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En Banc Court Disavows Heightened Standard of Review in Challenges to Sufficiency of Evidence in Drug Conspiracy Prosecutions

United States v. Caraballo-Rodriguez, No. 11-3768.  Sitting en banc, a unanimous Court revisits “a long line of cases” addressing the government’s burden in drug trafficking prosecutions to show that a defendant (commonly, a courier) knew the object of a conspiracy was the distribution of a controlled substance, not just some type of contraband. Reading one line of precedent to have applied an improperly heightened standard, the Court clarifies that review for the sufficiency of evidence is the same in this context as in others.

Under the Jackson v. Virginia test, the Court reiterates in an opinion by Judge Rendell, “the critical inquiry on review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction … is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” When applying this standard, the Court does not have the privilege of casting the “decisive vote on the jury,” but must affirm so long as “the jury’s verdict did not fall below the threshold of bare rationality.”

In drug conspiracy prosecutions, “the prosecution must prove the defendant’s knowledge of the conspiracy’s specific objective” — that is, must prove the defendant knew he or his co-conspirators were moving drugs. The Court clarifies, however, “that knowledge need not be proven by direct evidence.” So long as “a jury could rationally conclude that the defendant knew the subject of the conspiracy was drugs,” it is not fatal to the conviction that “the evidence was as consistent with contraband other than controlled substances.”

The Court concludes by finding in the case before it that the jury could reasonably have concluded both that the defendant knew he was involved in an illegal venture and that he “knew — or was willfully blind to the fact — that the illegal venture involved transporting drugs.” The Court emphasized the large amount of money the jury could infer the defendant had been offered to retrieve two suitcases from a luggage carousel, evidence that he had been left alone with this luggage for a time, and the heavy weight of the suitcases, which, the Court explained, jurors might decide as a matter of “common sense” would have led the defendant to know that they held drugs rather than cash, or at least to have been aware of the high probability they did.

In the course of clarifying its case law, the Court offers a sustained discussion of nine prior decisions in which it evaluated the sufficiency of the evidence in drug conspiracy prosecutions. Given the issue taken up by the en banc Court, the discussion focuses on these previous decisions’ variability in addressing challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence. But what may be of equal interest for those presently defending a drug conspiracy prosecution is the thorough discussion of the wide range of facts that can distinguish one drug conspiracy prosecution from another. While the very point of Caraballo-Rodriguez is that each case is different and there is no “specific formula as to what conduct or evidence is sufficient to infer knowledge,” the opinion’s overview of a range of conspiracy prosecutions may help reveal what is missing in any given case — including ones approaching trial now. Reviewing how the government has proved knowledge before might just turn up weak points in cases that still remain for a jury to decide.

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