Jury Instructions

The Federal Docket

United States v. Laneesha Colston (11th Cir. July 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a defendant’s drug convictions after she was arrested picking up a package for someone that contained cocaine. The Court held that, notwithstanding the Government’s concession at trial to the contrary, the government only had to prove that the defendant knew the package contained some kind of controlled substance, not the specific type alleged in the indictment. Here, the Court held there was sufficient circumstantial evidence proving the defendant knew there were illegal drugs in the package. The Court also declined to review whether sufficient evidence supported the deliberate ignorance instruction and held the trial court did not err in admitting evidence of the defendant’s unrelated illegal pill sales under Rule 404(b).

United States v. Brandon Royce Phillips (11th Cir. July 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a defendant’s conviction for enticing a minor to produce pornography, holding that the district court did not constructively amend the indictment when it instructed the jury that the government did not have to prove the defendant had knowledge of the victim’s age, as the language in the indictment alleging that the defendant acted “knowingly and intentionally” only applied to the “acts barred in the statute.” Moreover, the Court emphasized that a district court is free to ignore language in the indictment that alleges a “higher mens rea” than the statute requires as “mere surplusage. The Court vacated the defendant’s conviction for possessing child pornography, however, since he had also been convicted of receiving child pornography based on the same conduct, thus violating the Double Jeopardy Clause.

United States v. Michael Anderson (11th Cir. June 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the conviction of a defendant who argued that the trial court violated his right to testify by asking him whether he would testify or waive his right and that the trial court violated Rule 30(b) of the federal rules of criminal procedure by sua sponte amending the jury instructions after defense counsel’s closing arguments. The Court held that district courts are not required to get a defendant’s choice to testify or waiver on the record but noted this can be beneficial to defendants as long as district court’s do not interfere with the defendant’s decision. The Court also held that the district court’s violation of Rule 30(b) did not warrant reversal where the court was amending a misstatement of law and defense counsel was not subjected to undue surprise or prejudice based on that correction.

United States v. James Philip Lucero (9th Cir. March 2021)

The Ninth Circuit reversed a defendant’s conviction under the Clean Water Act based on the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury that the defendant had to have knowledge that he was discharging pollutants “into water.” The error was not harmless because it was unclear whether the defendant knew that the area in question was inundated with water when he discharged the pollutants. The Court also held that waters being “of the United States” is a jurisdictional element, that “waters of the United States” is not unconstitutionally vague, and that revised regulatory definitions of the phrase are not retroactive unless explicitly made so.

United States v. Arman Abovyan (11th Cir. Feb. 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a doctor-defendant’s conviction for healthcare fraud and dispensing controlled substances unlawfully. The Court held that there was sufficient evidence tying him to the conspiracy based in part on his allowing a medically non-trained co-conspirator to mandate testing requirements, and the Court also found sufficient evidence of unlawful dispensation based on the government expert’s testimony. The Court also held that the district court did not err in using the intended loss amount at sentencing, despite using the lower actual loss amount for the defendant’s co-conspirators, since there was no “unwarranted” disparity given that the co-conspirators had been sentenced according to a plea agreement, and the defendant had not.

United States v. Mayweather, et al. (11th Cir. March 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the convictions of four defendant-corrections officers who helped a government informant transport narcotics while wearing their corrections uniforms to deter police officers from pulling them over. The Court held that there was sufficient evidence of government inducement to warrant jury instructions on entrapment where the informant made efforts to persuade some of the defendants to do business with him. The Court also held that the district court erred in failing to define “official act” for Hobbs Act extortion and, while it agreed that the definition of “official act” from SCOTUS’s opinion in McDonnell did not fit the facts of the case, the Court remanded for the trial court to provide an alternative definition and allow the jury to determine if the officers wearing their uniforms was an “official act.”

United States v. Lance Cannon & Vincent Holton (11th Cir. February 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a pair of Hobbs Act robbery convictions, holding that 1) erroneous jury instructions regarding two predicate offenses under 924(c) were harmless where the offenses were inextricably entwined and one was properly instructed as a predicate offense; 2) defendant’s could not show entrapment or outrageous government conduct when the government set up a fake safe house and had an informant suggest to the defendant that they should rob the safe house; and 3) the defendants were not entitled to discovery for selective prosecution based on a showing that a racial group was disproportionately prosecuted unless they could show evidence of prosecution of similarly situated members of another racial group.

United States v. Juan Solano (2nd Cir. July 2020)

The Second Circuit reversed a defendant’s conviction. The defendant testified at trial, and the district court plainly erred in instructing the jury that any witness with an interest in the outcome of the case may have a motive to testify falsely, as it cut against the presumption of innocence and prejudiced the defendant.

United States v. Shusta Gumbs (11th Cir. July 2020)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the defendant’s conviction for using a deadly weapon to forcibly assault, resist, oppose, impede, intimidate, or interfere with a federal officer based on the defendant striking an officer while escaping in a car. The Court held that the district court’s jury instructions defining “forcibly” and “deadly weapon” were proper, the court properly declined to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of simple assault since it would support a conviction for the offense charged, and that the district court properly responded to a jury question regarding cars a deadly weapon simply by rereading its instructions.

United States v. Calvin McReynolds (6th Cir. July 2020)

The Sixth Circuit vacated the defendant’s sentence for drug conspiracy and remanded it to the sentencing court after the court held the defendant accountable for a higher drug quantity than the jury did at trial, which the defendant argued violated his Sixth Amendment claim. The court held that the sentencing court did not adequately explain its reasoning, so it could not review the constitutionality of the defendant’s claim.

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