Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Cruickshank: Reversing denial of minor role reduction

In U.S. v. Cruickshank, No. 14-13754 (Sept. 20, 2016), the Court affirmed convictions for drug trafficking on the high seas, in violation of 46 U.S.C. § 70503. The Court held that its precedent in U.S. v. Campbell foreclosed a challenge to the constitutionality of the statute. The Court also rejected a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, finding that the evasive maneuvers of the vessel while being followed by a Coast Guard helicopter, and other evidence, sufficed. The Court also rejected the defense challenge to the district court’s reliance, for jurisdictional purposes, on a State Department certification that Jamaica had not accepted a claim of nationality for the vessel. The Court noted that under the statute, jurisdiction was not an element of the offense. The Confrontation Clause was therefore not implicated by the admission in evidence of the State Department certification. Turning to sentencing, the Court reviewed the district court’s denial of a “minor role” Guideline sentence reduction in light of the amendments to this Guideline that took effect in November 2015, amendments that clarified the meaning of this Guideline. The Court noted that the district court stated that the quantity of cocaine being transported was so large that no participant in the scheme could have been eligible for a minor role reduction. However, in light of the Court’s precedent in U.S. v. DeVaron, and the factors identified in the amended Guideline, it was legal error for the district court to say that drug quantity could be the only factor to be considered. The Court noted that Cruickshank did not load the drugs on the vessel, reconstruct the vessel, fuel the vessel, attend the planning meetings for the trip, or otherwise appear to have any role concerning the quantity of drugs involved. The Court therefore vacated the minor role reduction denial, and vacated the case for the district court to consider “the totality of the circumstances.”