Whaddya Know? Eleventh Circuit Affirms One and Reverses Other Gun Conviction Based on Different Amounts of “Knowledge” Required

Federal criminal trials almost always involve the question of “knowledge”, meaning that the prosecution is obligated to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant “knew” about some fact. In US v. Vana Haile, the Eleventh Circuit here in Atlanta showed how the issue of “knowledge” can change, depending on the facts and the specific crime involved.

Mr. Vana Haile and another man named Beckford were charged with and convicted of conspiracy and attempt to possess with intent to distribute marijuana and cocaine and knowing possession of several firearms in conjunction with their drug trafficking offenses. One of the firearms crimes alleged that the Defendants possessed a machine gun. The government also alleged that a different crime was violated because one of the weapons had an obliterated serial number.

Concerning the machine gun, the Defendants claimed that the trial judge committed an error by failing to instruct the jury that they knew the firearm was a machine gun when they possessed it. The district court instead merely instructed the jury that they needed to find that each defendant “knowingly possessed” each firearm, including the machine gun. The Defendants argued that this instruction was insufficient because the jury was required to find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendants knew the gun they possessed had the characteristics of a machine gun, relying on United States v. O’Brien 130 S. Ct. 2169, 2180 (2010). The Court of Appeals rejected this claim, holding that the Supreme Court merely held that whether a firearm was a machine gun was an element of the offense, rather than merely a sentencing enhancement. The Eleventh Circuit decided that the Supreme Court did not require that a defendant’s knowledge that a firearm is a machine gun must also be so proved.

The Eleventh Circuit reached a different result when it addressed the conviction of Mr. Beckford for knowing possession of a gun with an obliterated serial number. In a case of first impression in that Court, the Eleventh Circuit joined all other federal courts to address the question by holding that that knowledge of the obliterated serial number is an element of the offense. “Beckford must have possessed a gun with an obliterated serial number and known the number was obliterated.” After making this legal ruling, the Court of Appeals then turned to whether there was enough proof that Beckford actually knew the serial number was obliterated. Usually, possession of a gun allows the jury to “infer” that the person possessing the firearm inspected it and should have know the serial number had been removed. However, in Mr. Beckford’s case the evidence at trial was not sufficient to show that he possessed the gun for a period of time during which an ordinary man would have discovered that the serial number was obliterated. The court reversed Beckford’s conviction for the following reasons: “Although the government established that Beckford discussed guns in general before the arrest and that agents found the gun in the flatbed of his truck (out of his reach) after the arrest, the government put forth no evidence that Beckford actually possessed the gun for any significant length of time. The government essentially proved only that Beckford had constructive possession of the gun at the time of the arrest. But this constructive possession alone cannot be sufficient to establish Beckford’s knowledge of the obliterated serial number because, if it was sufficient, the standard would eviscerate the knowledge element of [the statute] altogether.”

Again, it is important to always challenge every aspect of the government’s case when going to trial in federal court. Who “knows”, the Court of Appeals might agree with the defense, as in Mr. Beckford’s case.