Turner v. United States

Citation90 S.Ct. 642,24 L.Ed.2d 610,396 U.S. 398
Decision Date20 January 1970
Docket NumberNo. 190,190
PartiesJames TURNER, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

See 397 U.S. 958, 90 S.Ct. 939.

[Syllabus from pages 398-400 intentionally omitted] Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., Camden, N.J., for petitioner.

Steven R. Rivkin, Washington, D.C., for Cleveland Burgess, as amicus curiae.

Lawrence G. Wallace, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners was found guilty by a jury on four counts charging violations of the federal narcotics laws. The issue before us is the validity of the provisions of § 2 of the Act of February 9, 1909, 35 Stat. 614, as amended, 21 U.S.C. § 174 and 26 U.S.C. § 4704(a) which authorize an inference of guilt from the fact of possession of narcotic drugs, in this case heroin and cocaine.

The charges arose from seizures by federal narcotics agents of two packages of nartotics. On June 1, 1967, Turner and two companions were arrested in Weehawken, New Jersey, shortly after their automobile emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel. While the companions were being searched but before Turner was searched, the arresting agents saw Turner throw a package to the tope of a nearby wall. The package was retrieved and was found to be a foil package weighing 14.68 grams and containing a mixture of cocaine hydrochloride and sugar, 5% of which was cocaine. Government agents thereafter found a tinfoil package containing heroin under the front seat of the car. This package weighed 48.25 grams and contained a mixture of heroin, cinchonal alkaloid, mannitol, and sugar, 15.2% of the mixture being heroin. Unlike the cocaine mixture, the heroin mixture was packaged within the tinfoil wrapping in small double glassing bags; in the single tinfoil package there were 11 the single of bags, each bundle containing 25 bags (a total of 275 bags). There were no federal tax stamps affixed to the package containing the cocaine or to the glassine bags or outer wrapper enclosing the heroin.

Petitioner was indicted on two counts relating to the heroin and two counts relating to the cocaine. The first count charged that Turner violated 21 U.S.C. § 1741 by receiving, concealing, and facilitating the transportation and concealment of heroin while knowing that the heroin had been unlawfully imported into the United States. The third count charged the same offense with regard to the cocaine seized. The second count charged that petitioner purchased, possessed, dispensed, and distributed heroin not in or from the original stamped package in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 4704(a).2 The fourth count made the same charge with regard to the cocaine.

At the trial, the Government presented the evidence of the seizure of the packages containing heroin and cocaine but presented no evidence on the origin of the drugs possessed by petitioner. Petitioner did not testify. With regard to Counts 1 and 3, the trial judge charged the jury in accord with the statute that the jury could infer from petitioner's unexplained possession of the heroin and cocaine that petitioner knew that the drugs he possessed had been unlawfully imported. With regard to Counts 2 and 4, the trial judge read to the jury the statutory provision making possession of drugs not in a stamped package 'prima facie evidence' that the defendant purchased, sold, dispensed, or dis- tributed the drugs not in or from a stamped package. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on each count. Petitioner was sentenced to consecutive terms of 10 years' imprisonment on the first and third counts; a five-year term on the second count was to run concurrently with the term on the first count and a five-year term on the fourth count was to run concurrently with the term on the third count.

On appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, petitioner argued that the trial court's instructions on the inferences that the jury might draw from unexplained possession of the drugs constituted violations of his privilege against self-incrimination by penalizing him for not testifying about his possession of the drugs. The Court of Appeals rejected this claim and affirmed, finding that the inferences from possession authorized by the statutes were permissible under prior decisions of this Court and that therefore there was no impermissible penalty imposed on petitioner's exercise of his right not to testify. 404 F.2d 782 (1968). After the Court of Appeals' decision in this case, this Court held that a similar statutory presumption applicable to the possession of marihuana was unconstitutional as not having a sufficient rational basis. Leary v. United States, 395 U.S. 6, 89 S.Ct. 1532, 23 L.Ed.2d 57 (1969). We granted a writ of certiorari in this case to reconsider in light of our decision in Leary whether the inferences authorized by the statutes here at issue are constitutionally permissible when applied to the possession of heroin and cocaine. 395 U.S. 933, 89 S.Ct. 2001, 23 L.Ed.2d 448.


