Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Williams: Affirming MDLEA Convictions Where No Drugs Found

In United States v. Williams, et al., No. 15-15460 (August 1, 2017) (Jill Pryor, Jordan, Proctor), the Court affirmed the defendants' MDLEA drug convictions and one defendant's failure to heave to conviction, but found insufficient evidence to support the remaining defendants' convictions for aiding and abetting the failure to heave to.

The Court rejected the defendants' three evidentiary arguments.  First, it rejected the argument that the district court improperly admitted expert testimony regarding IoScan results reflecting traces of cocaine on the vessel.  The Court rejected the argument that, although the witness was an expert in operating IoScan machines, he was not an expert in interpreting its results; and it rejected the argument that the expert's testimony should have been excluded under Daubert or Rule 403 because it could not definitively answer every question about the presence of cocaine on the vessel.

Second, the Court rejected the argument that the district court improperly allowed Coast Guard officers to provide lay opinion testimony that objects jettisoned from the vessel resembled cocaine bales found in prior drug interdictions.  That observation was properly admitted as lay, rather than expert, testimony because it was based on the objects' appearance and size using an infrared system, and did not require scientific or technical knowledge.  The Court rejected the defendants' argument, based on Jayyousi, that opinions offered by law enforcement officers do not automatically become expert opinions simply because they involve knowledge that pre-existed the instant investigation.

Third, the Court rejected the argument that the district court improperly admitted a "zarpe," a Colombian document including the names of the defendants and their ports of call, as unauthenticated and containing hearsay.  The government introduced evidence that the zarpe was authentic under Rule 901.  And it did not contain hearsay because it was offered to demonstrate that it was a ruse, not accurate.

The Court found sufficient evidence to support the defendants' drug conspiracy convictions, despite the fact that no cocaine was found on the vessel or in the sea.  The Court relied on the following facts: they were traveling at night in rough waters on a known drug trafficking route; the vessel was traveling in the opposite direction of where the captain initially said it was going; there was no fishing equipment on the vessel, which was registered as a fishing vessel; the crew members were observed throwing objects overboard; the officers found gasoline, a known masking agent; and the vessel behaved erratically.  The Court found sufficient evidence that the contraband was in fact cocaine based on officers' testimony about prior cocaine interdictions in that same area, the size/shape of the bales thrown over, and the IoScan results.

The Court affirmed defendant Williams' conviction for failing to heave to, because he was the master of the vessel, which sped up and made erratic movements after hailed by the Coast Guard.  The Court, however, reversed the remaining defendants' convictions for aiding and abetting that violation, because there was no evidence that they intended to aid and abet Williams' failure to heave to; the fact that they jettisoned the packages was insufficient.