Meth Conviction Reversed; Evidence Equally Supportive of Guilt and Innocence
Yep, you read that right. The court reversed Peñaloza's conviction for aiding and abetting the possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, holding that the evidence gave equal circumstantial support to a theory of guilt and a theory of innocence. Note that Peñaloza properly preserved the evidentiary sufficiency issue by moving for a judgment of acquittal at the necessary points in the trial, thus entitling him to de novo review on appeal.
The facts are pretty involved, but here are the basics: Peñaloza was a passenger in a car that got pulled over by a Louisiana state trooper for failing to signal a lane change. Turns out there was nearly 900 grams of methamphetamine hidden under the glove compartment. During post-arrest conversations with LEO's from various agencies, Peñaloza admitted that he knew about the meth and that it was bound for Orlando. He claimed, however, that he was not actually involved in the meth venture and that he was instead working as a confidential informant for a police detective and a DEA agent in California. At Peñaloza's trial, the detective confirmed that Peñaloza had been working for some time as a CI, with good results, but that Peñaloza had not told him about any trip to Florida with methamphetamine. (Peñaloza had told the detective he was going "up north" in California to meet with some people about a drug venture, but found himself bound for Florida instead.) The jury found Peñaloza guilty of the aiding and abetting charge, and the district court sentenced him to 121 months.
On appeal, Peñaloza challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his conviction. Because he had properly preserved the issue by moving for a judgment of acquittal both at the end of the government's case and at the close of all the evidence, the court of appeals reviewed the issue de novo. The court noted that "[c]lose association with suspected drug traffickers, standing alone, is insufficient to sustain a conviction for aiding and abetting[,]" a principle that the court considered "especially compelling when the defendant operates as a CI and has no criminal convictions." Slip op. at 10. It went on to conclude that "in this case that the circumstantial evidence on which the government relies gives equal support to the theory offered by Peñaloza, namely that he was a trusted CI, with no criminal convictions, who wanted to protect his cover and who found himself a passenger in an automobile very far from home with no affirmative association in the criminal venture." Id. at 12. Because the evidence was in equipoise it was insufficient to support the jury's verdict of guilt, and the court reversed and vacated Peñaloza's conviction.