Monday, June 21st, 2010

Ordinary People

United States v. Heras, No.09-3150-cr (2d Cir. June 18, 2010) (Raggi, Lynch, Wallace, CJJ)

On this government appeal, the circuit vacated a district court order granting a Rule 29 motion that misconstrued the “ordinary consequences” rule and remanded the case for reinstatement of the verdict.


Defendant Heras was arrested in the parking lot of a Queens hotel, after dropping off the target of a controlled cocaine delivery. When the agents told him what was going on, he said that “[w]hatever happened” in the hotel “has to do with [the target]. That has nothing to do with me.” He first told the agents that he had taken the target there to meet a woman, but then admitted that he knew the target was a drug dealer who had gone to the hotel to pick up drugs. He also admitted that he expected the target to compensate him, as he had done in the past, by connecting Heras with suppliers for his own marijuana operation.

After the jury convicted Heras, the district court granted his Rule 29 motion, holding that the evidence was insufficient to establish that Heras had the specific intent to distribute the drugs.

The Appeal

The circuit disagreed. Here, a “jury could reasonably infer Heras’s intent to distribute from evidence indicating that he knew that the object of the charged drug possession was [the target’s] distribution of the contraband and that, with that knowledge, he agreed to facilitate the crime.”

The court also noted that the law is generally willing to let a jury infer that a defendant intends the ordinary consequences of his actions. The district court had held that, under a footnote in United States v. Nelson, 277 F.3d 164 (2d Cir. 2002), in the face of “exculpatory evidence” – Heras’ claim that the target’s activities had “nothing to do with me” – more than a presumption of ordinary consequences was necessary to demonstrate Heras’ intent.

But the district court misconstrued the Nelson footnote. That footnote amplified a text sentence holding about this inference by noting that “where a jury infers intent by deciding that a given defendant meant to bring about the consequences of his actions, that defendant cannot (without pointing to countervailing evidence that the jury ignored) unseat this finding by challenging the sufficiency of the evidence.” This statement indicates only that “no sufficiency challenge to a finding of intent based on an ordinary consequences presumption can be mounted in the absence of countervailing evidence.” It does not hold that “any proffer of countervailing evidence renders an ordinary consequences presumption insufficient as a matter of law” on the question of intent.

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