Sunday, July 27, 2008

Luggage Wreck

United States v. Leerdam, No. 07-1435-cr (2d Cir. July 18, 2008) (Jacobs, Straub, CJJ, Jones, DJ).

Here, the circuit reversed the convictions of two defendants, Andrea and Julio Lorenzo, who had been convicted in a drug importation and distribution conspiracy, finding that the evidence was legally insufficient.


In July 2005, Francisca Leerdam was recruited to smuggle drugs out of the Dominican Republic. She made three successful trips to the Netherlands, then, in September of 2005, made her first trip to the United States. Her handlers gave her a suitcase, some money, a plane ticket and instructions. She made it through customs at JFK, and eventually met a confederate who took her suitcase and gave her a different one. Later, in Queens, the confederate met up with and spoke to Julio. Leerdam met Andrea, who asked her how it went. Andrea and Julio then took her to a hotel and paid for her room. The next day, Julio brought her $14,000 in a duffel bag and told her it was for her handler in the D.R. He drove her to the airport and she flew back, turned in the money and received $3,000.

One month later, she made another trip to New York with two suitcases given to her in the D.R.. This time, she was caught at JFK with 3.25 kilograms of cocaine. She agreed to cooperate by making recorded phone calls and a controlled delivery, assisted by an ICE agent, who posed as a cab driver. She called the phone number she had been given - with instructions to speak to Julio - and Andrea answered. Andrea said that Julio was sleeping, but that she had spoken to Leerdam’s handler, who said that Leerdam should come to their house. Leerdam and the “cab driver” brought the suitcases inside, while Andrea remarked, “so much work, huh?” then said that she had been told to take Leerdam to a hotel.

At this point, both women and Julio were arrested. Andrea made a post-arrest statement denying that she knew Leerdam, and asserting that she was doing a favor for her nephew by bringing Leerdam to a hotel. She also denied knowing what was in the suitcases. Later, she told agents that she had met Leerdam before, but did not know her name. Julio, in his statement, said he did a favor for his nephew by - referring to the September trip - by driving Leerdam around. He denied giving her any money.

The Appeal

The court reversed both defendants’ convictions on the ground that there was insufficient evidence that they entered into the conspiracy with the specific intent to commit the offenses that were its objects or that they had the requisite knowledge.

For Julio, the court held that, while there was “ample” evidence of the existence of the conspiracy and of his presence and participation in events that furthered it, there was insufficient evidence that he did so knowingly and with the intent to further a cocaine smuggling and distribution conspiracy. For the September trip, there was no evidence of the contents of the suitcase, or that Julio know what was in it. Given this, and his “complete lack of participation” in the October events, even the $14,000 he gave to Leerdam in September was not enough. While “indicative of participation in illegal behavior,” it was consistent with a wide variety of offenses, and was by itself insufficient to prove his specific intent to participate in the drug conspiracy. The court also rejected the argument that the fact that Leerdam had been told to call Julio during the October trip rendered the evidence sufficient. The request was not fulfilled, and Julio was dormant during this entire episode. Finally, the court rejected the claim that Julio’s false exculpatory statement rendered the evidence sufficient. The totality of the facts, in the aggregate, was not enough to sustain his conviction.

For Andrea, the evidence was “even more sparse.” Indeed, the court issued an order reversing her conviction one day after oral argument. The evidence against her “considered in the aggregate,” supported “at most” an inference that she “knew that she was assisting suspicious behavior.” But it was also consistent with “providing hospitality to her nephew’s girlfriend and regretting” it.

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