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United States v. Louis

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

July 10, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
TERRY PIERRE LOUIS, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 1:15-cr-20761-DMM-2

          Before TJOFLAT and WILSON, Circuit Judges, and ROBRENO, [*] District Judge.

          WILSON, Circuit Judge:

          The burden is on the government to prove all elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. See In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 1072 (1970). When a man's liberty is at stake, we must be vigilant with this burden. The government failed to offer evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Terry Pierre Louis had knowledge that the boxes placed in the backseat of his car contained a controlled substance. Without proof of this essential element, the government has failed to meet its burden. Therefore, we must reverse.


         In September 2015, Customs and Border Protection received a tip that the Ana Cecilia, a coastal freighter used to export goods from the United States to Haiti, was returning from Haiti to Miami carrying narcotics. When the boat arrived Customs agents boarded the vessel and searched for narcotics for four days. None were found. At one point during the search, Louis, an employee of Ernso Borgella, the owner of the Ana Cecilia, brought the confined crewmembers food.[1]Following the unsuccessful search, Customs set up surveillance of the Ana Cecilia.

         During the surveillance, an agent observed the deck watchman go inside the ship and come out carrying two large cardboard boxes. Agents later watched as a forklift picked up two boxes and drove them off the Ana Cecilia. Borgella was following the forklift and speaking to its driver, who placed the two boxes on the dock where an unidentified man covered them with a tarp. Later on, Borgella directed a white Nissan to park near the boxes and then reached inside the passenger rear seat and opened the door. Two unidentified men then loaded the boxes into the back seat of a white Nissan. Louis then began to slowly drive the Nissan to the front of the shipyard, while Borgella walked alongside it. Once outside the front gate of the shipyard, the Nissan was stopped by unmarked law enforcement vehicles with lights and sirens. Louis then exited the car and began to run. One of the agents pursued Louis, but lost sight of him in the shipyard. The agents found Borgella and detained him.[2] The agents searched the Nissan and found two sealed boxes in the back seat containing 111 bricks of cocaine.

         Louis was charged with (1) conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A) and 846, and (2) possession with intent to distribute cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A). During the two-day trial, the government put forth evidence including surveillance photos and videos showing that Louis was near the Ana Cecilia, that he drove a car containing boxes of cocaine, and that he ran when confronted by law enforcement. Following the government's case-in-chief, the defense moved for an acquittal, the motion was denied, and the defense rested. A jury found Louis guilty on both counts. Louis moved for an acquittal again after the jury verdict but his motion was denied. Despite Louis's motions at sentencing for a role reduction and safety-valve relief, he was sentenced to 151 months' imprisonment.


         We review de novo a district court's denial of a motion for acquittal. United States v. Perez-Tosta, 36 F.3d 1552, 1556 (11th Cir. 1994). When considering claims regarding sufficiency of the evidence, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government. See United States v. Ortiz, 318 F.3d 1030, 1036 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam). "[I]f the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution gives equal or nearly equal circumstantial support to a theory of guilt and a theory of innocence of the crime charged, then a reasonable jury must necessarily entertain a reasonable doubt." Cosby v. Jones, 682 F.2d 1373, 1383 (11th Cir. 1982).

         Eleventh Circuit precedent is clear that it is critical under § 846 and § 841 that the government must prove that the defendant had knowledge that his alleged crime involved a controlled substance. To establish a violation of § 846 the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that two or more persons agreed to commit a drug-related offense, that the defendant knew of the conspiracy, and that he agreed to become a member. See e.g., United States v. Azmat, 805 F.3d 1018, 1035 (11th Cir. 2015). "Association with a co-conspirator or presence at the scene of the crime is insufficient to prove participation in a conspiracy." United States v. Hernandez, 896 F.2d 513, 518 (11th Cir. 1990). "[A]lthough the government is not required to prove that [the defendant] knew every detail" of the conspiracy, "the government must prove that he 'knew the essential nature of the conspiracy.'" United States v. Charles, 313 F.3d 1278, 1284 (11th Cir. 2002) (per curiam) (quoting United States v. Payne, 750 F.2d 844, 859 (11th Cir.1985)). "A defendant who is unaware that he is in the process of possessing the drugs that are the object of the conspiracy is not, by any stretch of the imagination, aware of the essential nature of the conspiracy." United States v. Ohayon, 483 F.3d 1281, 1291 (11th Cir. 2007); see also Charles, 313 F.3d at 1284, 1287 (reversing a conviction because there was insufficient evidence that the defendant knew the specific purpose of the conspiracy involved cocaine).

         To sustain a conviction of the substantive offense of possession under § 841, the government must prove knowing possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute it. See United States v. Figueroa, 720 F.2d 1239, 1244 (11th Cir. 1983). The government must therefore prove that the defendant knew "the substance [wa]s a controlled substance." See, e.g., United States v. Sanders, 668 F.3d 1298, 1309 (11th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted); United States v. Gomez, 905 F.2d 1513, 1514 (11th Cir. 1990).

          Recently in McFadden v. United States, the Supreme Court reemphasized this knowledge requirement. 576 U.S__, __, 135 S.Ct. 2298, 2302 (2015). Justice Thomas, writing for a near unanimous court, wrote that § 841 "requires the [g]overnment to establish that the defendant knew he was dealing with 'a controlled substance.'" See id. The Court rejected the government's proposed broader definition that the knowledge requirement would be met if the "defendant knew he was dealing with an illegal or regulated substance under some law." See id. at 2306 (internal quotation marks omitted)(emphasis added).

         Following the clear guidance set forth in McFadden, to prove that Louis "knowingly or intentionally . . . possess[ed] with intent to . . . distribute . . . a controlled substance" under ยง 841 the government would have to prove that Louis knew the boxes contained a ...

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