“Are You Telling Me Those Computer Chips Were Really Heroin?” A Look at the Third Circuit’s Scope of Appellate Review for Accomplice Liability in Controlled Substance Crimes
Volume 82, No. 2, Summer 2009
By Diana E. Lipschutz

Imagine that a federal prosecutor receives a call in the middle of the night from DEA agents informing him that the kingpin of the heroin trafficking ring they had been watching has been taken down with an accomplice by an undercover agent posing as a buyer. The prosecutor arrives at the office the next day and meets with the agents to start to prepare the case for trial. It seems like a slam dunk: not only did both suspects hold the suitcase, but the accomplice also drove the car and counted the money that the agent handed him. The prosecutor charges them both under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and with aiding and abetting possession by others with intent to distribute a controlled substance in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2(a) and 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1).

After a smooth trial, the jury returns a guilty verdict against both defendants. The prosecutor is satisfied with a job well done, but not elated because there was really nothing novel about this case. Rather, it was a pretty standard drug conspiracy case, complete with surveillance videos and tapes of the transaction. A few months later the prosecutor receives an appellate brief from the second defendant, the accomplice. The brief argues that there was no proof that the defendant knew what was in the suitcase or the aim of the transaction, and even claims that the defendant, who did not testify at trial, thought he was involved in a diamond smuggling ring. This seems outlandish to the prosecutor. The prosecutor’s reply brief discusses the jury’s reasonable inference of knowledge of the aim of the conspiracy given the evidence that the defendant drove the car, handled the bag with the heroin, counted the money, and confirmed to the DEA agent that the “stuff” was all there. The Third Circuit decides the case on the briefs, reversing the jury’s verdict and finding that the defendant’s actions were just as consistent with participation in a conspiracy to smuggle stolen diamonds, as the defendant claimed in his brief. In the opinion, the court references a string of Third Circuit cases cited by the appellant, holding that it made no difference that the appellant carried the suitcase, drove the car, or confirmed “the stuff” was all there since there was no indication he knew what “the stuff” really was.

As odd as this may seem, this is the result in a growing number of controlled substances cases in the Third Circuit, making it increasingly hard for federal prosecutors to sustain certain convictions on appeal. This Comment will explore the line of cases that began and expanded this situation. Part II.A summarizes the controlled substances statutes and their history. Part II.B discusses generally the role of the judge and the jury and the proper standard of review for “sufficiency of evidence” claims on appeal. Part II.C discusses the seminal Third Circuit case in this doctrinal line, cases that have followed, Third Circuit conspiracy and aiding and abetting cases with object offenses other than controlled substances crimes, and finally, similar controlled substances cases from sister circuits. Part III.A discusses the ramifications of the current state of the Third Circuit’s aiding and abetting and conspiracy law in the area of controlled substances offenses, particularly the inconsistency with principles of judicial review, inconsistency within the Third Circuit as compared to treatment of allegations of other objects of aiding and abetting and conspiracy, and inconsistency with its sister circuits. Finally, Part III.B explores two possible solutions to this situation: (1) the Third Circuit may reconsider its prior case law on the subject and more faithfully adhere to the proper standard of review, or (2) the court may carve out a narrow exception allowing for an inference of knowledge where the defendant actually exercised control over the controlled substance.

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