Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Benbow: Jury Instruction re: Drug-Trafficking In United States

In U.S. v. Benbow, No. 07-10560 (Aug. 18, 2008), the Court reversed a cocaine-trafficking conviction because the district court declined to instruct the jury that, in order to convict the defendant, the government had to prove that he conspired to either possess or distribute the cocaine in the United States. The Court declined to find that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to establish a conspiracy to possess cocaine in the United States.
The cocaine trafficking charge arose out of a sting operation involving a plan to sell large quantities of cocaine in Europe. Accordingly, the case implicated U.S. v. Lopez-Vanegas, 493 F.3d 1305 (11th Cir. 2007), which held that an agreement to traffic in cocaine which did not involve possession or distribution in the United States did not violate American criminal law. Thus, it was appropriate to instruct the jury, as the defendant requested, that the government had to prove a conspiracy to possess or distribute in the United States (not just in Europe), and it was reversible error to fail to do so.
The Court found that the evidence was not insufficient as a matter of law, because the cocaine at issue was going to originate in the United States and be transported to Europe. Since the defendant would have "constructive possession" of the cocaine while it was being transported, this fact could be sufficient to convict. The Court therefore declined to enter judgment in the defendant’s favor.