WASHINGTON (CN) - A federal jury in Utah should have been instructed as to intent in the use a gun during the trafficking of drugs, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
At the trial of Justus Cornelius Rosemond, the evidence established that Ricardo Gonzales and his friend had arranged to buy a pound of marijuana at a park in Tooele, Utah.
Vashti Perez had brokered the deal and brought Rosemond and another man, Ronald Joseph, with her.
Once inside the car with the three dealers, Gonzales punched one of the men in the face, grabbed the drugs and ran. His friend, who had been waiting outside the car, ran in the opposite direction.
Rosemond and the two others jumped out of their car and one of them fired a 9 mm handgun about 10 times at Gonzales.
Bystanders reported the shots to police as trio drove after the thieves. Before they could find their quarry, however, a state trooper arrived and searched the car for a weapon. It had been hidden under the back seat of the car.
Days later, Perez identified Rosemond as the shooter in a written statement.
Rosemond was charged with, among other things, using and discharging a firearm during a federal drug-trafficking offense, a violation of Section 924(c). The aiding and abetting of that offense, for which Rosemond was alternatively charged, appears at Section 2.
At trial, Perez testified that the shooter could have been Joseph or Rosemond. Joseph testified that Rosemond had fired the shots. Neither they, nor the pair of buyers from the deal, were charged in exchange for testifying against Rosemond.
A federal jury convicted Rosemond of all four offenses, and he was sentenced to 14 years, with 10 of those years tacked on as a consecutive sentence for using the gun. The general verdict form did not state, however, whether the jury found that Rosemond had used the gun or aided and abetted that Section 924(c) crime.
Rosemond appealed only the firearm conviction, but the 10th Circuit affirmed
in September 2012.
The Supreme Court took up
Rosemond's case last year and was mostly unanimous Wednesday in vacating the underlying judgment.
Though the justices agreed that Rosemond had actively participated in drug trafficking with advance knowledge "that a confederate would use or carry a gun during the crime's commission," the jury should have been instructed that Rosemond "knew in advance that one of his cohorts would be armed," according to the ruling.
"Rosemond therefore could assist in §924(c)'s violation by facilitating either the drug transaction or the firearm use (or of course both)," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. "In helping to bring about one part of the offense (whether trafficking drugs or using a gun), he necessarily helped to complete the whole. And that ends the analysis as to his conduct. It is inconsequential, as courts applying both the common law and §2 have held, that his acts did not advance each element of the offense; all that matters is that they facilitated one component."
The issue of intent is critical, however.
"When an accomplice knows beforehand of a confederate's design to carry a gun, he can attempt to alter that plan or, if unsuccessful, withdraw from the enterprise; it is deciding instead to go ahead with his role in the venture that shows his intent to aid an armed
offense," Kagan wrote (emphasis in original). "But when an accomplice knows nothing of a gun until it appears at the scene, he may already have completed his acts of assistance; or even if not, he may at that late point have no realistic opportunity to quit the crime. And when that is so, the defendant has not shown the requisite intent to assist a crime involving a gun."
In a partial dissent Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the majority had needlessly waded into "Les Miserables" territory.
"When Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, he certainly intended to commit theft; the fact that, had he been living in America today, he may have pleaded necessity as a defense does not change that fact," Alito wrote.
By converting an affirmative defense into a part of the required mens rea
, the court has fundamentally altered "the prior understanding of mental states that form the foundation of substantive criminal law, and it places a strange and difficult burden on the prosecution," the dissent states.
"The court confuses two fundamentally distinct concepts: intent and motive," Alito added.
In addition to breaking common-law tradition and case law, the court's rule "also makes no sense," the dissent concludes.