Can I be convicted of a federal crime just by being there?

The Mere Presence Defense

Your “mere presence” when a crime is being committed, or your association with people involved in criminal activity, does not necessarily mean you are guilty of a crime, and depending on the facts it may be used as a defense to any charged offenses.  It is important that your lawyer investigate and review the facts of your case to determine if the mere presence defense may apply in your situation.

When federal agents raid a location where they think criminal activity is occurring, they usually round up everyone present.  Then they look through all the documents and items at the scene and go after everyone mentioned.  So you may be arrested one day because you “talked to a guy last month about a thing,” and you had no idea of any illegal activity, and no intent to commit a crime.

 What the government must prove . . .

Ultimately, when the case is brought against you by the U.S. Attorney, the government must prove more than mere association with coconspirators, or mere presence when a crime was committed.  The Fifth Circuit pattern jury instruction (the law that the jury will have when it is deciding the case) that addresses the issue states:

Mere presence at the scene of an event, even with knowledge that a crime is being committed, or the mere fact that certain persons may have associated with each other, and may have assembled together and discussed common aims and interests, does not necessarily establish proof of the existence of a conspiracy. Also, a person who has no knowledge of a conspiracy, but who happens to act in a way which advances some purpose of a conspiracy, does not thereby become a conspirator.

The issue of “mere presence” often arises in federal drug conspiracies like conspiracy to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance, but this defense may be available against other charges as well.  If you are caught up in a federal conspiracy charge, make sure your lawyer is familiar with federal criminal law, and bring this defense to their attention.  It is your case; make sure it is handled correctly.