Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Confession Not Sufficiently Corroborated to Support Gun, Drug Convictions

US v. Stephens: A Roanoke, Virginia, police officer was on patrol when he heard several shots fired. As he surveyed the scene he saw Stephens crossing the street. When Stephens saw the officer, he ran off and was eventually apprehended in an abandoned house. The officer retraced Stephens's path and discovered a revolver on the ground that he been recently fired. At the police station, Stephens made a statement:
He told the agents that a local drug dealer known as "Red" fronted him one and a half ounces of cocaine approximately two to three months before, for which Stephens was to pay $1,500. Stephens was unable to repay Red, however, because Stephens’s wife consumed all the cocaine. On August 19, 2004, Stephens became aware that Red had spread word on the street that Stephens would be killed because of his failure to pay. That same evening, when Stephens drove past Red and some associates, someone in Red’s group fired a shot at Stephens. Stephens later retrieved his handgun and fired the shots heard by Babb at Red’s vehicle, a white Mazda, when he saw it on the street. Approximately two months after the initial statement to the agents, Stephens repeated this explanation in a proffer to the government.
Stephens was charged with three offenses: conspiracy to distribute narcotics, possession of a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking offense, and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

He pleaded guilty to the felon in possession offense and went to trial on the other two offenses. At trial, Stephens's statement was admitted into evidence. Stephens then testified in his own behalf:
Stephens took the stand in his own defense and asserted that he had lied to the ATF agents following his arrest and in his proffer. According to his testimony, on the night of August 19, Stephens was actually sitting on the porch of his grandmother’s home when an individual approached him and offered to sell a handgun for $75. Stephens paid $60 for the gun and soon after decided to test it to see whether it would fire. He went to a friend’s house, walked behind the home, and fired the gun into the air. Stephens explained that he lied to the agents about his association with Red in hopes that he would be released on bond, or perhaps released so he could provide further information as to Red’s drug dealing activities. Stephens denied any connection to Red, whose real name he professed not to know, and denied that he was involved in selling drugs, or that he owed anyone money for drugs.
Stephens moved for a judgment of acquittal at the close of the evidence, but the district court denied the motion. The jury convicted Stephens on the narcotics and 924(c) counts after a robust 35 minute deliberation.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reverses. After noting that it "is beyond dispute that a criminal defendant's conviction cannot rest entirely on an uncorroborated extrajudicial confession," the court concluded that there was insufficient evidence beyond Stephens's initial statement to police to link him to a drug conspiracy. Therefore, the district court erred by denying his motion for a judgment of acquittal. The case was remanded for resentencing on the felon in possession charge.

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