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Third Circ. Reverses District Court Acquittal in Drug Case

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a conviction in a drug trafficking case and remanded the case back to the District Court for sentencing earlier this week.

After a jury in the Virgin Islands found the defendant to be guilty of conspiring to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute, the District Court of the Virgin Islands entered a judgment of acquittal, finding that there was insufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that the defendant participated in the conspiracy.

Here's why the Third Circuit reversed the district court's judgment:

In a drug trafficking conspiracy case, the government must prove:

  1. A shared unity of purpose,
  2. An intent to achieve a common illegal goal, and
  3. An agreement to work toward that goal, which [the defendant] knowingly joined.

The defendant claimed that the prosecution failed to prove the knowledge element of the offense. The Third Circuit's decision turned on whether a rational jury could conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant knowingly participated in the drug trafficking organization.

The Third Circuit pointed out that circumstantial evidence can be sufficient to prove knowledge in a conspiracy case. In reversing the district court's decision, the Third Circuit focused largely on trial testimony of co-conspirators and couriers.

With regard to the testimony of the couriers, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found the circumstances could infer that the defendant knew he was involved in a criminal conspiracy of some sort. But that was not enough. The appellate court further noted that the testimony offered by other members in the conspiracy furthered the idea that the defendant knew he was involved with "drugs, as opposed to some other form of contraband."

In conclusion, the Third Circuit reversed the district court's acquittal and remanded the case for sentencing.

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