A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

third  circuitBy Burt Rose

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has decided the case of UNITED STATES of America, Appellant v. Richard CARABALLO–RODRIGUEZ, #11–3768, 2013 WL 4017157 (Aug. 8, 2013), an appeal from the United States District Court For the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, District Court No. 2–08–cr–00328–002, before the HonorableCynthia M. RufeRobert Zauzmer, Esquire, Assistant United States Attorney and Chief of Appeals, argued for the Government while Christopher D. Warren, Esquire argued for the Appellee. The judges wereMcKEE, Chief Judge, SCIRICARENDELLAMBRO,FUENTESSMITHFISHERCHAGARES,JORDANHARDIMANGREENAWAY, JR.,VANASKIE and SHWARTZ, Circuit Judges. JudgeRENDELL wrote the Opinion for the Court without a dissent.

A jury concluded that Defendant Richard Caraballo–Rodriguez knew that he was transporting a controlled substance when he participated in a conspiracy to transport approximately five million dollars’ worth of cocaine from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Relying on the reasoning of previous opinions of the Court in considering Caraballo–Rodriguez’s post-trial motion for acquittal, the District Court disagreed with the jury’s verdict because “the evidence only shows that Caraballo–Rodriguez knew that he was being entrusted with a large suitcase which could contained a ‘wide variety of contraband items … including stolen jewelry, laundered money, stolen computer chips, and counterfeiting plates.’ The District Court therefore granted Caraballo–Rodriguez’s motion and entered a judgment of acquittal.

The issue on appeal was whether there was sufficient evidence for the jury to have determined that the defendant knew that the object of the conspiracy in which he participated was a controlled substance, as opposed to some other type of contraband. The court acknowledged that in many such cases, it had failed to apply the deferential standard the law requires on review of sufficiency of the evidence challenges.

The appropriate standard in a sufficiency of the evidence challenge is to review the record in the light most favorable to the prosecution to determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Under this particularly deferential standard, the court must be ever vigilant not to usurp the role of the jury by weighing credibility and assigning weight to the evidence, or by substituting its judgment for that of the jury. Furthermore, the court must review the evidence as a whole, not in isolation, and ask whether it is strong enough for a rational trier of fact to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The court must sustain the jury’s verdict if there is substantial evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the government, to uphold the jury’s decision. The appropriate question is whether any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury’s verdict must be assessed from the perspective of a reasonable juror, and the verdict must be upheld “as long as it does not fall below the threshold of bare rationality.”

Judge Rendell noted that the government had requested that the jury be instructed on willful blindness, which the District Court granted. Thus, the government could satisfy the “knowledge” requirement in this case by demonstrating actual knowledge or willful blindness, which is a subjective state of mind that is deemed to satisfy a scienter requirement of knowledge, citing United States v. Wert–Ruiz, 228 F.3d 250, 255 (3d Cir.2000). Willful blindness, however, should not be equated with negligence or lack of due care: “Rather, the defendant himself must have been subjectively aware of the high probability of the fact in question, and not merely that a reasonable man would have been aware of the probability.”

Here, there was enough evidence to support the jury’s inference of knowledge. The combination of Caraballo–Rodriguez’s travel plans, a cooperator’s testimony, phone records, a DEA agent’s expert testimony regarding the weight of the suitcases, and the jury’s own common sense accumulated “grain-by-grain” until the jury could rationally decide that “the scale finally tipped.” This evidence provided a sufficient foundation for the jury to rationally conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Caraballo–Rodriguez knew that the object of the conspiracy was a controlled substance. Although perhaps none of that evidence standing alone could have supported the jury’s inference of knowledge, looking at the record as a whole, the jury’s conclusion was not irrational.

Therefore, the jury’s conclusion that Caraballo–Rodriguez knew that he was involved in a drug conspiracy was rational. Accordingly, the Court vacated the District Court’s judgment of acquittal and remanded with directions that the District Court reinstate the jury’s verdict of conviction and proceed to sentencing.

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