck pulled out of the parking lot, it was stopped by the police, who had been observing the truck since receiving Alvarado's tip. Police gained access to the locked trailer portion with a key on the ring they found in the ignition. After three hours of searching, the police located one hundred kilograms of cocaine hidden in boxes, which themselves were hidden in the middle of the trailer within pallets of mostly rotten fruit.

The District Court entered a judgment of acquittal for Boria finding the evidence of his knowledge of the objective of the conspiracy, i.e. the transportation of cocaine, insufficient. The court found: "there was no evidence that Mr. Boria was engaged in, or present during, any conversations about the cocaine that was hidden in the back of the trailer; no probative evidence of the substance of any communications in which Mr. Boria engaged; no evidence that Mr. Boria ever ‘possessed’ or saw the cocaine, or that he ever saw the back of the trailer unlocked; no evidence of any prior relationship between Mr. Boria and any co-conspirators; and no evidence that Mr. Boria previously had been involved in any drug-trafficking activities."

In reversing, the Circuit held that a rational trier of fact could infer that Boria knew drugs were involved based on Alvarado's testimony and the suspicious circumstances under which Boria became associated with the tractor-trailer. Boria was responsible for taking the truck for unloading, but first had to arrange a garage. He knew exactly which truck to approach, confirmed Morel had sent him, and began directing the truck to a garage. A reasonable juror could conclude, based on this arrangement, that Boria knew something criminal was afoot. Alvarado's testimony that Boria was responsible for unloading the drugs, attributable to Boria as a co-conspirator, then serves as the crucial additional fact imputing knowledge of drugs, as opposed to some other form of contraband. Accordingly, a rational trier of fact could have found Boria guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and aiding and abetting the possession of cocaine.

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