01/27/2003

Supreme Court Gives Prosecutors Power in Conspiracy, Terrorism Cases

By Anne Gearan, Associated Press Write

WASHINGTON AP - The Supreme Court handed federal prosecutors a victory Tuesday, reversing a ruling in favor of convicted drug smugglers in a case that government lawyers argued had implications for the prosecution of terrorism cases.

The case revolved around prosecutors' use of conspiracy charges for planned crimes that have already been discovered and prevented by law officers.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had said that having discovered and stopped a crime in the making, law enforcement officers cannot use informants to lure others into getting involved and then charge them with being part of the conspiracy. The appeals court had applied the same reasoning in a line of cases going back five years.

Rejecting that view, the high court ruled that the conspirators still present a danger to the public even though one crime may have been averted.

The would-be conspirators may go on to commit other crimes, and police are not bound to let part of a conspiracy ring go free simply because police turned the planned crime into a sting operation, the court said.

"When police have frustrated a conspiracy's specific objective but conspirators, unaware of that fact, have neither abandoned the conspiracy nor withdrawn, these special conspiracy-related dangers remain," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote.

The Bush administration's appeal to the Supreme Court played up the notion that the 9th Circuit's conspiracy rule could hinder law enforcement as it tries to head off potential terrorist plots.

"The vital need for undercover government efforts both to apprehend conspirators and to prevent their planned offenses from actually occurring extends far beyond drug cases. Similar legitimate law enforcement tactics are crucial in violent crime, terrorism and other contexts," Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued in legal papers.

The case stemmed from a sting operation in which police stopped a truck near Las Vegas in 1997 and discovered about $12 million worth of cocaine and marijuana. With cooperation from the driver, police then let the truck continue to a planned rendezvous at an Idaho shopping mall.

Police then arrested the two men who came to meet the truck and charged them with conspiracy to sell drugs.

The 9th Circuit said Francisco Jimenez Recio and Adrian Lopez-Meza would likely not have been involved in the conspiracy had they not been lured into it.

Eight Supreme Court justices rejected that view, and the ninth, Justice John Paul Stevens agreed with his colleagues - in theory, at least. Stevens did not sign onto the entire ruling, however, because he said government prosecutors were lax in failing to challenge the 9th Circuit rule long ago.

"The prosecutor, like the defendant, should be required to turn square corners," Stevens wrote.

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