Facts of the Case
After police officers in Nevada stopped a truck carrying illegal drugs and seized the drugs, the officers, with the help of the truck’s drivers, who were allegedly members of a drug conspiracy, set up a sting operation to capture other members of the alleged conspiracy. Thus, the truck was taken to the drivers’ destination in Idaho, where the drivers paged a contact who said that he would call someone to get the truck. Two men subsequently appeared in a car, and one of them drove away in the truck and the other in the car. The police stopped both vehicles and arrested both men. After a trial in the United States District Court for the District of Idaho, the jury convicted these men of conspiring to possess and to distribute unlawful drugs. However, the judge ordered a new trial, on the ground that the jury ought to have been instructed that the men could not have been convicted of conspiracy unless the jury believed that the men had joined the conspiracy before the police stopped the truck and seized the drugs. At the new trial, the jury was instructed that a defendant could be found guilty of a conspiracy only if the defendant had joined the conspiracy at a time when it was possible to achieve the conspiracy’s objective. The men were again convicted. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, reversing in pertinent part on appeal, reasoned that under Ninth Circuit precedent, a defendant could not be charged with a drug conspiracy where the defendant had been brought into the scheme only after law enforcement authorities had already intervened, and the defendant’s involvement had been prompted by the intervention. In the case at bar, the appellate court held that the drivers were not involved in a pre-seizure conspiracy, and reversed their convictions. The United States filed a petition for certiorari review.
Is the Ninth Circuit rule — that a conspiracy ends automatically when the object of the conspiracy becomes impossible to achieve — valid?
No. In a 9-0 opinion delivered by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the Court held that a conspiracy does not automatically terminate simply because the federal government has defeated its object, such that Ninth Circuit’s conspiracy-termination law is erroneous. Justice Breyer stated that the Ninth Circuit’s rule is inconsistent with basic conspiracy law and that the agreement to commit an unlawful act is ‘a distinct evil,’ which ‘may exist and be punished whether or not the substantive crime ensues.’ Justice John Paul Stevens filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.
- Citation: 537 US 270 (2003)
- Argued: Nov 12, 2002
- Decided Jan 21, 2003