United States v. Samuel Tanel Crittenden (5th Cir. August 2020)

The Federal Docket

September 22, 2020

Drug Offenses – A defendant’s stated and mistaken belief that a bag contains a specific type of controlled substance is insufficient to prove that the defendant had the requisite knowledge regarding an offense involving a different controlled substance.

Samuel Tanel Crittenden was convicted by a jury for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana under various subsections of 21 USC § 841.  His wife was the target of an FBI and DEA investigation into drug trafficking. Crittenden was arrested after he was observed giving his wife a black bag that subsequently was discovered to contain meth. Crittenden stated to the agents after his arrest that he thought the bag only contained marijuana.

On appeal,  the Court reviewed the trial court’s order granting a new trial under Criminal Rule 33(a) for abuse of discretion andaffirmed the district court’s order.  The trial court had properly reweighed the evidence concerning the sufficiency of evidence proving knowledge, and the Court held that the knowledge element for the drug counts required actual knowledge of either the identity of the controlled substance or that the substance was on the controlled list.  Defendant’s admission that he believed the bag contained marijuana alone was not sufficient to establish the element of knowledge.

Judge Costa dissented on grounds the district court abused its discretion in overriding the jury verdict based on the weight of circumstantial evidence indicating actual knowledge and the conviction should be upheld.

Appeal from the Western District of Texas

Opinion by Elrod, joined by Dennis

Dissent by Costa.

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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