By Paige Topper
On December 10, 2015, in the criminal case of United States v. Daniel Blue, a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit reversed Daniel Blue’s (appellant) prior convictions of conspiracy and possession with the intent to distribute heroin due to insufficient evidence.
Surveillance on Blue Leading to His Arrest
Using the cooperation of a fellow heroin distributor, officers set up a controlled heroin buy in the hopes of arresting a known middleman, Keith Townsend. During the staged buy, officers watched Blue interact with their target in what appeared to be a drug deal with Blue giving Townsend heroin folded into a slice of bread. Two weeks later the officers decided to start tracking Blue by placing a hidden GPS on Blue’s vehicle.
In their surveillance of Blue’s whereabouts the officers followed Blue to Fox Hall apartment complex where they watched Blue enter the apartment building empty-handed and return about five minutes later with a cloudy white, plastic container in his hand. The officers then followed Blue to a lake in Baltimore County known for narcotics transactions. Blue entered into a vehicle with another male, Jamar Holt, and drove around the lake in Holt’s car before returning to his own vehicle. The officers followed Holt under the assumption that a drug transaction between Holt and Blue had occurred. Holt ultimately escaped the officers. After this failed attempt, the officers went to the new address that Blue was at, according to the GPS, and arrested Blue upon his departure from a residence on Sinclair Lane. Ultimately, a grand jury convicted Blue of conspiracy to distribute heroin and possession with intent to distribute heroin.
Insufficient Evidence for Possession with Intent to Distribute
First the Fourth Circuit addressed Blue’s sufficiency of the evidence argument for the possession with intent to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin conviction. This conviction referred to 108.6 grams of heroin located in one of the Fox Hall apartment units hidden in a footstool. The standard of review for this evidence was whether such evidence could support a rational determination of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The government argued there was enough evidence because the officers watched Blue enter and leave the Fox Hall apartment building and that Blue lied to the officers about not being at that location.
The Fourth Circuit noted that the two principal issues with this count were (1) whether Blue knew the 108.6 grams of heroin was in the footstool in the front bedroom of the apartment unit and (2) whether Blue had the power to exercise dominion and control over the heroin. Dominion and control cannot be established by mere proximity to the drug, by mere presence on the property where the drug is found, or by mere association with the person who does control the drug.
Although the officer’s observed Blue entering and exiting the apartment building, they did not see Blue enter the specific apartment unit where the heroin was found nor did they see Blue interact with the occupants of the apartment unit in question. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit determined there was insufficient evidence to establish Blue’s possession of the heroin found in the footstool. The government argued that Blue was using the apartment as a stash house and thus had constructive possession of the heroin. The Fourth Circuit declared that the government did not provide constructive notice of the heroin through proof that Blue resided or leased the apartment, that Blue’s personal possessions were in the apartment, or that Blue was associated with the occupants of the apartment. As a result of the lack of connection between Blue and the occupants of the apartment, the government’s theory of a stash house was found to be unreasonable. The complete lack of connection between Blue and the heroin convinced the Court that the evidence did not support a rational determination of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Fourth Circuit also rejected the government’s reliance on case law that suggested the holder of a key has constructive possession of the contents in the apartment. In particular, the Court noted that no Fourth Circuit case had ever adopted the overly broad statement of the law derived from the Eighth Circuit. Moreover, the Eighth Circuit itself qualified the statement, which was located in a footnote, by rejecting the government’s argument in that case that the defendant’s possession of a key to the home, by itself, proved the defendant knowingly possessed cocaine found in the home. Here, the fact that Blue had a key to the apartment did not provide sufficient evidence to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Insufficient Evidence for Conspiracy to Distribute
Blue’s second challenge was against the sufficiency of the evidence to support the charge for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin. The Fourth Circuit again found that the evidence did not support a rational determination that Blue was guilty of conspiring to distribute. To have found Blue guilty for conspiracy for distribution specifically over 100 grams the government had to tie Blue and another person to an agreement to distribute the 108.6 grams of heroin. The government failed to present such evidence.
Fourth Circuit Reversed Both Convictions
As a result of the lack of sufficient evidence linking Blue to the 108.6 grams of heroin in the footstool and linking Blue to an agreement to distribute that amount of heroin, the Fourth Circuit reversed both convictions of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute heroin.