Court Upholds Jury's Reasonable Inference in Drug Bust
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a jury's reasonable inferences about witness credibility matter more than the witness's protestations of innocence.
Officers obtained a warrant for Michael Dewayne Dawson's home in Batesville, Arkansas. Upon arrival, they found Dawson and Silas Roynel Swift trying to exit the home. Officers seized a large amount of crystal meth in a gallon-sized bag hidden behind the dryer.
Obtaining a warrant for Swift's house, officers seized $16,000 in cash from a heater vent pipe there. Swift admitted selling meth, telling officers he bought pound quantities from a Hispanic man who lived in a farmhouse on Tahkodah Road.
Officers eventually obtained a warrant for the farmhouse, and stopped a blue truck regularly seen leaving the farm. The passenger, Jose Luis Escota Moya, had 11 grams of meth on him, which he admitted was his. Officers recovered meth-making materials and 12 firearms in the farmhouse. Escota Moya told them he lived there and that the weapons were his.
During the four-day jury trial, Escota Moya stipulated that guns seized at the farmhouse were his and that he possessed the two grams of meth found on him. Witnesses testified about Swift's and Escota Moya's drug dealing and Escota Moya's meth production. The jury convicted them of conspiracy and possession. (Escota Moya was also convicted of illegally possessing firearms). Escota Moya was sentenced to 200 months' imprisonment, and Swift to 176 months.
They appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to convict them of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute.
To prove a conspiracy, the government must show that (1) a conspiracy existed, (2) that Swift and Escota Moya each was aware of the conspiracy and its purpose, and (3) that Swift and Escota Moya each knowingly joined the conspiracy. The conspiracy's may be proved by direct or circumstantial evidence, and a defendant may be convicted for even a minor role in a conspiracy, so long as the government proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she was a member of the conspiracy.
Swift and Escota Moya challenged the credibility of the government's witnesses, including several co-conspirators who pled guilty to, or were convicted of, conspiracy. However, "a witness's credibility is for the jury to decide" and "the jury's credibility determinations are virtually unreviewable on appeal."
Swift claimed not to know the purpose of the agreement between himself and the other distributors. The jury didn't believe him. Escota Moya argued that he was an innocent bystander, which the jury also rejected.
The jurors -- properly instructed that they could believe all, some, or none of what a witness said -- were in the best position to assess the witnesses' credibility. And, giving the verdict the benefit of all reasonable inferences, a reasonable jury could find Swift and Escota Moya entered into an agreement to possess meth with intent to distribute it.
- U.S. v. Moya (Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Search and Seizure Spotlight: Flashing a Jeep Isn't a Seizure (FindLaw's Eighth Circuit Blog)
- Suspect Has Criminal Record: Reasonable Suspicion for a Pat-Down? (FindLaw's Eighth Circuit Blog)