Monday, January 14, 2013

Fictional crime leads to real life convictions

US v. Min, et al.: Saraeun Min participated with several others in a conspiracy to steal drugs from the stash house of a drug cartel in Virginia.  Little did the members of the conspiracy realize, the drugs and stash house were fictions developed by the ATF to trap Min’s co-defendant Phun and his crew.  When the police revealed themselves to the crew, most of whom had gathered, ready to participate in the robbery, only Min waived his Miranda rights and confessed to the police officers his involvement in the conspiracy.

At trial, each of the other members of the conspiracy desired to have their joint trial severed from Min’s.  The Fourth Circuit has held admissible a co-defendant’s redacted statement that referred to the existence of another person through neutral phrases, e.g. “another person,” or “another individual.”  The district court determined that Min’s redacted confession did not implicate any one defendant in particular, nor did it leave the jury to fill in any obvious blanks:  it did not facially incriminate any other defendant.  The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendants’ motion to sever. 
On appeal, the defendants also made an impossibility argument, that the fictional nature of the premise of the stash house robbery should be a defense to their conspiracy charges, rendering the evidence against them insufficient.  The district court declined to permit the defendants from arguing impossibility during closing argument, and they challenge the exclusion of impossibility from the jury instructions.  The Fourth Circuit concluded here that factual impossibility is not a defense to conspiracy.
Additionally, defendants argued that the district court erred in permitting one of the case detectives to testify at trial about a conversation between the detective and Phun, the crew leader.  The detective testified as to what he personally understood Phun meant in the conversation, which the Fourth Circuit decided was rationally based on the detective’s knowledge, the context, and the detective’s past conversations with Phun, meeting the requirements of Federal Rule of Evidence 701 on lay witness opinion testimony.  The Fourth Circuit held that the district court properly admitted this testimony.
Finally, the district court corrected an error in the verdict form during the jury’s deliberation, and Phun argued that this constituted reversible error, improperly influencing the jury.  The Fourth Circuit determined that the defendants could not identify how the jury had been improperly influenced by the correction of a typo, and that if any error did occur, it was harmless.  The district court’s judgment was affirmed. 

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