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Eighth Circuit Rules Federal Prisoner Need Only Know Item Is Prohibited To Support Conviction for Possession of Contraband

by David M. Reutter

How much actual knowledge does a prisoner need to have of items in his possession to support a contraband conviction? According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the answer is “not much.”

That was the Court’s conclusion in a ruling filed on April 13, 2022. The case involved federal prisoner Isiah Dozier, Jr., whose troubles began with a trip to the restroom following a visit from his family at the Federal Correctional Complex in Forrest City, Arkansas. Guard Jimmy Skinner checked the bathroom behind Dozier and found a capful of petroleum jelly. Suspecting Dozier’s family had given him contraband that he hid in his rectum, guards ordered a strip search, but it revealed nothing. Dozier was taken to a lieutenant’s office and told to wait outside while Skinner went to arrange use of a body scanner.

As Skinner came back to the office, he saw prisoner Larry Jones parting ways with Dozier, who was fidgeting with his pant legs. Skinner ordered him to turn around, and Dozier then dropped two bundles later found to contain methamphetamine, marijuana, and a cell phone. Video evidence showed Dozier taking the bundles out of his shoes and handing them to Jones. His left shoe was later found to contain a hidden compartment cut into the sole.

Dozier was charged under 18 U.S.C. § 1791(a)(2) with three counts of possessing a prohibited object in prison. A jury in the federal court for the Eastern District of Arkansas found him guilty. He appealed, arguing the district court erred in excluding the testimony of a Bureau of Prisons employee, Tracy Holst, who conducted an administrative hearing and decided there wasn’t enough evidence to discipline Dozier for possession of a prohibited item.

The Eighth Circuit agreed with the district court that Holst’s testimony would have been unfairly prejudicial. Just as testimony concerning a guilty finding at an administrative hearing cannot be introduced at trial, neither can a not-guilty finding, the Court said. It further found no error in disallowing Holst to testify concerning the video evidence, as that was presented for the jury to view and draw its own conclusions.

Dozier also challenged the admission of his shoes into evidence because there was no testimony presented to show they were in the same condition as when taken from him. But the Court rejected that argument because “Dozier didn’t present any evidence that would rebut the presumption that the shoes were unchanged, the district court didn’t abuse its discretion in finding that there was a reasonable probability that the shoes were not altered.”

Finally, Dozier objected that the district court gave the jury an incorrect instruction when told the prisoner “need not know what the prohibited object is if he knows that he has possession of some prohibited object.” Dozier challenged this interpretation because the statute lacks any mens rea requirement. But the Eighth Circuit said its precedent imputes a “knowing” factor into criminal statutes. Yet here it was presented with an issue of first impression as to whether Dozier “possessed some prohibited object, even if he didn’t know exactly what he had.”

The Court found United States v. Holmes, 607 F.3d 332 (3d Cir. 2010), was persuasive. That court found § 1791 doesn’t criminalize potentially innocent conduct since the statute “applies only in federal prisons, and inmates are well aware that the items they can possess are strictly regulated.”

“Introducing drugs and cell phones into prison is a serious security threat,” the Court said. Because the statute does not require a defendant to “know specifically what prohibited item he has, so long as he knows he possesses a prohibited object, the district court’s jury instructions were proper,” the Court decided, and the judgment was affirmed. Dozier proceeded on his appeal pro se. See: United States v. Dozier, 31 F.4th 624 (8th Cir. 2022). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Dozier