Law School Case Brief
United States v. Heredia - 483 F.3d 913 (9th Cir. 2007)
"Knowingly" in criminal statutes is not limited to positive knowledge, but includes the state of mind of one who does not possess positive knowledge only because he consciously avoided it. In other words, when Congress made it a crime to knowingly possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance, 21 U.S.C.S. § 841(a)(1), it meant to punish not only those who know they possess a controlled substance, but also those who don't know because they don't want to know.
Defendant Carmen Denise Heredia was stopped at an inland Border Patrol checkpoint while driving from Mexico to Arizona. The border agent at the scene noticed what he described as a very strong perfume scent emanating from the car. A second agent searched the trunk and found 349.2 pounds of marijuana surrounded by dryer sheets. At trial, Heredia testified that on the day of her arrest she had accompanied her mother on a bus trip for a doctor's appointment. After the appointment, she borrowed her aunt's car and noticed a detergent smell in the vehicle. At trial in federal district court, Heredia admitted on the stand that she suspected there might have been drugs in the car. The Government requested a deliberate ignorance instruction based on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit's decision in United States v. Jewell; the district gave the requested instruction. Heredia was convicted was convicted for possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute under 21 U.S.C.S. § 841(a)(1). Heredia appealed, arguing that Jewell should be overruled and that § 841(a)(1) extended liability only to individuals who acted with actual knowledge.
Was actual knowledge necessary to support the conviction of Heredia for possession of controlled substance?
The court affirmed the district court' judgment. The court held that taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the Government, a reasonable jury could certainly have found that Heredia actually knew about the drugs. Not only was she driving a car with several hundred pounds of marijuana in the trunk, but everyone else who might have put the drugs there—her mother, her aunt, her husband—had a close personal relationship with Heredia. Moreover, there was evidence that Heredia and her husband had sole possession of the car for about an hour prior to setting out on the trip to Tucson. Based on this evidence, a jury could easily have inferred that Heredia actually knew about the drugs in the car because she was involved in putting them there. The court noted that a "deliberate ignorance" had to contain the two prongs of suspicion and deliberate avoidance. The court held that the district judge did not abuse his discretion in issuing the requested instruction because Heredia admitted that she was suspicious of presence of drugs in vehicle, and Heredia told border patrol agent that she had spilled fabric softener to explain dryer sheet scent.
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