Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Steed: Alabama statute not "clearly unconstitutional" for 4th Amend. purposes

In U.S. v. Steed, No. 08-10557 (Nov. 10, 2008), the Court affirmed a marihuana trafficking conviction.
The Court rejected the argument that the marihuana seized from the tractor-trailer the defendant was driving should have been suppressed because the Alabama statute pursuant to which the police officer inspected the truck’s paperwork and equipment (and ultimately discovered marihuana) was clearly unconstitutional. Without reaching the question whether the Alabama statute was, in fact, unconstitutional, the Court held that it was not "clearly unconstitutional," and the police could therefore in good faith rely on it and conduct the inspection.
The Alabama statute permitted police in effect to inspect trucks at any time, at any place, and for any reason. The Court nonetheless concluded that it was not "clearly unconstitutional."
The statute gave "notice" that specifically designated officials may inspect vehicles. The scope of the inspection was limited to "commercial motor vehicles." Although the statute in effect allowed inspections at any time, this was reasonable because commercial trucks operate at all hours. Although the state lacked a limitation with respect to place, this too was reasonable because it is easy for trucks to avoid designated checkpoints. Finally, although the statute placed no limitation on the police’s discretion to inspect, this presented no concern.
The Court rejected the argument that the police officer, testifying as an expert, was permitted to give hearsay testimony about police knowledge of trends in drug trafficking. The Court found no violation of FRE 703, noting that the testimony was not improperly conveying conversations between the police officer and non-testifying witnesses and co-defendants, but instead properly establishing how his "personal training and experience" formed the basis for his knowledge of drug trafficking, criminal indicators, and the commercial trucking industry.
The Court also rejected the argument that the officer violated Rule 704(b) by testifying as to the defendant’s state of mind, an issue that should have been left to the trier of fact. The Court found that the officer properly testified about the nervousness of the defendant, but left it to the jury to decide whether this nervousness established a guilty state of mind.
The Court rejected a challenge to the "deliberate ignorance" instruction, finding that any impropriety in giving this instruction was not prejudicial because the judge also gave the jury an "actual knowledge" instruction and there was sufficient evidence to support this instruction, in light of the defendant’s nervousness and the suspicious state of his paperwork.