EDNY Judge Grants Judgment of Acquittal to Defendant in Drug Conspiracy
Continuing a streak of notable decisions in this circuit on the evidence necessary to establish knowledge and intent in conspiracy cases (including Murray Law LLC’s reversal in Lorenzo, and also reversals in Kapelioujnyj and Wexler), EDNY Judge Sifton has granted a motion for a judgment of acquittal to a defendant convicted after trial of participation in a drug conspiracy, and aiding and abetting drug distribution. United States v. Heras, 2009 WL 1874373 (E.D.N.Y. June 29, 2009), makes the important (and not always obvious) point that knowledge is not the same thing as intent, and reminds us of that great principle: “If the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution gives equal or nearly equal circumstantial support to a theory of guilt and a theory of innocence, then a reasonable jury must necessarily entertain a reasonable doubt.”
Nelson Heras had driven Simon Correa, a/k/a Luichi, a known drug dealer, and an acquaintance of Correa’s to a hotel. During the ride, Correa and his companion openly discussed Correa’s plan to pick up drugs at the hotel, something Heras later admitted overhearing. Correa entered the hotel, whereupon he was arrested in a controlled delivery operation. Heras and the companion, who remained in the minivan in the parking lot, were also arrested. Upon being told that “a serious federal crime had been committed involving the importation of narcotics,” Heras stated “Whoa, whoa ... Whatever happened up there, that has to do with Simon. That has nothing to do with me,” and “This is ... Luichi’s deal.”
Granting Heras’ motion for a judgment of acquittal on both the conspiracy and aiding and abetting convictions, Judge Sifton pointed out that these two specific intent crimes required that “the purpose - not merely the effect - of the defendant’s participation in the crime was to distribute narcotics.” Noting that “the prosecution made little attempt to argue that the evidence established the element of intent, focusing instead on the issue of knowledge,” the Court held that knowledge that Correa was picking up drugs or that he Correa was a drug dealer was not the same as knowledge of any plan on Correa’s part to distribute drugs, much less the equivalent of Heras “knowingly join[ing] and participat[ing] in it or promot[ing] the venture himself.” Moreover, once evidence was introduced of Heras’ “innocent explanation” prefaced with the words “whoa, whoa,” the jury could no longer presume that Heras intended to bring about the ordinary consequences of his actions. “When faced with an innocent explanation sufficiently supported by the evidence to create a reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt, the Government’s burden is to present evidence sufficient to dispel that doubt.”
Whoa, now that’s a decision worth noting!
Lawyers: Justine Harris, Federal Defenders of New York, Inc. and Justin Levine, Seijas & Levine (defendant); AUSA Andrew Goldsmith
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