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

The Federal Docket

Drug Offenses/Mens Rea – A defendant may be convicted under the Controlled Substances Act if he has knowledge that he possessed a controlled substance, even if he did not know the actual type of controlled substance involved and the indictment alleges a specific type and quantity of controlled substance.

Laneesha Colston was convicted of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Colston was arrested after she and another individual named Reyes picked up a package from the post office that contained cocaine. The evidence at trial showed that Colston had been trying for several days to pick up a package for an individual named Pancho, that the package had been intercepted by postal authorities who discovered the cocaine, that Colston had lied about who Reyes was, that Colston and Pancho had been communicating frequently while she tried to track down the package, that Colston acted suspiciously at multiple post offices, that Colston and her boyfriend had discussed a cover story in hers phone calls from jail, and that Colston was also involved in selling pills.

On appeal, Colston raised several claims, first arguing that the evidence was insufficient to show she had knowledge that the package she picked up specifically contained cocaine. The Eleventh Circuit acknowledged that the Government and defendant had acknowledged at trial that the Government “needed to prove Colston knew she possessed cocaine” but declared it was “not bound by that concession, and we decline to accept it.” “Concessions of law,” the Court stated, “are never binding on us.”

To that end, the Court held that the government can convict a defendant for a controlled substance offense by showing “the defendant knew he possessed a substance listed on the schedules, even if he did not know which substance it was.” The Court acknowledged that the penalties under 841(b) list specific substances and quantities that trigger mandatory minimum sentences but held that 841(b) “has no mens rea requirement.” The Court concluded that “although a defendant must know that a controlled substance is involved to be convicted under § 841(a)(1) or § 846, the only things that matter for § 841(b) are the type and quantity of the substance; whether the defendant was specifically aware of those facts is irrelevant.”

In other words– a defendant can be convicted based only on knowledge that he or she possessed a controlled substance, though not the specific type or quantity, but can still be subjected to enhanced mandatory minimum sentences based on the specific type or quantity of drugs involved. The Court expressly overruled its prior decision to the contrary in United States v.Narog, 372 F.3d 1243, 1249 (11th Cir. 2004), stating this departure was “incorrect, and we have since corrected course.” Here, the Court concluded there was sufficient circumstantial knowledge to prove Colston knew she was dealing with a controlled substance.

Colston also challenged the jury instruction for deliberate ignorance, which authorized the jury to convict if it found either that Colston knew the package had drugs or “had every reason to know but deliberately closed her eyes to that fact.” However, since the Court held there was sufficient evidence to prove her “actual knowledge,” it need not decide whether there was sufficient evidence to warrant the instruction on deliberate ignorance.

Finally, the Court held there was no error in admitting evidence of Colston’s illegal sales of prescription drugs under Rule 404(b). The Court held that “evidence of prior drug dealings” was highly probative, it noted that Eleventh Circuit precedent “regards virtually any prior drug offense as probative of the intent to engage in a drug conspiracy,” and that applied here. The Court noted Colston’s opioid sales were “temporally proximate to the charged conduct” and were relevant to showing her knowledge that the package contained some kind of illegal drugs.

On appeal from the Southern District of Alabama
Opinion by Grant, joined by Tjoflat and E. Carnes

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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