Easy to miss among the unpublished opinions issued today was an order denying rehearing en banc in United States v. Kelly. The panel opinion, also unpublished, is here. It was authored by Greenaway and joined by Scirica and Roth.
Here’s the interesting part: four judges (McKee, joined by Ambro, Smith, and Restrepo) dissented from the denial of rehearing. Any dissent from denial of rehearing is quite rare in the Third Circuit. It’s rarer still given that the panel opinion was both unpublished and unanimous, and that none of the dissenters sat on the panel.
The heart of the issue is how jurors are instructed in drug-conspiracy cases, specifically whether those instructions unjustly expose mere purchasers to criminal liability as conspirators. McKee’s opinion explains his basis for dissenting in this introduction:
I appreciate that the panel’s decision in this case was
dictated by circuit precedent and that my colleagues therefore
felt compelled to affirm the jury’s determination that Kelly’s
membership in the Alford drug distribution conspiracy had
been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. However, I take the
unusual step of filing this opinion sur denial of rehearing to
explain why we have made a mistake by not availing
ourselves of this opportunity to reexamine our jury
instructions in drug conspiracies. I do so even though this
appeal has been resolved in a non-precedential opinion
because our current approach to informing jurors how to
distinguish between a purchaser from a drug conspiracy and a
member of that conspiracy is so meaningless that it presents
the illusion of an objective standard while furnishing no
guidance to jurors who must make this crucial distinction.
Our current standard for channeling a jury’s inquiry in
such prosecutions fails to provide a jury with sufficient
guidance to allow jurors to appropriately differentiate
between customers and co-conspirators. Although some of
our factors may be relevant to this inquiry, the irrelevant
factors I discuss below create the very real danger of placing
a thumb on the conspiratorial side of the scale and thereby
tipping the balance in favor of a conviction for conspiracy
when only a buyer-seller relationship has been established.
Because there is no way of knowing how this jury would have
viewed the circumstantial evidence against Kelly if that
additional weight had not been added to the conspiratorial
side of the scale, I believe this case “involves a question of
exceptional importance,” meriting en banc reconsideration.
Fed. R. App. P. 35(a).
He concludes thus:
Given the extent to which illegal drugs and illegal drug
sales continue to devastate and destroy lives and
communities, I have no doubt that we will have another
opportunity to revisit the factors we use in attempting to
distinguish between purchasers and co-conspirators.
Regrettably, in the interim we also will no doubt expose
numerous purchasers of drugs (even those who purchase
merely to “feed” their own addiction) to the exponentially
greater penalties that attach to being a member of a drug
conspiracy. I therefore take this opportunity to express my
concern that we are failing to afford jurors the guidance they
need and that the law requires in deciding whether evidence is
sufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in
cases such as this. Worse yet, the “guidance” that we do give
jurors is not only less than helpful, it is misleading because it
can be an open invitation to convict mere purchasers of illegal
drugs of the far more serious crime of being a member of a
drug conspiracy. Accordingly, I now echo the concern
expressed by Judge Becker a decade and a half ago and
explain why we should avail ourselves of this opportunity and
grant Kelly’s petition for rehearing.
Thirteen judges participated in the en banc rehearing decision, so the dissenters apparently fell three votes short, with five judges appointed by Democratic presidents not dissenting.
(I say “apparently” because nothing requires a judge who voted in favor of rehearing en banc to dissent from the denial. So it’s theoretically possible that one or two judges voted to grant rehearing but declined to join McKee’s dissent or issue their own.)