Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Firearms and Drug Trafficking Convictions Affirmed Over Challenges to Indictment, Juror Dismissal, Instructions, Consent-to-Search Question, and Evidence Sufficiency

United States v. Cooper, No. 11-20711 (Apr. 26, 2013) (Stewart, Davis, Clement)

The panel addressed arguments challenging Cooper’s indictment and trial, ultimately affirming his conviction for a number of drug and firearms offenses.

Indictment Sufficient and Jury Instructions Not a Constructive AmendmentCooper challenged the sufficiency of Counts 2 and 4 of the indictment, which alleged violations of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) with the caption "Possessing a Firearm in Furtherance of a Drug Trafficking Crime" but the allegations that he "knowingly possessed a firearm . . . during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime." Cooper argued that the allegations of "during and in relation to" do not arise to a violation of § 924(c) and that the indictment improperly combined elements of two different types of conduct proscribed by § 924(c). The panel held that the caption cured any ambiguity of the charged offense conduct and that, viewed practically, the indictment contained all the elements of the offenses charged. Since the indictment was sufficient, the panel also held that the district court’s instructions regarding the possession of a firearm "in furtherance of" a drug trafficking offense did not broaden the bases of conviction beyond the indictment and did not amount to a constructive amendment.

No Abuse of Discretion to Not Dismiss Juror
The panel found that the district court did not abuse its discretion by not striking a juror who responded to a question as to whether the race of the black men who had burgled the juror’s home years ago would impact his treatment of Cooper, who is also black, by saying that he "would try to be impartial."

Affirmed Denial of Lesser-Included-Offense InstructionCooper proposed a lesser-included-offense jury instruction of simple possession for the count that charged him with possession with intent to distribute more than fifty grams of crack cocaine. Given the evidence presented at trial of crack cocaine weighing approximately 42 grams and drug manufacturing and distribution paraphernalia found in Cooper’s house, the panel found "no abuse of discretion in the district court’s holding that no jury could rationally find Cooper guilty of only simple possession."

No Due Process Violation by Improper Government Statements at TrialAt trial, the Government asked a police officer witness whether he had asked Cooper for consent to search his house. Cooper objected that this was an impermissible inquiry into Cooper’s invocation of his Fourth Amendment right not to consent to a search. The Government’s witness never answered the question, so the jury never heard whether Cooper had refused permission for a warrantless search. "Because of the extremely limited impact of the objected-to question on the trial proceedings and the substantiality of the evidence presented," the panel concluded "that the Government’s question did not prejudice Cooper’s substantive rights and was, if erroneous at all, harmless error."

Inoperable Firearms Can Support Possession of Firearms ConvictionsCooper argued that the evidence supporting his convictions for possession of firearms was insufficient because the Government did not introduce any evidence showing that the firearms were actually capable of firing. The panel rejected this argument since the definition of "firearm" includes any weapon that "is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive . . . ." The panel found that a rational jury could find, based on the evidence presented, that Cooper possessed firearms as defined by 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3).

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