In sentencing a defendant who has been convicted of narcotics importation, the district judge should presume that the defendant was aware of the type of narcotics he or she carried. The government is not required, at either the conviction or the sentencing phases, to prove that the defendant knew the specific type of narcotics involved. A showing that the defendant knew the substance carried was some type of prohibited drug usually will fulfill the government's obligations with respect to the defendant's mental state. The defendant, however, must be afforded the opportunity to rebut this presumption by introducing evidence at the sentencing phase that he or she believed the drugs to be of a different type than they in fact were. The court can be expected to draw upon both the evidence and its knowledge of the drug trade, with the help of experts as necessary, in reaching its determination. The defendant should then be properly sentenced both for the act done and for the act the defendant believed he was doing.
Defendants, who thought they were carrying cocaine, were arrested and charged with knowingly and intentionally importing heroin into the United States. They entered guilty pleas. The government demanded that defendants be sentenced under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual provisions for importing heroin, which would have imposed a far greater punishment than for bringing in cocaine. The district court sentenced defendants under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual provisions for importing cocaine.
Should defendants be punished for knowingly importing heroin even though they thought that they were actually importing cocaine?
It was beyond a reasonable doubt that defendants believed that they were importing cocaine. Neither defendant acted deliberately, recklessly or negligently or wilfully closed his or her eyes, in arriving at the belief that the balloons they carried contained cocaine rather than heroin. They have established beyond a reasonable doubt lack of mens rea respecting heroin. Mens rea requirements had traditionally and historically been, and continue to be today, the rule rather than the exception in the application of the criminal law. Defendants should have a reasonable and settled expectation that, absent some special previously explicated justification, their culpability and blameworthiness would be determined with reference to their mental state.