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GA Supreme Court: State Must Prove Knowledge of Quantity in Drug Trafficking Cases

July 16, 2012

In Wilson v. State, the defendant was convicted of marijuana trafficking and appealed, arguing that Georgia’s drug trafficking statute required proof that he knew that he was in possession of more than 10 pounds of marijuana.

The Georgia Supreme Court agreed, but then refused to reverse his conviction.

In Wilson, a package containing more than 12 pounds of marijuana was accidentally picked up from the post office by a woman who reported its contents to the police. An undercover law enforcement officer, dressed as a postal carrier, performed a controlled delivery of the package at the correct address. Though it was not addressed to him, Wilson signed for the package and was immediately arrested. After his arrest, Wilson told the officers he knew his roommate was having a package of marijuana shipped to the house.

At trial, the court instructed the jury that Georgia’s marijuana trafficking statute, O.C.G.A. § 16-13-31 (c), does not require prosecutors to prove that the defendant had subjective knowledge of the amount of marijuana that was possessed. Wilson did not challenge this jury instruction at trial. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that this was a proper instruction.

The Georgia Supreme Court, however, disagreed and cited the language in O.C.G.A. § 16-31-31 (c) which states that “(a)ny person who knowingly…has possession of a quantity of marijuana exceeding 10 pounds commits the offense of trafficking in marijuana.” The plain meaning of the statute, in addition to the rule of lenity, led the Supreme Court to rule that the law required prosecutors to prove that the defendant knew he was in possession of the prohibited quantity of the drug in order to be convicted of trafficking.

Despite these findings, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld Wilson’s convictions. As he did not object to the jury instruction at trial, any alleged error was subject to plain error review. The Court found that the trial court’s error was subject to reasonable dispute, and thus was not plain error, because the trial court relied on prior decisions handed down by the Court of Appeals stating that knowledge of the quantity of cocaine was not an essential element of trafficking cocaine. As the trial court was bound by this precedent, its error in instructing the jury could not be deemed “clear” or “obvious,” and thus did not warrant a reversal of Wilson’s convictions.

At the end of its opinion, the Court noted that since this issue is subject to reasonable dispute, the Georgia General Assembly should take steps to clarify what must, in fact, be proven to establish the offense of trafficking. What this opinion will likely lead to is an amendment to the statute that expressly relieves the prosecution of a duty to prove knowledge of the requisite quantity.

In the interim, Georgia criminal defense attorneys need to make timely objections to these jury instructions in order to properly preserve these errors for appeal and give their clients the best chance of obtaining a reversal of their conviction.

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