Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tobin: Internet Drug Distribution Convictions Affirmed

In U.S. v. Tobin, No. 09-13944 (April 12, 2012),
the Court affirmed the convictions of five defendants convicted of distributing controlled substances over the internet, and vacated one defendant’s sentence.
The Court rejected the argument that the Controlled Substances Act was ambiguous, and unconstitutionally vague, with regard to the criminalization of distribution over the internet. The Court found that the CSA applied "regardless of the channel of distribution." The Court also rejected the argument that it was ambiguous whether the CSA incorporated state law standards requiring in-person prescriptions.
The Court rejected the argument that the defendants were erroneously precluded from arguing that they were unaware that their conduct violated the law. The Court explained that it is not necessary for conduct to be "willful" to violate the CSA; it is sufficient for a person to do so "knowingly."
The Court found no error in the district court’s rejection of the defense that a defendant subjectively believed that he was acting in accordance with professional standards, pointing out that this issue is decided from an objective, not subjective, viewpoint.
The Court found that the district erred in ruling that the conspiracy statute, 21 U.S.C. § 846, did not require a showing of a "willful" state of mind. However, these rulings had no effect on one defendant who did not identify any evidence that he would have presented in support of his "good-faith" defense, and on another who took the stand in his defense, and whom the jury therefore might have disbelieved on this basis alone.
Citing its narrow reading in Demarest of the Supreme Court’s fractured decision in Santos, the Court rejected the argument that, for purposes of the money-laundering statute, "proceeds" should have been defined to the jury as "profits." The Court read the money-laundering statute to refer to "profits" only when an illegal gambling business is involved.
The Court rejected one defendant’s argument that the district court should have granted a continuance when his counsel moved to withdraw six days before trial. The Court noted that the district court informed the defendant that new counsel could be appointed for him, and the defendant elected, knowingly, to proceed pro se.
The Court found no reversible error arising out of letters that the jury received during the case, from unknown sources, regarding the case. The district court examined jurors about one letter, and properly admonished the jury about not relying on extrinsic evidence.
The Court agreed with one defendant that in closing argument, a prosecutor argued facts that were not in evidence when it described a witness’s testimony, but found that the misstatement had not prejudiced the defendant.
The Court noted that on two occasions the district court addressed the issue of plea negotiations. The district court explicitly indicated that it would like the defendants to begin to engage in plea discussions. This violated the "categorical mandate" of Fed. R. Crim. P. 11, which prohibits such involvement. Even "innocuous" comments can violate Rule 11. "[A] district court’s suggestion that a defendant look into pleading guilty may give the impression that the district court has already taken a position regarding the question of guilty and . . . this can undermine the defendant’s confidence in the neutrality of the tribunal." The Court decided that a new trial was not the proper remedy, but ordered a new sentencing before a different judge.
The Court rejected challenges to the sentences, pointing that a district court may rely on acquitted conduct as a basis for punishment, and finding that defendants had not shown unwarranted sentencing disparities.