LOCATION:United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
DOCKET NO.: 01-1184
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 537 US 270 (2003)
ARGUED: Nov 12, 2002
DECIDED: Jan 21, 2003
Colby M. May – for the American Center for Law and Justice et al. as amici curiae urging reversal
Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben – argued the cause for the United States
Jay Alan Sekulow – for the American Center for Law and Justice et al. as amici curiae urging reversal
Joel H. Thornton – for the American Center for Law and Justice et al. as amici curiae urging reversal
John P. Tuskey – for the American Center for Law and Justice et al. as amici curiae urging reversal
Michael R. Dreeben – Argued the cause for the petitioner
M. Karl Shurtliff – Argued the cause for the respondents
Stuart J. Roth – for the American Center for Law and Justice et al. as amici curiae urging reversal
Shannon D. Woodruff – for the American Center for Law and Justice et al. as amici curiae urging reversal
Facts of the case
In 1997, police stopped a truck in Nevada and seized the illegal drugs that it was carrying. With the help of the truck drivers, the police set up a sting. Francisco Jimenez Recio and Adrian Lopez-Meza came for the truck and were subsequently arrested. A jury convicted Jimenez Recio and Lopez-Meza of conspiracy, but the trial judge ordered a new trial under Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals precedent that held a conspiracy terminates when “‘there is affirmative evidence of…defeat of the object of the conspiracy.'” In other words, the federal government could not prosecute the drug conspiracy defendants unless they had joined the conspiracy before the government seized the drugs. The new jury convicted the two men once again. In reversing, the Ninth Circuit held that the evidence presented at the second trial was insufficient to show that Jimenez Recio and Lopez-Meza had joined the conspiracy before the drug seizure.
Is the Ninth Circuit rule — that a conspiracy ends automatically when the object of the conspiracy becomes impossible to achieve — valid?
Media for United States v. Jimenez Recio
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 21, 2003 in United States v. Jimenez Recio
William H. Rehnquist:
The opinions of Court in No. 01-1184, United States versus Recio will be announced by Justice Breyer.
Stephen G. Breyer:
In this case we consider the legal validity of a rule, a Ninth Circuit Rule that they set forth in a Circuit Case called United States versus Cruz.
Cruz said that a criminal conspiracy ends automatically when it becomes impossible to achieve the conspiracy’s objective, when for example the Government prostrates a drug conspiracy’s objective by seizing the drug that its members have agreed to distribute.
The facts of this case in which Cruz was applied illustrate how the rule work.
The police stopped the truck in Nevada and they found a large stash of illegal drugs in the truck.
So, with the help of the truck drivers, they set up a sting.
The driver has paged the contact.
The contact said he would call somebody to get the drugs.
A few hours later, the defendants in this case, the respondents here they arrived at the scene.
One of them drove away in the truck, the other followed in the car.
Now eventually, the defendants were convicted of being part of the basic conspiracy to possess and to distribute the drug.
But the Ninth Circuit following the Cruz rules set aside their conviction.
The Circuit said that once the Government had seized the drugs from the truck in Nevada it became impossible to achieve the drug distribution objective of the conspiracy.
So, the conspiracy ended, and that they said was before the defendants arrived on the scene, so the government could not convict them for belonging to a conspiracy that it ended before they joined it.
Now, that is all sorts of logical but in our view, the Cruz rule incorrectly states basic conspiracy law.
A conspiracy does not terminate simply because the Government unbeknownst to some of the conspiracy’s member has made it unlikely or even impossible for the conspiracy ultimately to succeed.
This Court has repeatedly said that the essence of a conspiracy is an agreement to commit a non-lawful act, that agreement is a distinct evil; it poses a threat to the public and that threat is not just the substantive crime might occur but also that the conspirators will continue to commit other crimes or similar crimes on other occasion.
When police have frustrated the conspiracy’s object but the conspirators do not know it, those conspiracy related dangers remain.
So to does the essence of the conspiracy, namely the agreement to commit the crime.
Legal authority outside the Ninth Circuit overwhelmingly supports this view of the law that the Government’s frustration of the conspiracy’s objective does not necessarily prevent prosecution of unknowing conspirators, and in our view, this latter view correctly sets the law.
So, we find the Ninth Circuit’s Cruz rule erroneous.
We reverse the judgment here in so far as it relies upon that rule, and we remand the case for further proceedings.
Justice Stevens has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.