Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, October 07, 2016

Wilchcombe: Prosecution may comment on post-arrest/pre-Miranda silence

In U.S. v. Wilchcombe, No. 14-14991 (Oct. 4, 2016), the Court affirmed convictions of defendants charged with drug trafficking while on board a vessel subject to U.S. jurisdiction en route from Haiti to the Bahamas. The Court rejected the defendants’ argument that it should review en banc its holding in U.S. v. Campbell that the MDLEA violates Due Process because it does not require proof of a nexus between the United States and a defendant. The Court also rejected the argument that the Bahamian government’s “statement of no objection” was not clear enough to inform the U.S. that the Bahamian government consented to its exercise of jurisdiction over the vessel, finding that it communicated the “substance” of consent. The Court rejected Wilchcombe’s argument that his “mere presence” on the boat sufficed to sustain his conspiracy conviction, pointing out that the boat contained 895 kilograms of narcotics, much of it stored on deck, and had long been acquainted with the others on the boat, including its captain. Acknowledging that the circuits are split on whether the prosecution can comment at trial on a defendant’s silence prior to being given Miranda warnings, the Court noted that in the Eleventh Circuit this is not error, and therefore not a basis for a mistrial. Even if it was error, it was harmless in light of the ample evidence of guilt, and that as to one defendant it was used for impeachment, which is permitted. The Court rejected the argument that the government destroyed the vessel in bad faith without photographing it, and in repatriating one of the occupants to Haiti. The Coast Guard allocated its resources to recovering bales thrown overboard, and it was mere “speculation” that this occupant would have provided exculpatory testimony. Finally, the Court rejected the argument that Fed. R. Evid. 404(b) precluded admission of evidence that one of the defendants was previously arrested while captaining a boat carrying drugs. This evidence tended to prove this defendant’s knowledge that drugs were present, and made his lack of knowledge defense less plausible. [Jordan and Walker, JJ. concurred, but argued that Eleventh Circuit precedent holding that the government can use post arrest/pre-Miranda silence is misguided and should be reconsidered en banc, stating that the trigger for the constitutional protection of silence should be custody, not the recitation of Miranda warnings.]