United States v. Huezo, No. 07-0033-cr (2d Cir. October 14, 2008) (Newman, Walker, Sotomayor, CJJ)
Defendant Huezo was convicted, after a jury trial, of money laundering and money laundering conspiracy. The district court granted his post-verdict Rule 29 motion, and the government appealed. A divided appellate panel reversed. It also, however, unanimously wrought an important change in conspiracy law: an elimination of the so-called “slight evidence” rule.
On November 5, 2004, two of Huezo’s co-conspirators drove from Connecticut to New York in a Jeep registered to Heuzo to discuss delivering $1 million to an undercover agent, who was posing as a money launderer. Three days later, Huezo drove one of them back to New York, opened the trunk from the driver’s seat, and the agent recovered a bag containing half of the money. It was packaged in bundles, as is typical for money laundering transactions. The two men returned to a house Connecticut, picked up the third co-conspirator, and went out to dinner.
Two days later, Huezo left the house carrying a small back bag that he put in the Jeep. He then left the Jeep and watched as one of his associates put a black suitcase in the back. They drove to New York, but en route, they were pulled over for speeding. The Jeep was registered in Huezo’s name at the address in Connecticut, although the registration was not yet on file, which suggested that it was newly registered. The car was impounded and, during an inventory search, officers discovered $500,000 in the black suitcase and $6000 in Huezo’s own bag.
Further investigation revealed that the three men had traveled from California to Connecticut a few days before the deliveries.
The Majority’s View
Huezo was convicted of “transaction” money laundering, under which the government was required to prove that he knew that “the purpose or intended aim of the transaction was to conceal or disguise a specified attribute of the funds.” This same intent must be proven for aiding-and-abetting and conspiracy. Here, the majority held that there was sufficient evidence for a rational jury to conclude that Huezo had the requisite criminal knowledge and intent.
First, the court noted that there was ample evidence that the money involved in the two deliveries constituted the proceeds of criminal activity – drug trafficking, specifically – and that those deliveries were transactions designed to conceal the nature of the money.
It also concluded that there was sufficient evidence to connect Huezo to the conspiracy and establish both that he knew the conspiracy’s goals and shared his co-conspirator’s specific intent. The evidence here “went well beyond mere presence or association.”
First, while there was no direct evidence that Huezo “saw or knew what was in any of the bags,” there was sufficient circumstantial evidence. His “special treatment” of the small bag was evidence that the $6000 “constituted payment” for his efforts, and the $6000 was packaged in the same way as the rest of the laundered funds. Moreover, Huezo resided in the same house as the co-conspirators, which was also where the money was kept. From this, a jury could “reasonably infer that Huezo had the requisite knowledge and specific intent” to commit money laundering.
In addition, jurors relying “on their common sense and experience in drawing inferences” could reasonably conclude that “the principals in the conspiracy would not have trusted an outsider (with no knowledge of their criminal purpose) to transport $1 million in laundered funds,” to be present when the funds were delivered, and to share their house for several days.
Finally, the court viewed the evidence of the three conspirators’ joint travel as further supporting a finding of guilt. It led to a “reasonable inference that the three men traveled from California to Connecticut and met for the express purpose of facilitating the money laundering conspiracy,” and thus that Huezo participated in it by design and not simply by happenstance.”
Judge Sotomayor dissented. In her view there was insufficient evidence that Huezo had either the requisite knowledge or the specific intent to launder. Rather, the evidence only “weakly” supported a view that Huezo “may have known” that the suitcases contained money and that the money was the proceeds of criminal activity, but there was not enough evidence that he knew the purpose of the transactions; that is, that the money was to be laundered.
The “Slight Evidence” Rule
There was one thing, however, that united all three judges, and indeed, the entire court, since the opinion was circulated to all of its judges: a rejection of formulation – invoked by the government here – that, once a conspiracy has been established,” the evidence necessary to link a defendant to it “need not be overwhelming,” or need only be “slight.” This opinion conclusively holds that these “formulations do not accurately describe the government’s burden of proof in conspiracy cases, and the use of [them] should be discontinued.”
Indeed, in his concurrence, Judge Newman, does a terrific job of debunking this language, tracing it back to its origins in a 1930 Fifth Circuit case, where it appeared “without any citation,” then noting that the Fifth Circuit itself found the use of the “slight evidence” formulation in a jury charge to be structural error – that is, one for which no harmless error analysis is required – in 1977.