In United States v. Colston, No. 19-13518 (July 13, 2021) (Grant, Tjoflat, Ed Carnes), the Court affirmed defendant’s convictions for knowingly possessing with intent to distribute 2 kg of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and conspiring to distribute cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846.
Defendant walked into a post office, showed a tracking receipt on her phone, and walked out with a package containing roughly $200,000 worth of cocaine. Unbeknownst to her, however, law enforcement had already flagged the package, and arrested her as soon as she picked it up.
On appeal, defendant first argued that the evidence was insufficient to support her convictions because the government failed to prove that she specifically knew the package contained cocaine. Though the government agreed that proof of knowledge of the specific drug was an element of the offense, the Court disagreed, and held that the government need only prove that a defendant knew she possessed a controlled substance, not knowledge of the specific substance she possessed. The Court clarified that when the government charges violations of § 841(a)(1) and also seeks enhanced penalties under § 846, it needs to prove a defendant’s mens rea only for the substantive violation, not for the specific drug charged. In so holding, the Court clarified that its prior precedent indicating otherwise–United States v. Narog, 372 F.3d 1243 (11th Cir. 2004)–was no longer good law.
Defendant next argued that the district court erred in giving a deliberate ignorance instruction because there was insufficient evidence to support it. The Court held that where the evidence introduced at trial is sufficient to support another theory–here, actual knowledge–it need not decide whether the evidence was also sufficient to justify giving a deliberate ignorance instruction.
Finally, defendant challenged the admission into evidence of her illegal sales of prescription drugs. The Court found evidence of prior drug dealings to be probative of intent to distribute a controlled substance, as well as involvement in a conspiracy. And, any probative value was not substantially outweighed by undue prejudice.