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United States of America v. Nathaniel Benjamin

July 5, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schiller, J.


A jury convicted Nathaniel Benjamin of possession with intent to distribute five or more grams of crack, possession with intent to distribute marijuana for remuneration, and two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Presently before the Court is Benjamin's post-trial motion for acquittal or, in the alternative, for a new trial. Benjamin also asks this Court to arrest judgment under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 34. Defendant contends, inter alia, that the Government failed to prove that he constructively possessed the drugs and gun found in the home where he lived with his fiancee. The motion is denied.


A. The Search of Benjamin's Residence

Agent Harry Gaab of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, who has been a parole officer for fifteen years, supervised Benjamin. (Mar. 7, 2011 Trial Tr. at 23-25.) Gaab approved Benjamin's residence at 534 East Marshall Street in Norristown, Pennsylvania, where Benjamin lived with his fiancee Stacy Esprit. (Id. at 25-27.) During the course of his supervision, Agent Gaab learned that Benjamin was driving despite not having a valid license. (Id. at 29.) Agent Gaab was able to associate several vehicles with Benjamin; Agent Gaab learned that the tags for the vehicles listed 534 East Marshall Street as the address but were under the name James Burch, a name with which Agent Gaab was unfamiliar. (Id. at 30.) Agent Gaab's investigation revealed that Benjamin was using the name James Burch and he decided to perform a search of Benjamin's residence. (Id. at 31-32.)

On the morning of September 19, 2008, Agent Gaab led a team that searched 534 East Marshall Street. (Id. at 33-34.) After knocking on the door failed to elicit a response, Agent Gaab walked around to the side of the house. (Id. at 34.) He heard a male voice and a female voice, proceeded to the back of the house, and knocked again. (Id.) This time, Esprit let Agent Gaab in. (Id.) Benjamin was standing in the living room and complied with Agent Gaab's order to go into the living room and sit down. (Id. at 35.) Benjamin was then handcuffed as the rest of the team entered and secured the home. (Id.)

The search uncovered numerous items. In the master bedroom, agents found a shoe box on the right side foot of the bed with an empty plastic box for a Kel-Tec firearm. A black carry bag next to the shoe box contained hearing and eye protection, a stack of pistol targets from the shooting range Target World, shooting instructions, and two receipts from Target World, one for ammunition and a 9mm handgun and the other for hearing protection, and a postcard filled out by Benjamin listing his name and address, and a trigger lock. (Id. at 39-42.) Agent Gaab testified that agents took all of the items out of the black bag because they were still searching for a gun at the time. (Id. at 72-73.)

On a shelf in a closet in the master bedroom, along with maxi pads and a woman's gold purse, agents found a box of 9mm ammunition. (Id. at 43, 75.) They also found a receipt from Guns N' Things, a gun shop in Pennsylvania, for the purchase of a Kel-Tec firearm, as well as an application for record of sale for the handgun. (Id. at 45.) The receipt had Esprit's name and address on it and the application for record of sale was signed by Esprit. (Id.) A large manilla envelope was also found next to Benjamin's bed, on the right side, containing paperwork that contained both Benjamin's name and the address of 534 East Marshall Street, and car titles with the name James Burch and the address of 534 East Marshall Street. (Id. at 45-47.) The manilla envelope also included a small notebook and a scrap piece of paper with dollar amounts listed on it. (Id. at 47.) The notebook included references to a '95 Cadillac STS head gasket, a '98 Bonneville needing a motor, and "a number of notations that appear to apply to cars." (Id. at 81-83.) Agents also found a Chefmate scale inside of its box to the right of the bed, near some women's and men's shoes. (Id. at 48, 78.)

The basement is a separate room in the house; the basement door has separate access directly to the outside. (Id. at 65.) The search of the basement uncovered "numerous car keys and house keys all on one key ring." (Id. at 49.) Esprit also lifted up a blanket, which had a black bag underneath it; the black bag contained a loaded Kel-Tec 9mm handgun. (Id. at 49-50.) The serial number on the gun matched the serial number listed on the plastic case found in the bedroom. (Id. at 50.) The keys discovered in the basement unlocked a gray Nissan Altima and a gold Lexus. (Id. at 52.) There was a pit bull caged in the basement. (Id. at 53.) The basement also had car stereo equipment, car tires, and car rims stacked by the back door. (Id. at 53-54, 90.) The basement ceiling was unfinished. (Id. at 54.) Near the back door was a piece of paneling nailed to the joist. Agent Gaab climbed on top of one of the small stereo blocks, reached up, and saw a white plastic bag and a brown paper bag. (Id.) The white plastic bag had a yellow bag inside of it. The yellow bag contained Ziploc bags of marijuana. (Id.) The brown paper bag had a white plastic bag inside of it.

(Id.) The white plastic bag contained more bags of marijuana. (Id.) A small bag of crack cocaine was right behind the brown paper bag in the rafters. (Id. at 54, 96-97.) There was also an open box of sandwich baggies in the basement. (Id. at 54-55.) In the kitchen, agents found an open box of blue nitrile gloves on the windowsill, as well as mail addressed to Benjamin using both his real name and his alias. (Id. at 58, 100.) Finally, agents discovered latex and nitrile gloves and a spoon in a Chevy Impala parked outside the house. (Id. at 60.) Agents also located Benjamin's wallet, which contained a driver's license for James Burch. (Id. at 61.) Agent Gaab contacted Detective Mike Lebby of the Montgomery County Detective Bureau and turned over the evidence to him. (Id.)

