Monday, June 13, 2016

Error in jury instructions for bath salts case

US v. McFadden:  On remand from the Supreme Court (opinion here) which had concluded that the jury instructions given at the trial in this case improperly omitted elements relating to the defendant’s state of mind, the Fourth Circuit considered whether the errors in the jury instructions were harmless.  The Fourth Circuit held here that the erroneous jury instructions were harmless error with respect to some of the convictions, but not harmless with respect to certain other counts; the Fourth Circuit affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

The Supreme Court clarified the government’s burden of proof to support a conviction for distribution of controlled substance analogues, and instructed that the government must satisfy one of two methods of proof concerning the defendant’s state of mind.  The proof in dispute in this appeal is whether the defendant knew either the legal status of the substance, or the chemical structure and physiological effects of that substance.

At trial, the jury found that McFadden distributed substances that qualified as controlled substance analogues, and that he intended the substances for human consumption.  What the jury was not asked to consider, however, was whether McFadden had knowledge of the legal classification of the substances as controlled substance analogues or anything about the chemical structures and physiological effects of bath salts.

Here, if the jury found that the evidence establishing McFadden’s knowledge on either the legal status or the relevant characteristics of bath salts was overwhelming, it would render an error in the jury instructions harmless.  The Fourth Circuit held that the evidence was sufficient to permit, but not so overwhelming to compel, the jury to find that McFadden knew that bath salts were regulated as controlled substances.  The omission, then, by the district court of the knowledge element from the jury instructions on some of the counts was not harmless.  In contrast, some later telephone conversations demonstrated overwhelmingly that McFadden knew the chemical identities and physiological effects of the bath salts, so the omission of the knowledge element from those counts was harmless.

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