The District of Columbia Court of Appeals offered a few thoughts today on a novel question before the court: whether accepting a package sent by mail that contains drugs is probable cause for an arrest.
In an opinion (PDF) released this morning, a three-judge panel upheld the conviction of Courtney Johnson on a misdemeanor charge of possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute. Johnson, who received the drugs in the mail, argued unsuccessfully on appeal that police lacked probable cause to arrest him.
According to the opinion, a U.S. Postal Service worker intercepted a package going to a home in Northeast Washington containing marijuana near the Los Angeles airport. Law enforcement officers shipped the package and notified the Metropolitan Police Department.
Local police officers made a “controlled delivery,” meaning a police officer delivered the package disguised as a postal worker. Johnson, according to police, acknowledged that he was the intended recipient and signed for the package. Johnson claimed he told the officer he wasn’t the recipient – the package was addressed to a “Corey Johnson” – and that the officer coerced him into signing for it.
Johnson testified that he was “leery” of the package and planned to take it, unopened, back to a post office. Police arrested him as he went towards his car. According to the opinion, investigators found other evidence in California and around the Washington metropolitan region tying Johnson to the package.
Judge Vanessa Ruiz, writing for the court, found that Johnson’s case marked the first time the court had considered whether accepting a package during a controlled delivery creates probable cause for an arrest. She noted that it’s an issue that also “appears to have received scant attention by other courts.”
Ruiz wrote that the court recognized a “reasonable inference” that a sender wouldn’t risk sending valuable contraband to an “unknown, unsuspecting person.” However, she said there were a number of exceptions, such as cases where another person than the intended recipient signed for the package or where a package was left on a front porch.
“Probable cause requires some fact suggesting the recipient’s awareness that the package contains contraband,” she wrote, including the emphasis on “some.” She added that the court didn’t need to decide whether acceptance alone creates probable cause because officers in Johnson’s case had other reasons to suspect him.
The court also rejected Johnson’s other arguments on appeal. Johnson argued that a statement he made about the package, that it held “crushed cookies and medicine,” was taken in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights, and also that the government didn’t have sufficient evidence to convict him.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, William Miller, declined to comment. Johnson’s attorney, Washington solo practitioner Marc Resnick, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Associate Judge Phyllis Thompson and Senior Judge Frank Nebeker also heard the case.