The statutory inference created by § 174 has been upheld by this Court with respect to opium and heroin, Yee Hem v. United States, 268 U.S. 178, 45 S.Ct. 470, 69 L.Ed. 904 (1925); Roviaro v. United States, 353 U.S. 53, 77 S.Ct. 623, 1 L.Ed.2d 639 (1957), as well as by an unbroken line of cases in the courts of appeals.3 Similarly, in a case involving morphine, this Court has rejected a constitutional challenge to the inference authorized by § 4704(g). Casey v. United States, 276 U.S. 413, 48 S.Ct. 373, 72 L.Ed. 632 (1928).

Leary v. United States, supar, dealt with a statute, 21 U.S.C. § 176a, providing that possession of marihuana, unless explained to the jury's satisfaction, 'shall be deemed sufficient evidence to authorize conviction' for smuggling, receiving, concealing, buying, selling, or facilitating the transportation, concealment, or sale of the drug, knowing that it had been illegally imported. Referring to prior cases4 holding that a statute authorizing the inference of one fact from the proof of another in criminal cases must be subjected to scrutiny by the courts to prevent 'conviction upon insufficient proof,' 395 U.S., at 37, 89 S.Ct., at 1549, the Court read those cases as requiring the invalidation of the statutorily authorized inference 'unless it can at least be said with substantial assurance that the presumed fact is more likely than not to flow from the proved fact on which it is made to depend.' 395 U.S., at 36, 89 S.Ct., at 1548. Since, judged by this standard, the inference drawn from the possession of marihuana was invalid, it was unnecessary to 'reach the question whether a criminal presumption which passes muster when so judged must also satisfy the criminal 'reasonable-doubt' standard if proof of the crime charged or an essential element thereof depends upon its use.' 395 U.S., at 36, 89 S.Ct., at 1548, n. 64.

We affirm Turner's convictions under §§ 174 and 4707(a) with respect to heroin (Counts 1 and 2) but reverse the convictions under these sections with respect to cocaine (Counts 3 and 4).


We turn first to the conviction for trafficking in heroin in violation of § 174. Count 1 charged Turner with (1) knowingly receiving, concealing, and transporting heroin which (2) was illegally imported and which (3) he knew was illegally imported. See Harris v. United States, 359 U.S. 19, 23, 79 S.Ct. 560, 564, 3 L.Ed.2d 597 (1959). For conviction, it was necessary for the Government to prove each of these three elements of the crime to the satisfaction of the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury was so instructed and Turner was found guilty.

The proof was that Turner had knowingly possessed heroin; since it is illegal to import heroin or to manufacture it here,5 he was also chargeable with knowing that his heroin had an illegal source. For all practical purposes, this was the Government's case. The trial judge, noting that there was no other evidence of im- portation or of Turner's knowledge that his heroin had come from abroad, followed the usual practice and instructed the jury—as § 174 permits but does not require—that possession of a narcotic drug is sufficient evidence to justify conviction of the crime defined in § 174.6

The jury, however, even if it believed Turner had possessed heroin, was not required by the instructions to find him guilty. The jury was instructed that it was the sole judge of the facts and the inferences to be drawn therefrom, that all elements of the crime must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the inference authorized by the statute did not require the defendant to present evidence. To convict, the jury was informed, it 'must be satisfied by the totality of the evidence irre- spective of the source from which it comes of the guilt of the defendant * * *.' The jury was obligated by its instructions to assess for itself the probative force of possession and the weight, if any, to be accorded the statutory inference. If it is true, as the Gvernment contends, that heroin is not produced in the United States and that any heroin possessed here must have originated abroad, the jury, based on its own store of knowledge, may well have shared this view and concluded that Turner was equally well informed. Alternatively, the jury may have been without its own information concerning the sources of heroin, and may have convicted Turner in reliance on the inference permitted by the statute, perhaps reasoning that the statute represented an official determination that heroin is not a domestic product.7

Whatever course the jury took, it found Turner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and the question on review is the sufficiency of the evidence, or more precisely, the soundness of inferring guilt from proof of possession alone. Since the jury migth have relied heavily on the inferences authorized by the statute and included in the court's instructions, our primary focus is on the validity of the...

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