Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, June 29, 2012

Haile: No Constructive Amendment

In U.S. v. Haile, No. 10-15965 (June 29, 2012), the Court affirmed drug trafficking and firearm convictions, in a case arising out of a reverse sting involving five kilos of cocaine, 1,000 kilos of marijuana, and several firearms.
The indictment incorrectly conflated the "during and in relation to" and possesses "in furtherance of" elements of a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The Court rejected the defendants’ challenges based on this error. The Court noted that "minor deficiencies" in an indictment do not render it constitutionally deficient, and here the indictment expressly referred to § 924(c), thereby putting the defendants on notice of the charge. In addition, the trial court’s decision to drop part of the language of the indictment and to instruct the jury only on the "possesses in furtherance" prong of the statute was not an impermissible amendment, because the dropped "during and in relation to" was not necessary for a conviction.
The Court also rejected the argument that the trial court incorrectly failed to instruct the jury that it had to find that the defendants knew that the gun they possessed had the characteristics of a machine gun. The Court explained that, under U.S. v. O’Brien, the government was required to prove that the firearm was a machine gun – this fact was not a mere sentencing factor. However, O’Brien did not require proof that the defendant knew that the gun was a machine gun.
The Court held that 18 U.S.C. § 922(k), which criminalizes possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number, requires proof that the defendant knew that the serial number was obliterated. The Court agreed with the defendant that the evidence was insufficient to prove this knowledge. While the defendant discussed guns in general before the arrest, and the gun was found in his flatbed truck, the government put forth no evidence that he actually possessed the gun for any significant length of time.
The Court rejected the argument that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury that the defendant should be acquitted on account of the "outrageous government conduct" in connection with the reverse sting operation. The Court noted that there was no precedent holding that outrageous government conduct could constitute a defense for a jury to consider; consequently, the trial court did not abuse its discretion.
Turning to sentencing, the Court rejected the Eighth Amendment, "substantive unreasonableness," and "sentencing manipulation" challenges to a within-guideline sentence of 438 months.