United States v. Powell
Annotate this Case
469 U.S. 57 (1984)
U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Powell, 469 U.S. 57 (1984)
United States v. Powell
Argued November 5, 1984
Decided December 10, 1984
469 U.S. 57
Respondent was indicted on a number of counts for violations of the federal narcotics laws. Count 1 charged her with conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute it. The "overt acts" listed in support of this conspiracy included tapped telephone conversations indicating that respondent was helping her husband and son distribute drugs and collect money for drugs sold. Count 9 charged respondent with possession of a specific quantity of cocaine with intent to distribute it. Counts 3-6 charged respondent with the compound offenses of using the telephone in "committing and in causing and facilitating" the alleged conspiracy and possession, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b). The jury acquitted respondent of Counts 1, 6, and 9, but convicted her of Counts 3-5. On appeal, respondent argued that the verdicts were inconsistent, and that therefore she was entitled to reversal of the telephone facilitation convictions. The Court of Appeals agreed. It acknowledged the rule of Dunn v. United States, 284 U. S. 390, that a defendant convicted by a jury on one count cannot attack the conviction because it was inconsistent with the verdict of acquittal on another count. It was of the view, however, that situations where a defendant has been convicted under § 843(b) but acquitted of the felony he is charged with facilitating constitute exceptions to the rule, and that in those situations the § 843(b) conviction must be reversed. The court explained that an acquittal on the predicate felony necessarily indicated that there was insufficient evidence to support the telephone facilitation convictions, and mandated acquittal on the telephone facilitation counts as well.
Held: There is no reason to vacate respondent's telephone facilitation convictions merely because the verdicts cannot rationally be reconciled. Pp. 469 U. S. 62-69.
(a) The Dunn rule embodies a prudent acknowledgment of a number of factors. First, inconsistent verdicts -- even verdicts that acquit on a predicate offense while convicting on the compound offense -- should not necessarily be interpreted as a windfall to the Government at the defendant's expense. It is equally possible that the jury, convinced of guilt, properly reached its conclusion on the compound offense, and then through mistake, compromise, or lenity arrived at an inconsistent conclusion on the lesser offense. But in such situations the Government has
no recourse if it wishes to correct the jury's error. The fact that the inconsistency may be the result of lenity, coupled with the Government's inability to invoke review, suggests that inconsistent verdicts should not be reviewable at the defendant's behest. Pp. 469 U. S. 64-66.
(b) A rule that would allow defendants to challenge inconsistent verdicts on the ground that they were not the result of lenity but of some error that worked against the defendants, would be imprudent and unworkable. It would be based on pure speculation or would require inquiries into the jury's deliberations that courts generally will not undertake. Pp. 469 U. S. 66-67.
(c) A criminal defendant already is afforded protection against jury irrationality or error by the independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence undertaken by the trial and appellate courts. P. 469 U. S. 67.
(d) To grant an exception to the Dunn rule where the jury acquits a defendant of a predicate felony but convicts on the compound felony, would threaten to swallow the rule. And the argument that an acquittal on the predicate offense necessitates a finding of insufficient evidence on the compound felony simply misunderstands the nature of the inconsistent verdict problem, since it necessarily incorrectly assumes that the acquittal was proper. Pp. 469 U. S. 67-69.
(e) Here, respondent was given the benefit of her acquittal on the conspiracy count, and it is neither irrational nor illogical to require her to accept the burden of conviction on the telephone facilitation counts. P. 469 U. S. 69.
708 F.2d 455 and 719 F.2d 1480, reversed.
REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.