from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 1:15-cr-20761-DMM-2
TJOFLAT and WILSON, Circuit Judges, and ROBRENO, [*] District Judge.
WILSON, Circuit Judge:
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.
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.Following the unsuccessful search,
Customs set up surveillance of the Ana Cecilia.
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. The agents searched the Nissan and found
two sealed boxes in the back seat containing 111 bricks of
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.
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).
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).
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
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
the clear guidance set forth in McFadden, to prove
that Louis "knowingly or intentionally . . . possess[ed]
with intent to . . . distribute . . . a controlled
substance" under § 841 the government would have to
prove that Louis knew the boxes contained a ...