Jury Instructions

The Federal Docket

United States v. Rich (6th Cir. September 2021)

The Sixth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s conviction and sentence. The Court held that the district court did not err in using the future-tense in instructing the jury on the elements of RICO, since the conspiracy charge criminalized the agreement to form a racketeering enterprise, even if the enterprise has not been formed yet. The Court also affirmed the two-level enhancement for maintaining a premise for drug distribution, holding that the defendant could be held accountable for a co-defendant’s maintenance of a premise that was part of a jointly undertaken criminal activity.

United States v. Pérez-Rodríguez (1st Cir. September 2021)

The First Circuit vacated a defendant’s conviction for enticing a minor after the defendant arranged with an undercover agent to have sex with a minor. The Court held that the defendant was entitled to an instruction on entrapment where there was evidence of improper inducement based on the agent offering to “bundle” legal sex with an adult with illegal sex with a minor, and where the agent downplayed the potential harm. There was also evidence that the defendant was not predisposed, given the lack of evidence of similar transactions and the defendant’s initial hesitation.

United States v. Cabrera (2nd Cir. September 2021)

The Second Circuit vacated a defendant’s conviction for distributing fentanyl. The Court held that the defendant only has to present “some credible evidence” regarding government inducement in order to obtain an instruction on entrapment. The Government’s law enforcement witness also improperly testified that the defendant was an experienced drug dealer, which required specialized knowledge.

United States v. Lillian Akwuba (11th Cir. August 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a nurse practitioner’s convictions for drug conspiracy and healthcare fraud in a “pill mill” case. The Court held there was sufficient evidence to convict her of the drug offenses despite the government’s failure to provide any patient testimony that the prescription medications they received were unnecessary, and it affirmed her conviction for healthcare fraud based on her knowledge and participation in filing claims to government programs for office visits where patients received illegal prescriptions. The Court held that the trial court erred in instructing the jury that the parties had stipulated to disputed fact, but held this did not amount to an improper directed verdict or deprive the defendant of her defense because the instruction did not relate to an element of the charged offense or any of the facts necessary to establish one of those elements, and the defendant was still able to present her theory of defense. The Court also rejected the defendant’s evidentiary claims.

United States v. Kelvin Harris and James Archibald (11th Cir. August 2021)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the defendants’ convictions for drug and firearm offenses in a case involving a “reverse sting police corruption case.” The defendants were two officers who worked with other corrupt officers to provide armed protection to undercover agents acting as drug dealers. Among other things, the Court held that the evidence was sufficient to convict them notwithstanding their entrapment defenses, the trial court did not plainly err in failing to inform the jury that it was entitled to a “read-back” of one of the defendant’s trial testimony, and the defendants failed to establish a prima facie case of a Batson violation.

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.

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