Earlier this week, the Second Circuit issued a decision in United States v. Dickerson, vacating a federal drug conspiracy conviction. In so doing, the Court of Appeals affirmed important limitations on the scope of conspiratorial liability.
In simplest terms, a criminal conspiracy is an agreement of two or more persons to engage in unlawful conduct. Individuals found to be part of a conspiracy can be held liable (punished) for any foreseeable act that a conspirator commits in furtherance of the conspiracy. Although conspiracy liability tends to be far-reaching, courts have held that a mere buyer-seller relationship cannot sustain a drug trafficking conspiracy charge.
In United States v. Parker, 554 F.3d 230 (2d Cir. 2009), the Second Circuit spoke to these principles when it found that “[a]s a literal matter, when a buyer purchases illegal drugs from a seller, two persons have agreed to a concerted effort to achieve the unlawful transfer of the drugs from the seller to the buyer. According to the customary definition, that would constitute a conspiracy with the alleged objective of a transfer of drugs.” Concurrently, the Parker court recognized that, standing alone, the purchase and sale of drugs does not amount to a drug distribution conspiracy.