A federal court jury got it right— and the trial judge got it wrong—in a case where a man was convicted of drug charges after jurors inferred that he was part of a conspiracy, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said yesterday in a divided opinion.

Two of the judges voted to reinstate a jury’s decision against Roohid Hakimi over the objections of a dissenter, who argued that Northern District Judge David Hurd (See Profile) had properly rejected the verdict.

At issue before the Second Circuit was the extent to which a jury can infer a defendant’s guilt from the surrounding circumstances.

United States v. Anderson, 11-5364-cr, centers on a Canadian man who was implicated in a drug conspiracy involving nearly $1 million of ecstasy and “foxy methoxy” pills that were apparently destined for New York City. The case began when the defendant was caught with a smuggler, co-defendant Cheyenne Anderson, in northern New York near the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian Reservation.

Records show that a federal border agent observed Hakimi driving a rental vehicle near the reservation. Given that rental vehicles are often used in smuggling operations, and Hakimi’s nervous reaction when he saw the officer, several agents tailed the suspect for several hours.

Authorities tracked Hakimi, who met Anderson at a Wal-Mart parking lot and then followed her down a rural, dead-end road. Officials approached the vehicles, found more than 20 pounds of ecstasy pills and foxy methoxy in Anderson’s truck, and arrested Anderson and Hakimi.

Anderson pleaded guilty to conspiracy and other counts. She entered into a cooperation agreement with the government, providing evidence against the drug ring. Hakimi , who denied any knowledge of the drugs and claimed he was just looking to illegally sneak into Canada, went to trial and was convicted of conspiracy as well as attempt to possess and distribute controlled substances.

But Hurd, in a 2011 decision, set aside the jury’s verdict and dismissed the indictment.

He said “no rational juror could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt” that Hakimi was involved in the drug conspiracy. The trial judge said there was no evidence that Hakimi was aware of the drugs in Anderson’s truck or that he made any attempt to possess the contraband and concluded that “being at the scene of a crime is not enough to support a conviction.” (United States v. Hakimi, 832 F. Supp 2d 168, (2011)).

A Second Circuit panel reversed in a 2-1 opinion written by Judge Susan Carney and joined by Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin (See Profile), sitting by designation.

Carney said the analysis distilled to two issues: whether the jury could rationally conclude that when Hakimi met with Anderson in the Wal-Mart parking lot he intended to take possession of a duffel bag in her truck containing the drugs; and whether the jury could reasonably infer that he knew what was in the bag.

The majority said that evidence of the manner in which the drug ring operated, and evidence that Hakimi had multiple cellphone contacts with Anderson and another principal, undermined the defendant’s argument.

“[H]akimi had extensive contacts with the principals, flagged Anderson, followed her to remote location and was poised to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs,” Carney wrote. “Would the conspirators have trusted Hakimi with an unsealed bag containing $900,000 worth of drugs, yet not trusted him with information about what the bag contained?”

Carney said that in order to acquit, the jury would have needed to “disregard uncontroverted evidence to reach the conclusion that Hakimi was an uninformed agent as opposed to a trusted insider.” She said, “there is direct evidence that Hakimi was entrusted with sole possession of a valuable drug shipment, and testimony from a co-conspirator that only a trusted member of the conspiracy would be permitted to serve in such a capacity.”

Circuit Judge Peter Hall (See Profile) dissented, describing the majority opinion as “an erroneous and dangerous departure” that “all but eliminates the government’s burden to prove knowledge beyond a reasonable doubt in possession conspiracy cases.” He said the ruling flies in the face of two recent precedents, United States v. Torres, 604 F.3d (2010) and United States v. Lorenzo, 534 F. 3d 153 (2008), and their lineage.

“The majority holds today that a jury may now infer a defendant’s knowledge of the contents of a bag he never possessed based simply on the fact … that the bag contained ‘high value’ drugs and there exists a record of some number of phone calls of unknown content between the defendant’s cell phone and the cell phones of the principals of the conspiracy,” Hall wrote. “This is not, in my view, in line with this Court’s prior precedent and is tantamount to the sort of speculation that we have previously held insufficient to support a conviction for drug conspiracy or attempted possession of controlled substances.”

Assistant Northern District U.S. Attorney Paul Silver argued for the prosecution. Michele Hauser of Manhattan appeared for Hakimi.

There was no immediate reaction from either the prosecution or defense.