New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
October 15, 2008

Reversing Judgment of Acquittal in Money Laundering Case, Second Circuit Issues Important Decision on the Quantum of Proof Required in Conspiracy Cases

Today, in a footnote, the Second Circuit has discarded a troubling principle – the concept that once a conspiracy has been established, “only slight evidence” or evidence that is not “overwhelming” is necessary to link another defendant to it.  In United States v. Huezo, 07-0031-cr, 2008 WL 4553150 (October 14, 2008), in a decision authored by Judge Walker and circulated to the entire Court prior to filing, the Court held that this formulation should no longer be part of its case law, explaining:

[It] risks misleading not only jurors but district and appellate courts reviewing post-verdict challenges as to the sufficiency of the evidence. The “slight evidence” formulation may lead juries and reviewing courts improperly to focus on simply the quantity of evidence of a defendant’s participation in a conspiracy rather than the quality of that evidence (whether quantitatively extensive or limited) viewed in the context of the particular conspiracy at issue. The relevant inquiry - and the determinative inquiry - is not whether a particular quantum of evidence has been presented but whether the evidence that has been adduced establishes, in the mind of a reasonable juror, the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Judge Newman’s thoughtful concurrence appeared to have spearheaded the critical footnote.  He points out that in a form of judicial telephone [updated 10/16/08], the formulation was repeated in case after case, but “in the course of repetition, important qualifications have been omitted,” such as the requirement that “the prosecution must sufficiently prove the defendant’s participation beyond a reasonable doubt” and “even though the quantity of evidence connecting the defendant to the conspiracy might be slight, the persuasive force of that evidence must nonetheless be substantial [enough] . . .to establish the element beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The irony of the decision is that the evidence connecting Huezo to the conspiracy was slight indeed.  This was a money laundering prosecution, and the defendant’s role consisted primarily of driving individuals engaged in a money laundering scheme in his car as they made deliveries of suitcases containing money, and placing a bag containing $6,000 under the driver’s seat of the vehicle.  There was no direct evidence that he observed or was told of the contents of the suitcases or the bag, or that he participated in any discussions regarding the money laundering scheme.   While the Court ultimately found the evidence sufficient – relying on part on the defendant’s travel plans, his association with the other individuals, and his security-guard like activities – and thus reversed the trial court’s post-verdict judgment of acquittal, it is noteworthy that of the four judges to review the sufficiency of the evidence, two found it lacking. 

As Judge Sotomayor points out in a compelling dissent, citing the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Cuellar v. United States, 128 S.Ct. 1994 (2008):

While each piece of circumstantial evidence discussed by the majority may be probative to some degree of Huezo’s guilty knowledge that he was involved in something illegal, the evidence in its totality is insufficient to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that Huezo knew that the transactions in which he participated were designed to launder the proceeds of illegal activity . . . Delivering suitcases containing money . . . is common not only to money laundering . . . The majority fails to recognize that evidence of [ ] knowledge [of a money laundering purpose] must be something more than mere presence at the exchange or delivery of concealed money.


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