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Jury did not have to find defendant knew he was in possession of cocaine rather than marijuana in drug trafficking conspiracy charge

Sanders was convicted of distributing cocaine after he was stopped by Georgia State Patrol driving a tractor trailer containing 153 kilograms of cocaine. After giving consent to the search of the truck, officers found cocaine hidden in the trailer hidden inside a pallet of rotting cabbage. At trial, the jury was instructed that Sanders did not have to know the nature of the particular drug he possessed in the trailer, but only had to know it was a controlled substance. When a jury question asked whether the term controlled substance and cocaine were interchangeable, the trial court instructed that they are not interchangeable because controlled substance is a broader terms than cocaine and could mean drugs such as methamphetamines or other drugs. In U.S. v. Sanders the 11th Circuit agreed with this instruction.

Although a jury must determine the quantity and type of drug involved, the government is not required to prove the defendant had knowledge of the particular drug type or quantity for a sentence enhancement under 841(b). The trial court’s instructions that defendant only has to know it is a controlled substance and did not have to know it was actually cocaine was a correct statement of the law. The defendant relied on a defense that the defendant was just a truck driver and was unaware he transported cocaine in the cabbage. Rather he argued the government could have let the defendant plea to transporting marijuana but was trying to put the whole truckload of cocaine on the defendant. The defense suggested that he only intended to transport marijuana. The district court did not amend or broaden the indictment by instructing the jury that Sanders did not have to specifically know that he possessed cocaine. The indictment charged a generic controlled substance violation and the district court correctly instructed the jury that sanders had to know only that he was conspiring to distribute any controlled substance.

The admission of a 22 year old conviction for selling 1.4 grams of marijuana was harmless error. Sanders appealed the admission under Rule 404(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence of his 1988 conviction for selling 1.4 grams of marijuana. Sanders argued that any probative value of the prior conviction was diminished by the 22 year gap between the prior and the trial, the lack of similarity between the street-level sale and the 153 kilogram trafficking conspiracy, and that the government had no need to introduce the 1988 conviction in light of other evidence. The 11th Circuit concluded the trial court abused its discretion by admitting the 22 year old conviction fo 1.4 grams of marijuana, finding no probative value in establishing Sanders intent to enter in the conspiracy. Nevertheless the fact that the prior conviction was so old and dissimilar that it was unlikely the jury convicted Sanders because of the prior conviction, given the abundant evidence admitted at trial. The admission of the prior conviction was considered harmless error in light of the overwhelming evidence.