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Reverse sting drug conspiracy conviction upheld but conviction for possession of an obliterated serial number firearm reversed for lack of proof the defendant knew it was obliterated

In U.S. v. Haile defendants Haile and Beckford were convicted of conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, possession of five firearms, including a machine gun, in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense, possession of an unregistered machine gun, and with possession of a firearm with obliterated serial number. The charges arose out of a reverse-sting operation where a Drug Enforcement Agent posing as a marijuana supplier met with Beckford who the undercover agent believed was looking to purchase marijuana. They discussed delivering 1,000 pounds to Beckford. The agent introduced Beckford to another undercover agent posing as a gun seller, and they discussed exchanging guns for marijuana. After the marijuana was delivered, the defendants were arrested. Haile had a Glock pistol. Beckford had cash, a loaded handgun, two rifles with obliterated serial numbers, and an M-11 machine gun.

The defendants’ lawyers challenged the conviction for knowing possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, claiming the indictment conflated the two elements of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) that trigger the statute’s application. This is a penalty that federal criminal defense lawyers in Miami and across the county commonly face. The enhance penalty of statute is triggered two ways: (1) during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime…uses or carries a firearm, or (2) who in furtherance of any such crime, possesses a firearm. Both of these clauses were written in the indictment and defendants claimed that by conflating the elements it violated their 6th Amendment right to be informed of the nature of the accusations against them. The 11th Circuit rejected this claim, finding the indictment referred to the correct statute and place the defendants on notice of the two elements that trigger the enhancement.

Jury instruction for machine gun possession was correct.

The defendants challenged the jury instruction given for the charge of possession of a machine gun claiming that the jury had to find that (1) the defendants possessed a machine gun and (2) they knew the gun was a machine gun. Finding no error here, the 11th Circuit held the law in the 11th Circuit does not require proof of a particularized knowledge of the characteristics of the weapon and did not need to prove the defendants knew the gun in question was a machine gun.

Evidence was sufficient to support conviction.

The 11th Circuit rejected a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. It found no entrapment as the evidence showed the defendant Beckford was predisposed to engage in the conduct. The firearm possession was in furtherance of the drug trafficking crime because the firearms were stashed in truck where they were in close proximity to the money Beckford intended to use to buy drugs. Furthermore the defendant intended to trade the guns for drugs.

Government must prove defendant knew the serial number was obliterated.

Claimed the government was required to prove that he knew that the gun he possessed had an obliterated serial number for a conviction under 18 U.S.C. §922(k). In this issue of first impression, the 11th Circuit joined three other circuits which held that the knowledge of the obliterated serial number is an element of the offense. The court found no sufficient evidence was presented proving Beckford had knowledge of the obliterated serial number on the firearm and the conviction was reversed.

Outrageous conduct is not a jury defense.

The 11th Circuit rejected the defendants’ claim that the jury should have been instructed that their criminal responsibility for the cocaine and firearm charges was a result of outrageous government conduct. The court held that the 11th Circuit has never held that outrageous government conduct could constitute a defense for the jury to consider.

Sentence was not unreasonable.

The court rejected the defendants’ claim that the 438 month sentence was substantively unreasonable because the court sentence him above the mandatory minimum of 420 months and the district court rejected a reduction based on “sentencing factor manipulation.” The 11th Circuit has recognized sentencing manipulation as an “avenue for sentence reduction” but has never applied it. It held that the use of a large amount of fictitious drugs by the government in a sting operation does not amount to a sentencing factor manipulation.

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