Detective Lebby sent a number of pieces of evidence to a lab for analysis but did not submit the Chefmate scale, the spoon, or the gloves found in Benjamin's car for a chemical analysis to determine if either product contained drug residue. (Mar. 8, 2011 Trial Tr. at 23, 28-30.) Detective Lebby also did not submit the plastic bags for fingerprint analysis. (Id. at 26-28.)

B. Testimony

1. Gun purchase and Target World outing

On September 13, 2008, Stacy Esprit bought a gun from Guns N' Things in Penndel, Pennsylvania. (Id. at 53, 56, 123.) Angel Miller was working at the gun shop when Esprit came in to fill out the paperwork and pick up the gun she bought. (Id. at 56.) According to the paperwork, Esprit was the buyer of the gun. (Id. at 59, 123-24.) She also provided her address, social security information, and birth date, and answered questions about whether she had been convicted of a crime and whether the gun was solely for her use. (Id. at 59-60, 66.) Benjamin was with Esprit at Guns N' Things. (Id. at 61-63.) Benjamin and Esprit talked about the gun and discussed the type of holster Esprit might want. (Id. at 62, 64.)

Peter Moss was a range master working at Target World on September 14, 2008 when a man and a woman, later identified as Benjamin and Espirt, entered the range. (Id. at 71.) Esprit said she was a first-time shooter and was given a safety lesson before she was permitted to fire the weapon. (Id. at 71-72.) Esprit filled out paperwork indicating that it was legal for her to own and possess a gun. (Id. at 73.) Before one could enter the range, he or she was required to show a state driver's license. (Id. at 75.) Moss testified that Benjamin filled out paperwork using the name James Burch and the address of 534 East Marshall Street, and indicating that he would be firing a Kel-Tec 9mm handgun at the range, although he did not see who wrote down the information contained on the range forms. (Id. at 76-77, 84.) Moss saw Benjamin fire the Kel-Tec 9mm handgun at Target World on September 14, 2008. (Id. at 79.)

Jason Jackson was also working at the Target World on September 14, 2008 and interacted with Benjamin and Esprit on the range. (Id. at 90-92.) Jackson saw Benjamin fill out paperwork that asked whether he could legally possess a gun. (Id. at 93.) He also saw Benjamin fire a Kel-Tec 9mm handgun at the range. (Id. at 94.)

2. Stacy Esprit

Stacy Esprit lived at 534 East Marshall Street with Benjamin and her four children, aged ten, twelve, fifteen, and seventeen at the time of events, and her seven-week-old granddaughter. (Id. at 104-05.) She testified that she bought a gun on September 13, 2008. (Id. at 107.) She purchased the gun for protection from her ex-husband who had tried to kill her and was soon leaving jail, and she sought a weapon small enough for her to carry at all times. (Id. at 108-110, 121.) According to Esprit, Benjamin preferred a different brand from the handgun that she bought. (Id. at 109.) The day after she bought the gun, she went to the target range with Benjamin because she had never fired a gun and wanted to become comfortable with the weapon. (Id. at 110-11.) Benjamin, who Esprit knew had experience with guns, was going to show her how to use the handgun. (Id. at 111-12.) Both Esprit and Benjamin fired guns while at the range. (Id. at 113.) She knew that Benjamin could not be near a gun because of his status as a parolee. (Id. at 156.)

On the day of the search of her home, Esprit was in the basement folding clothes with her gun next to her in her fanny pouch. (Id. at 114, 121.) As she was taking the clothes upstairs, Benjamin told her that his parole officer was at the door and said "you have your gun on you." (Id. at 114, 144.) Esprit went back to the basement, placed the gun on the air hockey table and covered it with clothes, and proceeded back upstairs. (Id. at 114, 144, 149.) When the agent asked Esprit the location of the gun, she led him downstairs where he found the weapon. (Id. at 115.) At the time the drugs were found in her basement, Esprit had no idea that drugs were in her home. (Id.) She never saw drugs in her home, and to her knowledge, none of her children or their friends had any problems with drugs or drug arrests. (Id. at 116-17.) Esprit had "zero tolerance on drug use." (Id. at 117.) According to Espirt, one could not enter the home through the basement door because "there was always a stick placed up so it couldn't be pushed in." (Id. at 118, 143.)

Esprit said that Benjamin would go to auto auctions, purchase cars, fix them up, and sell them. (Id. at 125-26.) Esprit testified that she used the nitrile gloves in the kitchen for cleaning the house and cleaning up after the dog. (Id. at 128-29.) She did not recognize the Chefmate scale that was found during the search. (Id. at 129.) With respect to people who were often in Esprit's basement, the father of Esprit's granddaughter would regularly come over the house to see his child and Esprit's oldest daughter. (Id. at 131-133.) The basement had two pool tables and an air hockey table; it was an entertainment hub of the home. (Id. at 135.) Esprit's two godsons would also come over to the house, sometimes with a friend, and play in the basement. (Id. at 136-38.) One of Esprit's godsons has gotten into trouble, but ...

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