Federal agents may launch sting operations and use other sneaky undercover tactics to trip up suspected criminals without running afoul of the nation's conspiracy laws.
In an important ruling expected to help agents wage the war on terror, the US Supreme Court ruled 9-to-0 Tuesday that federal conspiracy laws permit agents to temporarily seize contraband and then later arrest those who turn up to take possession of it.
The ruling reverses a Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals panel decision in September 2000 that prevented the use of the federal conspiracy laws after an initial interception of narcotics by law-enforcement officials. The appeals panel had ruled that any criminal conspiracy to smuggle the drugs ends as a matter of law at the moment federal agents first take possession of the drugs.
The nation's highest court said Tuesday the Ninth Circuit was wrong.
"A conspiracy does not automatically terminate simply because the government, unbeknownst to some of the conspirators, has defeated the conspiracy's object," writes Stephen Breyer in the unanimous decision.
"The essence of a conspiracy is an agreement to commit an unlawful act," Justice Breyer says. "That agreement is a distinct evil which may exist and be punished whether or not the substantive crime ensues."
Government lawyers argued that the relevant issue should be the intent of the traffickers who may be unaware that their load of narcotics has been intercepted. In some cases, federal agents permit the illicit shipment to continue to its final destination to discover and arrest those who claim the drugs.
That's what happened in the case of Francisco Jimenez Recio and Adrian Lopez-Meza. Both men arrived at an Idaho shopping mall to drive away a parked truck carrying $10 million worth of cocaine and marijuana.
The two arrived at the mall after the original driver of the truck - who had earlier been arrested and agreed to cooperate with federal agents - followed his initial instructions and telephoned a person unknown to him to report the location of the truck.
The voice on the other end of the phone said that he would "call a muchacho to come and get the truck."
Three hours later, Mr. Recio and Mr. Lopez-Meza showed up at the mall and drove the truck away. They were both followed by federal agents and eventually arrested.
A jury convicted both men of involvement in the drug-trafficking conspiracy. But the convictions were overturned on appeal, because the appeals court found that the drug-trafficking conspiracy had effectively ended a day earlier when federal agents arrested the first driver and took temporary possession of the drug-laden truck.
The court ruled that there was not sufficient evidence that Recio and Lopez-Meza were anything other than last-minute and low-level recruits into the drug-trafficking operation.
In reversing the appeals court, the Supreme Court also struck down a 1997 Ninth Circuit decision, US v. Cruz, that created the legal rule relied upon by the appeals court in the Recio case.
"The Cruz rule would reach well beyond arguable police misbehavior, potentially threatening the use of properly run law enforcement sting operations," the high court ruled.