Monday, December 06, 2010

Court Vacates One Drug Conspiracy Conviction Only to Mandate Another

US v. Hickman: Hickman was charged in a multi-defendant indictment with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute more than one kilogram of heroin and possession with intent. He alone went to trial and was convicted. Pursuant to 21 USC 851, he was sentenced to life on the conspiracy count and 360 months on the possession count. He was arrested in a traffic stop after he drove away from purchasing 32.14 grams of heroin from a codefendant. Subsequent searches of one of his codefendant's offices uncovered 25,000 empty vials of the type typically used to distribute heroin. Although Hickman contacted his codefendant after being released by police and inquired about further purchases, none ever transpired.

At trial, although all of Hickman's six codefendants had pleaded guilty, none of them testified, nor did the Government produce testimony from any other participant in the conspiracy. All the evidence came from investigators involved in the case. One testified as an expert in narcotics investigations. He both "interpreted" the contents of wiretapped phone conversations for the jury and how the 25,000 empty vials would be enough to hold 1 kilogram of "user-strength" heroin. Hickman moved for a judgment of acquittal on the conspiracy count, which the district court denied. Neither Hickman nor the Government made any argument or request for a lesser included offense on the conspiracy.

On appeal, Hickman challenged both his convictions and sentence. As to the conspiracy conviction, the Fourth Circuit agreed that there was insufficient evidence to sustain it. While "easily" concluding that the evidence demonstrated a conspiracy, the court held that there was insufficient evidence that it involved more than 1 kilogram of heroin. The inferences from the evidence relied upon by the Government required, to reach the 1 kilogram threshold, "if not a mathematical impossibility, . . . reasoning so attenuated as to provide insufficient support for the jury's verdict." The court rejected the Government's arguments that the amount of heroin involved was sustained by the fact that one of Hickman's codefendants ran a store that sold drug paraphernalia (it was a "one stop shop" for heroin) and that the members of the conspiracy were experienced enough in the drug trade that the conspiracy "encompassed far more drug distribution activity . . . than that of which the Government could produce competent evidence." Therefore, the court vacated Hickman's conviction, but remanded with instructions to enter a conviction on the lesser included offense of conspiracy to distribute more than 100 grams of heroin, even though neither party sought a lesser offense at trial.

The Fourth Circuit otherwise affirmed Hickman's conviction and sentence, turning away in brief challenges to the jury instructions, the use of wiretap transcripts during deliberations, and the applicability of his prior offenses to enhance his sentence.

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