In May of last year, the Guatemalan Consulate in Atlanta called to tell me that they had referred a potential client to me. The case involved a Guatemalan “Food Courier” who had been charged with drug trafficking after 4 kilos of heroin were found hidden inside some of the food items he was carrying when he went through Customs at the Atlanta airport. The Consulate called me because I had previously represented another food courier whose drug charges I was (eventually) able to have dismissed.
Upon reading the reports, I was convinced that the State would not be able to prove that my client had knowledge of the presence of the heroin or that he had the necessary intent to commit a crime — both knowledge and intent must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, they only thing they could prove was that the heroin was found expertly concealed within several commercial food packages which were among the many food items within the three duffel bags my client was carrying on behalf of his employer. The case went through 6 different assistant district attorneys and I tried, unsuccessfully, to convince each of them that they wouldn’t be able to prove their case.
Food Courier companies are common in Guatemala and other countries in Central America. People use them to have food (often, home made) delivered to their family members in the U.S. These companies register with the Food and Drug Administration and are required to give the FDA prior notice of what it is they intend to bring in to the U.S. They are generally recognized by the U.S. as being a legitimate business. However, just as some people use freight carriers and delivery services such as UPS and Fed Ex to transport their contraband, they sometimes use food courier companies as well. In fact, so many Guatemalan food couriers have been found with heroin hidden in the food products they have been carrying, that virtually every one of them is now subject to being searched.
Unfortunately, my client had no idea about any of this. He was in his late 50s and had been working honest jobs all his life, including 12 years as a driver at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. He spent 10 months in jail in Atlanta waiting for his day in court. Trafficking in heroin in Georgia carries a 25 year mandatory minimum sentence. The State offered him 10 years and then 4 years, if he pled guilty, and could not believe that he was rejecting their offers. We made it clear to them that the only offer we would consider was one which would lead to his immediate release.
The case went to trial last week. It took one day to pick the jury, a day and half to present the evidence, and a little more than one hour to get a verdict - NOT GUILTY. I’m pleased to say that my client was released from jail the next day and was back in Guatemala with his family the day after that.