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Mississippi Supreme Court: Drug Buy Between Dealer and User Doesn’t Constitute Conspiracy to Distribute

The Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed a defendant’s conviction after finding the State failed to prove he conspired with anyone to distribute methamphetamine.

The Court’s en banc ruling was issued in an appeal brought by Duane Robert Henderson. After April Newman was contacted on the internet by Henderson and believed he was offering her methamphetamine, she contacted the Richland Police Department and suggested they set up a controlled drug delivery from Henderson.

A narcotics officer prompted April to place a recorded call to Henderson. Officers then set up on the highway waiting for Henderson’s vehicle. When they stopped him, he consented to a search of his vehicle and person. A search of his boots uncovered a plastic bag containing methamphetamine. He was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and possession of two or more grams but less than two grams of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. Henderson was also charged as a subsequent drug offender and a habitual offender.

A jury found Henderson guilty on both counts. At sentencing, the trial court found Henderson was a substantial drug offender but not a habitual offender. The court sentenced him to 20 years for the conspiracy conviction, and it doubled the statutory maximum on the “possession with intent to distribute” charge, handing down a 40-year sentence on that offense. The sentences were ordered to be served consecutively.

Henderson’s appellate counsel filed a brief under Lindsey v. State, 939 So. 2d 743 (Miss. 2005), certifying there were no arguable issues for appeal. But as a result of several pro se filings by Henderson, the Mississippi Supreme Court disagreed. It found “the State failed to prove Henderson conspired with anyone to distribute methamphetamine.”

The Court noted that a 2007 amendment to Mississippi’s statutory conspiracy law criminalized unilateral conspiracies. Under that modification, it is a felony if a person “voluntarily and willfully” enters into a criminal conspiracy with a law enforcement officer or informant and that person was not entrapped. Miss. Code. Ann. § 97-1-1(2) (Rev. 2020).

The Court explained that “every drug deal involves an unlawful agreement to exchange drugs … [however] a buyer-seller arrangement can’t by itself be the basis of a conspiracy conviction because there is no common purpose” to distribute drugs, citing United States v. Long, 748 F.3d 322 (7th Cir. 2014). The Court further explained: “Those ‘in a buyer-seller relationship have not agreed to advance further distribution of drugs….’ But people in drug distribution conspiracies have—‘That agreement is key.’” United States v. Brown, 726 F.3d 993 (7th Cir. 2013).

To convict Henderson, the State had to prove that he and April had a meeting of the minds to distribute methamphetamine, not just engage in a basic buyer-seller agreement.

According to the Court, “Henderson was caught on the way to conduct a buyer/seller-type drug transaction. The evidence showed April—the only possible co-conspirator—was, at most, a drug user.” The Court determined the State failed to prove that there was an agreement to distribute drugs. “[T]he testimony and the recorded phone call showed only that Henderson was a distributor or seller and that April (the informant) was, at most, posing as a buyer or user.”

As such, there was no proof of a conspiracy, concluded the Court. To hold otherwise, as the dissent by Chief Justice Randolph advocated, “would in many cases elevate a misdemeanor drug possessor’s case to a felony, merely because a user of a misdemeanor amount of drugs agreed to accept or receive drugs from a dealer who was holding a bigger bag.”

Accordingly, the Court vacated the conspiracy conviction and sentence associated with that charge. See: Henderson v. State, 2021 Miss. LEXIS 134 (2021). 

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Related legal case

Henderson v. State



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