Thursday, May 05, 2005

Possession of a Firearm in Furtherance of a Drug Crime

United States v. Pedro L. Castillo, Case No. 02-3584 (05/03/2005): In its first major statement on the amended version of 18 U.S.C. §924(c)(1)(A), the Court stressed that the mere presence of a weapon at the scene of a drug crime, without more, is insufficient to prove that the gun was possessed "in furtherance of" a drug crime. There must be proof that the charged weapon did something to promote the charged drug offense. The opinion contains a lengthy analysis of the legislative history and cases from other Circuits. The Court ultimately found that the government presented enough evidence to satisfy its burden.

Mr. Castillo also argued that the instructions on the in furtherance element were insufficient. The Court found that his objections to the instructions were not properly preserved; hence, it reviewed under a plain error standard. In performing this plain error analysis, the Court made two points that would have much less weight in a case where proper objection had been made. First, it suggested that correct statements of the law contained in the parties’ final arguments were sufficient guidance for the jury. Normally, an incomplete statement of the law is not rehabilitated by the arguments of counsel. The judge, not the attorneys, instruct on the law. Second, the Court observed that "in furtherance of" is not so special a term that a jury needs instruction. Given the Court’s lengthy and learned analysis of the statute, it seems very unrealistic to think that the average high school graduate will know the meaning of the phrase without help from the district judge’s instructions. The Court even acknowledged that it would be preferable for the instructions to define this element.