Conage v. US

– Summary by Nicolas Daub
On August 25 2022, the Supreme Court of Florida considered whether a completed purchase of illegal drugs necessarily entails the defendant purchaser’s possession of those drugs, as federal law defines possession. The Supreme Court held that a completed purchase of illegal drugs does constitute possession, and in doing so the Court rejected
the argument that a purchase is necessarily complete as soon as the would-be purchaser pays for the drugs.

This case arises out of the following set of facts. Michael Conage was convicted of a gun possession crime and then sentenced to a mandatory prison term under the Armed Career Criminal Act (hereinafter referred to as the “ACCA”). In order to impose a sentence under the ACCA, the defendant must have been charged with three prior state or federal convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses. Over Mr. Conage’s objection, the trial court considered his conviction for trafficking in cocaine under section 893.135(1), as one of the three predicate convictions rising to the level of a “serious drug offense.” Michael Conage appealed his sentence to the Eleventh Circuit, arguing that it was error to deem that conviction an ACCA predicate offense.

If all the elements of the statute – under which Mr. Conage was convicted of trafficking in 2006 – rise to the level of a “serious drug offense,” then Mr. Conage’s conviction can be considered a predicate offense for the purposes of fulfilling the requirement under the ACCA. The ACCA defines a “serious drug offense” as one “involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance.” Under section 893.135(1), a person commits drug trafficking when he knowingly (1) “sells,” (2) “purchases,” (3) “manufactures,”(4) “delivers,” (5) “brings into this state,” or (6) is “in actual or constructive possession of” a trafficking quantity of illegal drugs.

Mr. Conage argued on appeal that the term “purchases” under section 893.135(1) does not constitute “possession” under the ACCA’s definition of a “serious drug offense.” More specifically, Mr. Conage contended that a purchase is complete upon payment by the defendant, and that a completed purchase does not require proof that the defendant possessed the purchased drugs. Finding neither an accompanying statutory definition nor convincing caselaw on the definition of the term “purchase,” the Eleventh Circuit certified this question to the Florida Supreme Court for a determination. The Supreme Court, finding ambiguity in the term “purchase,” looks at both the statutory
context and dictionary definition to give meaning to the term. Ultimately, the Court sides
with the United States’ interpretation and defines “purchase” as both giving consideration
for and obtaining the good being purchased. Here, by purchasing the illegal drugs, Mr.
Conage was said to have gained constructive possession of the illegal drugs, thus
allowing his actions to fall within the purview of “possession,” as defined by the ACCA.
Additionally, the Supreme Court reasons that Mr. Conage’s narrow interpretation of the
term “purchase” would create disharmony with the court’s definition of “sale,” and with
the other 5 enumerated terms of the drug trafficking statute.
The Supreme Court overcomes the rule of lenity by stating that the United States has the
better reading of section 893.135(1) on drug trafficking. Alternatively, the Court states
that as a matter of statutory interpretation, the rule only applies in situations where the
defendant is charged with violating a criminal law of Florida; it is inapplicable to Mr.
Conage in his contest with the United States. The Court applies the definition of
“purchase,” and finds that for Mr. Conage to violate the drug trafficking statute, he must
have both given consideration for and obtained control of a trafficking quantity of illegal
Justice Labarga, concurring with the result, voiced his disapproval with the majority’s
rejection of Holly v. Auld, 450 So. 2d 217 (Fla. 1984). This case stood for giving
statutory terms their plain and ordinary meaning when the language in the statute is
unambiguous and conveys a clear and definite meaning.