The Supreme Court yesterday raised the threshold for federal prosecution of drug kingpins accused of running ongoing narcotics enterprises.
By a 6 to 3 vote, the court ruled that a jury must unanimously agree not only that such defendants committed a series of drug violations but also on which specific violations they committed.
Unless jurors are forced to focus on specific acts, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority, jurors may "simply conclud[e] from testimony, say, of bad reputation, that where there is smoke there must be fire."
Dissenting justices--Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg--contended that the ruling misreads federal law and will drastically affect how prosecutors draft their indictments and plot trial strategy. The Justice Department had no immediate response yesterday, but its lawyers had warned in a brief that requiring juror unanimity on details of wide-ranging criminal activities could allow some drug ringleaders to escape conviction.
With its ruling, the court threw out the conviction of Eddie Richardson, the leader of a Chicago street gang called the Undertaker Vice Lords, who oversaw a heroin and cocaine ring in the 1980s and early 1990s. During his 1997 trial, prosecutors presented an array of possible drug violations that could fall under the continuing-criminal-enterprise law, and the judge instructed the jurors that they must be in agreement that Richardson committed at least three of them. The judge refused Richardson's request, however, that he tell jurors they must agree on which three particular offenses Richardson committed. The jury convicted Richardson and sentenced him to life in prison.
A federal appeals court had upheld the jury instruction, but other courts have made contradictory rulings in similar cases. The Supreme Court's ruling in Richardson v. United States yesterday set a national standard, declaring that the law's language, as well as legal tradition and potential unfairness, requires that each "violation" be a separate element of the crime that jurors agree upon.
Also yesterday, the court rejected an appeal by the Cable News Network of a lower court decision that said the media could be sued for violating privacy rights during a police raid. The case arose from a Montana dispute, decided last week, in which the justices said that when police allow the media to enter a private home, the police can be held liable for damages for violating privacy rights.
In that ruling, the high court did not address the question of whether media organizations could also be held liable in such situations. Yesterday the justices sidestepped the issue again in their one-sentence order letting stand a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that could require CNN to defend itself against a claim that it breached a Montana couple's privacy rights when its camera crew accompanied federal agents on a search of their ranch.
The practical effects of Cable News Network v. Berger could be limited: Last week, the court said that because privacy law was not yet clearly established in 1993 when the raids in question occurred, police had retroactive immunity from suits that preceded the court's ruling. By extension, the media may be protected from liability for earlier ride-alongs.