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Drug Trafficking Conviciton Affirmed - No Problems with Time Frame of Conspiracy, Sufficiency of Evidence & Chain of Custody

United States v. Rawlins, No. 08-2948 (3d Cir. May 26, 2010). The Third Circuit affirmed the defendants drug trafficking conviction and rejected his arguments that:1) the indictment was invalid because it failed to allege the proper time frame for the conspiracy; 2) the evidence was insufficient to sustain the conviction, and; 3) there were gaps in the chain of custody of the evidence.

Rawlins was convicted of several counts of conspiracy and possession with intend to distribute cocaine. The evidence at rial suggested that Rawlins was a baggage handler at an airport and that he participated in a cocaine smuggling operation by switching tags from legitimate luggage to baggage containing cocaine. His first argument on appeal challenged the validity of the indictment which charged conspiracy "from a time unknown and continuing to September, 2004." The court of appeals rejected that argument because the overt acts alleged in the indictment "adequately limited the time frame of the conspiracy" and "all in all, the indictment was sufficient to apprise Rawlins of the charges against him, to enable him to prepare a defense, and to avoid double jeopardy on the same charge."

Rawlins also claimed that the evidence was insufficient to prove that he knew that the luggage that he moved contained cocaine. The Third Circuit found, however, that Rawlins’ "irregular and plainly illegal act of tag switching evidenced his knowledge of cocaine smuggling."

Lastly, although the court of appeals found that although there were gaps in the chain of custody of the cocaine admitted at trial, the district court did not err in admitting that evidence. DEA chemists testified that the substance they received was cocaine, however, there was no testimony regarding the transfer of the substance to the DEA labs from the facilities where they were stored in other states. The Third Circuit held that deference is owed to a district court’s determinations regarding chain of custody and they will be reversed only on a showing of abuse of discretion. Additionally, the court relied on a "presumption of regularity in the handling of evidence by law enforcement" in rejecting Rawlins’ claim.

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