United States v. Contento-Pachon

723 F.2d 691 (9th Cir. 1984)



There are three elements of the duress defense: (1) an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury, (2) a well-grounded fear that the threat will be carried out, and (3) no reasonable opportunity to escape the threatened harm. Sometimes a fourth element is required: the defendant must submit to proper authorities after attaining a position of safety.


Defendant was convicted of unlawful possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Prior to the drug transport, defendant told his dealer that he no longer wanted to carry the cocaine. In response, the dealer mentioned facts about defedant's personal life, including private details which defendant never mentioned to him. The dealer told defendant that his failure to cooperate would result in the death of his wife and three year-old child. At Contento-Pachon's trial, the government moved to exclude the defenses of duress and necessity. The motion was granted. Defendant appealed, arguing that the district court erred in excluding evidence of duress and necessity defenses. The court reversed the decision of the district court. 


Can the defendant be excused from criminal culpability if he commits the crime under a threat of death or serious bodily injury?




The court ruled that defendant had presented sufficient evidence of duress to present a triable issue of fact. The court concluded that defendant agreed to attempt to smuggle the cocaine into the United States in his body under a well-grounded fear of immediate harm to his family with no opportunity to escape, and that a triable issue existed as to whether defendant took the opportunity to escape by submitting to authorities at the first reasonable opportunity.

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