US v. Terry Pierre Louis, (11th Cir., filed 7/10/17) REVERSAL on sufficiency of the evidence claim; Rejection of Entrustment Theory.
An exceedingly rare win on a sufficiency of the evidence claim, but it’s so heartening to see that the appellate courts are diligently assessing these cases:
The burden is on the government to prove all elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. See In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, 90 S. Ct. 1068, 1072 (1970). When a man’s liberty is at stake, we must be vigilant with this burden. The government failed to offer evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Terry Pierre Louis had knowledge that the boxes placed in the backseat of his car contained a controlled substance. Without proof of this essential element, the government has failed to meet its burden. Therefore, we must reverse.
Music to my ears!
So here’s what happened– the government got a tip that a freighter returning from Haiti to Miami would be carrying narcotics. They searched the boat; no drugs, but afterwards the government set up surveillance on it. During their surveillance, an agent saw the deck watchman go inside the ship and come out carrying two large cardboard boxes. They later saw a forklift pick up the boxes and drive them off the ship. They were placed on a dock where someone covered them with tarp. Later on, a car parked next to them. Two men placed the boxes into the backseat of a white car. Outside the gate of the shipyard, the car was stopped by unmarked law enforcement cars. Louis exited the car and began to run. Agents searched the car and found that the boxes contained 111 bricks of cocaine.
For this, Louis was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, in violation of 21 USC §841(b)(1)(A), and §846, and possession with intent to distribute cocaine in violation of 21 USC §§841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A). At trial, Louis moved for an acquittal which the district court denied. He was found guilty and sentenced to 151 months’ imprisonment.
The Court notes that it is clear that the law requires the government, under §846 and §841, must prove that a defendant had knowledge that his alleged crime involved a controlled substance. That is the critical issue in this case. While Louis’s attempt to run away– his flight from the scene– shows consciousness of guilt, the government failed to prove that Louis knew that the boxes contained controlled substances, and not say, knock off Versace bags or some other illegal contraband.
To sustain a conviction of the substantive of offense of possession under §841, the government must prove knowing possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute it. See United States v. Figueroa, 720 F.2d 1239, 1244 (11th Cir. 1983). The government must therefore prove that the defendant knew “the substance [was] a controlled substance.” See, e.g., United States v. Sanders, 668 F.3d 1298, 1309 (11th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted); United States v. Gomez, 905 F.2d 1513, 1514 (11th Cir. 1990). The Court noted that the United States Supreme Court recently reemphasized this requirement in McFadden v. United States, 576 U.S.__, 135 S. Ct. 2298(2015).
After reviewing the case, the Court concluded that no reasonable jury could have found that Louis was guilty of violating these statutes beyond a reasonable doubt:
We recognize that “[e]vidence of flight is admissible to demonstrate… guilt,” United States v. Blakely, 960 F.2d 996, 1000 (11th Cir. 1992), and Louis’s flight might be persuasive evidence that he knew the boxes contained contraband illegal under some law. But the evidence is not enough to prove that Louis knew the boxes contained a controlled substance. See McFadden, 135 S. Ct. at 2302.
The Court also rejected an “entrustment theory” whereby knowledge can be implied when there is evidence of a high quantity of drugs because “a ‘prudent smuggler’ is not likely to entrust such valuable cargo to an innocent person without that person’s knowledge.” See United States v. Quilca-Carpio, 118 F.3d 719, 722 (11th Cir. 1997) (per curiam). Here, Louis was never left completely alone with the boxes, undermining that particular claim.
Great result in a tough case!