The government’s case in many instances will evolve or shift to some extent over the course of a criminal prosecution. It may be a long time between indictment and trial, and the prosecution may come into possession of new evidence before trial, or may not have thoroughly reviewed the evidence which it does possess until after the return of the indictment. In addition, the prosecution may adjust its arguments or evidence in reaction to the defense. Whatever the reason, the prosecution in many criminal cases may determine to argue or present evidence at trial regarding a theory of criminality which differs to some degree from the crimes alleged in its original indictment. A thorough prosecutor will sometimes seek to provide for such a shifting theory by obtaining a superseding indictment from the grand jury, but in other cases the prosecution may not notice any need to do so or may simply neglect to do so. In any event, attorneys should carefully evaluate the prosecution’s arguments and proof at trial, as well as the trial court’s instructions to the jury, in order to determine whether a variance or amendment of the indictment has occurred. Following is a brief survey of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ current position on amendments to or variances with the indictment.
“A constructive amendment occurs when the essential elements of the offense as alleged in the indictment are altered to broaden the potential bases for conviction beyond what the indictment contains.” United States v. Tampas, 493 F.3d 1291 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing United States v. Narog, 372 F.3d 1243, 1247 (11th Cir. 2004); United States v. Keller, 916 F.2d 628, 634 (11th Cir. 1990));see also United States v. Ward, 486 F.3d 1212, 1227 (11th Cir. 2007). A constructive amendment of the indictment constitutes per se reversible error because it violates a defendant’s Fifth Amendment right to be tried on charges presented to the grand jury. See United States v. Tampas, 493 F.3d 1291 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing United States v. Weissman, 899 F.2d 1111, 1114 (11th Cir. 1990)). Under the Fifth Amendment, “a defendant can only be convicted for a crime charged in the indictment. It would be fundamentally unfair to convict a defendant on charges of which he had no notice.” Ward, at 1227 (citing Keller, at 632-33). The mere presentation of evidence not referenced in the indictment, such as pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), does not constitute an amendment or variance. See United States v. Lavigne, 282 Fed.Appx. 790, 793 (11th Cir. 2008) (unpublished).
In contrast, “a variance occurs when the facts proved at trial deviate from the facts contained in the indictment but the essential elements of the offense are the same.” Ward, 486 F.3d at 1227 (citingKeller, at 634; United States v. Flynt, 15 F.3d 1002, 1005-06 (11th Cir. 1994)). A variance only requires reversal where the defendant can establish that his or her rights were substantially prejudiced. Id. (citing Keller, at 633).
The Court has found no constructive amendment where an indictment charged the defendant with distributing crack cocaine and the trial court instructed the jury that it could find the defendant guilty if he had distributed either cocaine or crack cocaine, based upon the fact that the type of drug is not an element under the controlled substance statute, 21 U.S.C. § 841, United States v. Porter, 293 Fed.Appx. 700, 703, 04 (11th Cir. 2008) (unpublished); where the government argued in its closing arguments that it need not prove that all of the defendants named in the indictment were members of the scheme, but the indictment charged the defendant with conspiring with two named co-defendants as well as “other persons” United States v. Nunnally, 249 Fed.Appx. 776, 778 (11th Cir. 2007) (unpublished); where the trial court failed to instruct the jury that it had to find that the defendant embezzled a specific amount, but the indictment alleged that the defendant embezzled property having a value in excess of $5,000, Tampas, at 1291; where the trial court instructed the jury that it could still convict the defendant on the substantive mail and wire fraud counts of the indictment if it was unable to reach agreement on the conspiracy charge did, despite the fact that the government had referenced the conspiracy in the substantive counts of the indictment, Ward, at 1227, 28; where, despite the fact that the indictment alleged that the defendant possessed “more than 20 kilograms of cocaine,” the trial court instructed the jury that it could find the defendant guilty if it found that he possessed “a measurable amount” of a controlled substance, United States v. Knight, 213 Fed.Appx. 835, 838, 39 (11th Cir. 2007) (unpublished); where the government alleged in its indictment that the defendant committed an act “on or about” a particular date, but the proof at trial showed that the act was committed on a different date, United States v. Strevell, 185 Fed.Appx. 841 (11th Cir. 2006) (unpublished); where the indictment charged the defendant with an offense involving cocaine, but the proof at trial and the trial court’s jury instructions referred to crack cocaine, United States v. Rutherford, 175 F.3d 899, 906 (11th Cir. 1999); where the government’s indictment alleged that a certain person was the victim of the defendant’s extortion, but the proof at trial demonstrated that the person had no connection with the money obtained, United States v. Flynt, 15 F.3d 1002, 1006 (11th Cir. 1994); where the district court deviated in its instructions to the jury from the allegations in the indictment concerning a non-essential element of the crime, United States v. Lignarolo, 770 F.2d 971, 981 (11th Cir. 1985); where the government proved events of a conspiracy at trial which were not listed in the overt acts section of the indictment, United States v. Gold, No. 83-3231, 83-3230, 83-3267, 83-3239, 1984 WL 48339 (11th Cir. 1984); and where the government dropped two alleged co-conspirators from its conspiracy allegations at trial, United States v. Davis, 679 F.2d 845, (11th Cir. 1982).
However the Eleventh Circuit has found constructive amendments of indictments and improper broadening of the potential bases for conviction where the indictment charged the defendants with knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that pseudoephedrine would be used to manufacture methamphetamine, but the trial court instructed the jury that it could convict the defendants if it found that they knew or had reasonable cause to believe that the pseudoephedrine would be used to make “any controlled substance,” Narog, at 1249; where the government charged that the defendant knowingly and “willfully” committed money laundering, but the court redacted the term “willful” from its charge on the definition of “intentional,” United States v. Cancelliere, 69 F.3d 1116, 1121 (11th Cir. 1995); where the indictment alleged that the defendant conspired with a particular person and the trial court instructed the jury that it could convict the defendant if it found he conspired with “any” person, Keller, at 636; where the RICO charges in the indictment charged that the “enterprise” was a particular organized crime family but the court instructed the jury that it could convict the defendants if it found a different enterprise, United States v. Weissman, 899 F.2d 1111, 1115 (11th Cir. 1990); and where the trial court instructed the jury that it could convict the defendant if it found the elements of an offense which had not been charged in the indictment, United States v. Peel, 837 F.2d 975, 979 (11th Cir. 1988).