Argued: June 25, 2013
Appeal from the March 7, 2012, judgment of the United States District Court for the Western District of New York (William M. Skretny, District Judge), convicting Appellant, after a jury trial, of being a felon in possession of a firearm (Count I) and possession of a controlled substance (Count II).
Stephan J. Baczynski, United States Attorney's Office, Buffalo, N.Y. (William J. Hochul, Jr., United States Attorney's Office, Buffalo, N.Y., on the brief), for Appellee.
Nicholas J. Pinto, Nicholas J. Pinto, Attorney at Law, New York, N.Y., for Defendant-Appellant.
Before: NEWMAN, WINTER, and DRONEY, Circuit Judges.
JON O. NEWMAN, Circuit Judge
This appeal of a criminal conviction presents extraordinary facts that challenge a reviewing court to take seriously its constitutional obligation to assure that evidence resulting in a conviction was sufficient to permit a jury reasonably to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Jeremiah K. Clark appeals from the March 7, 2012, judgment of the District Court for the Northern District of New York (William M. Skretny, District Judge), convicting him, after a jury trial, of being a felon in possession of a firearm (Count I) and possession of a controlled substance (Count II). We have affirmed the conviction on Count I in a Summary Order filed today. In this opinion, we reverse the conviction on Count II.
On Nov. 16, 2002, officers from the City of Lockport Police Department (Lockport, N.Y.) and the Niagara County Sheriff's Office (Lockport, N.Y.), responded to a 911 call reporting that a group of men, possibly armed, had just left Gonzo's Bar in Lockport in a white Jeep Cherokee after trying to "jump somebody." When the officers arrived at the bar, they saw Clark and three others sitting in the Cherokee. The facts of the ensuing confrontation, detailed in a Summary Order filed today, are not relevant to the issue decided in this opinion, except to note that the police found a firearm in the Cherokee and arrested Clark. In this opinion, we are concerned only with the facts occurring after Clark's arrest.
Niagara County Deputy Sheriff Anthony Giamberdino placed Clark, alone, in the rear compartment of his police cruiser. Clark was handcuffed with his hands behind his back. Niagara County Deputy Sheriff Gary May testified that the link between the two bracelets of the handcuffs was no longer than one or one and one-half inches. City of Lockport Police Officer Steven Abbott testified that before Clark was placed in the car, he patted down his waist, pockets, pant legs, and coat, looking for weapons. Nothing was found. The ride from the scene of the arrest to the Lockport police station lasted about one minute. After arriving at the police station, May helped Clark, still handcuffed, out of the car. Clark was then escorted into the booking area of the police station.
Once Clark was out of the police car, Giamberdino lifted the cushion of the back seat out and up, making visible the space between the back of the back-seat cushion and the bottom of the back-seat back rest. In that space he saw a quantity of a white powdery substance that later analysis determined was crack cocaine. Giamberdino also testified that he had checked this space before starting his evening shift, nothing was there at that time, and Clark was the first person to occupy the back seat of the car that evening.
Deputy Sheriff May testified that as Clark got out of the car and walked past him, he did not see any white powdery substance on his hands, pants, or jacket. Nor did he see any white powdery substance on the back seat until the seat was lifted up. No glassine envelope or other container was found in the police car or on Clark's person.
We fully understand the standards for appellate review of a jury's finding of guilt. We are to view the evidence "in the light most favorable to the prosecution, " Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979), and determine "whether the record evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, " id. at 318 (footnote omitted). A defendant challenging the sufficiency of the evidence "bears a heavy burden." United States v. Hassan, 578 F.3d 108, 126 (2d Cir. 2008). All reasonable inferences are to be drawn in the prosecution's favor, and we are to defer to the jury's assessment of the witness's credibility. See United States v. Sabhnani, 599 F.3d 215, 241 (2d Cir. 2010). The deference to the jury's verdict required by these standards does not mean, however, that we must never deem evidence insufficient. Nor does it mean that if there is any evidence arguably in support of a verdict, we must affirm. Of course, the issue is not whether we believe the evidence does not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. See Jackson, 443 U.S. at 318-19. But if we are to be faithful to the constitutional requirement ...