Wednesday, March 05, 2014

In dirty cop case, Circuit continues deferring to jury on conspiracy convictions.

In United States v. John-Baptiste, three Virgin Islands cops were tried for RICO conspiracy and several related counts stemming from acts of extortion, kidnaping, bribes and drug trafficking. Jury convicted. District court denied defendants’ motion for new trial, but granted JOA on some counts. Defendants and government appealed.

Arguably of widest interest is the Circuit’s reversal of the district court’s JOA on two conspiracy counts: conspiracy to commit extortion and conspiracy to traffic drugs. On the conspiracy to commit extortion count, evidence showed that one cop was present but silent and inactive in the cop car while his partner bragged (to an extortion victim) about taking money for 19 years. Defense argued mere presence and the district court agreed noting that there was no evidence of an explicit agreement between the two cops as to this act of extortion. Third Circuit reversed saying, "The jury could certainly assume that if one officer boasts of engaging in such illegal activity for nearly two decades in the presence of another police officer, there must be an agreement and that the agreement arises from a ‘longstanding pattern of activity and mutual trust’ between the two." While the Court noted that its finding was very fact specific, the decision continues in the vein of Caraballo-Rodriguez in showing great deference to jury verdicts on conspiracy counts.

The Court likewise reversed the district court’s JOA on the drug conspiracy count. A govt witness testified that one cop, Edwards, handed him a brown paper bag and said that her partner wanted $3,500 for it. There was no specific evidence that Edwards knew what was inside the bag (crack). Once again following the reasoning of Caraballo-Rodriguez, Third Circuit found that the price of the bag, the light weight of the bag, and the timing of this incident (several years into the partnership between the two officers and a pattern of joint illegal activity) was enough for the jury to infer that Edwards knew that the brown paper bag contained drugs.

Other holdings:
  • Indictment was sufficient. Even though it didn’t give the actual names of the victims of each count, it was specific enough in dates and descriptions to allow defendant to invoke double jeopardy against future prosecutions of the same conduct.
  • Denial of severance motion was not a violation of due process. Even though one of the defendants was only involved in one incident which was the basis for only 8 out of 54 counts, the evidence could be easily separated and compartmentalized by the jury so there was no prejudice from the joinder.
  • Virgin Island laws against kidnaping/false imprisonment without "lawful authority" applied to a cop who arrests someone. Even though cops have the legal power to make arrests, if they are acting outside the bounds of the law (for example, by legally arresting someone, but then keeping her until a ransom payment is made), then they are acting without lawful authority. Statutes were not unconstitutionally vague.
  • Evidence sufficient to sustain extortion conviction even through no direct evidence that payment was given to the cop. Money was left in the cop’s car and other circumstances suggest that cop pocketed it.
  • No new trial warranted on RICO conviction even through JOA granted on some of the predicate acts and jury may have relied on that acquitted conduct in their deliberations. As long as there is a conviction on two or more predicate acts, the RICO conviction stands even if jury (or judge) acquits on other predicate acts.
  • Defense claimed prosecutorial misconduct, but Court found no due process violation because no harm from these incidents (assuming they were improper).
  • Court did not abuse discretion by prohibiting defense from cross-examining cooperators on the specific length of the sentence they would otherwise be facing were it not for their cooperation. Confrontation right preserved by defense ability to cross on the cooperation agreements and sentence reductions, generally.
  • Remember FRE 613 – witness must be given the opportunity to admit or deny a prior inconsistent statement before extrinsic evidence of that statement may be introduced. Defense attorney properly prohibited from asking one witness about statements another witness made that was inconsistent with that witness’s prior testimony.

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