Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Circuit explains that Fed.R.Evid. Rule 404(b) is “a rule of general exclusion” and reiterates the importance of a methodical approach by the proponent of prior act evidence and a carefully reasoned ruling by the trial judge.

The Circuit holds that in a trial for being a felon-in-possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), based on a theory of actual possession, the district court erred by admitting under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), evidence of the defendant’s prior convictions for unlawful weapons possession; it vacates the judgment and remands.  In a scholarly 53-page opinion, which is a must read for the defense bar, Judge Smith discusses the evolution of the prior bad acts rule from its English common law roots to the adoption of Rule of Rule 404(b). 

            The Circuit initially explained that when the Court calls Rule 404(b) a rule of inclusion, not exclusion, it “merely reiterates the drafters’ decision to not restrict the non-propensity uses of evidence.  The Rule provides prior act evidence “may be admissible for another purpose, such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake or lack of accident.  Fed.R.Evid.404(b)(2).  By introducing the list of permissible purposes with the words “such as” the drafters made clear the list was not exclusive, or otherwise limited to a strictly defined class. It does not suggest that prior offense evidence is presumptively admissible.  “On this point, let us be clear:  Rule 404(b) is a rule of general exclusion, and carries with it ‘no presumption of admissibility.’”  The Rule reflects the revered policy that an accused is tried for what he did, not who he is. 

The court then sets forth the 4-steps that must be taken before evidence is admissible for a non-propensity purpose. 

            First, the party seeking to admit evidence under Rule 404(b)  bears the burden of identifying a proper 404(b) purpose that is “at issue” in, or relevant to, the case.  In evaluating whether an identified purpose is “at issue,” courts should consider the “material issues and facts the government must prove to obtain a conviction.”  The Court stressed that the proponent’s “incantation of the proper uses of [prior act] evidence… does not magically transform inadmissible evidence into admissible evidence.  Rather, the proponent must identify a specific purpose that ‘is of consequence in determining the action.’ Fed.R.Evid. 401(b).” 

The “crucial” second step is for the proponent to explain “how the evidence is relevant to that purpose.  The Court reiterates that the government must explain how the evidence fits into a chain of inferences connecting the evidence to a proper purpose, no link of which is a forbidden propensity inference.  “We require this chain be articulated with careful precision because, even when a non-propensity purpose is ‘at issue’ in a case, the evidence offered may be completely irrelevant to that purpose, or relevant only in an impermissible way.” The court admonishes, “[d]espite our repeated instructions in this area, some proponents of Rule 404(b) evidence still fail to follow this course.”  The proffered evidence must be excluded if the proponent neglects or is unable to articulate this chain of inferences, and failure to exclude such evidence constitutes reversible error. 

The court emphasizes that these are distinct steps.  “The first step requires the proponent to identify a proper purpose that is pertinent to the case, whereas the second step requires the evidence tend to establish the identified purpose.” 

            Once the proponent has shown that the evidence is relevant for a proper, non-propensity purpose, the court must balance under Rule 403 whether the evidence is sufficiently probative, such that its probative value is not outweighed by the inherently prejudicial nature of the prior bad act evidence.  This balancing requires great care because few categories of evidence bring greater risk of prejudice to the accused under Rule 403. 

            Finally, if requested, the court must provide a limiting instruction.   

In Mr. Caldwell’s case, the prosecution failed to offer an acceptable, non-propensity purpose, i.e., one that is “at issue” in, or relevant to, the prosecution.  Again, in determining whether an identified purpose is at issue in a case, the Court begins by considering the material issues and facts the government must prove to obtain the conviction.  The government must proffer a logical chain of inferences consistent with its theory of the case.  Evidence is relevant if it has a tendency to make more or less probable a fact that “is of consequence in determining the act.”  Fed.R.Evid. 401(b).

The government’s theory was that Caldwell was in actual, not constructive, possession of the firearm:  Officers testified to seeing the firearm in Caldwell’s hands.  In the typical felon in possession case when the government proceeds on a theory of actual possession, knowledge is not at issue.  Absent unusual circumstances (such as when the defendant claims he did not realize the thing in his hand was a gun), the knowledge element in a felon in possession case is necessarily satisfied if the jury finds the defendant physically possessed the gun.  Nor is intent at issue in a felon in possession case because section 922(g)(1) does not require the government to prove the defendant intentionally possessed a gun.

The Circuit also rejects as improper the district court’s reasoning that a defendant puts knowledge at issue by claiming innocence.  Situations can arise during trial where a defendant could put knowledge at issue, for example, where a defendant testifies the thing in his hand was something other than a gun.  However, a defendant does not merely by denying guilt of an offense with a knowledge-based mens rea, open the door to admissibility of prior convictions of the same crime.  “Such a holding would eviscerate Rule 404(b)’s protection and completely swallow the general rule.

The Government also failed to articulate how Caldwell’s prior gun convictions are relevant to show knowledge that he possessed the gun.  It is not enough to merely recite a Rule 404(b) purpose.  The prosecution must “explain ‘exactly how the proffered evidence should work in the mind of a juror to establish the fact the government claims to be trying to prove.” The court asked, “how exactly, do Caldwell’s two prior convictions for unlawful firearm possession suggest he knowingly possessed this gun on this occasion?” It found only one answer:  If Caldwell knowingly possessed a firearm in the past, he was more likely to have knowingly possessed the firearm this time.  This is precisely the propensity-based inferential logic that Rule 404(b) forbids. 

The district court failed to conduct a meaningful balancing.  The Circuit provides some guidance on this point.  Even if the prior convictions were probative of knowledge (and they were not), the probative value would, at best, be minimal.  In a 922(g) case, knowledge is generally subsumed within a finding of physical possession.  Thus, any value added by the prior conviction would be negligible.  Further, the probative value is diminished where the defendant does not contest the fact for which supporting evidence has been offered.  “Rule 403 balancing may tilt in favor of excluding highly prejudicial evidence when it is offered to establish a fact that is completely uncontested by the defendant.”  On the other side of the scale, “it is beyond cavil” that evidence of prior firearm convictions is highly prejudicial. 

Next, the Circuit rejects the prosecution’s alternative argument that the prior convictions were admissible for impeachment purposes under Fed.R.Evid. Rule 609.  When a testifying witness is also the defendant in a criminal trial, the prior conviction is admitted only “if the probative value of the evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect to that defendant.  This “heightened” balancing test creates a predisposition toward exclusion.  The Court considers (1) the kind of crime involved, (2) when the conviction occurred, (3) the importance of the defendant’s testimony to the case, and (4) the importance of the credibility of the defendant. 

In looking at the first factor, courts consider the impeachment value of the prior conviction, with crimes of violence having less impeachment value.  They also consider the similarity of the crime to the offense charged.  The balance tilts further toward exclusion as the offered impeachment evidence becomes more similar to the crime for which the defendant is being charged. 

            The third factor looks at the importance of the defendant’s testimony to his defense at trial.  “The tactical need for the accused to testify on his or her own behalf may militate against use of impeaching convictions.” 

            In Mr. Caldwell’s trial, the government failed to carry its burden.  The trial was a classic case of he said / they said.  But this single factor is not enough to allow admission.  The prior gun convictions were similar to and identical to the charged offense, making the priors highly prejudicial.  The impeachment value of the prior convictions is low because unlawful firearm convictions do not by their nature imply a dishonest act.  Also, the government failed to show that the probative value of the evidence was not diminished by the passage of more than 6-1/2 years. Finally, Caldwell’s testimony was important to his defense; he would have taken a great risk by failing to testify in his defense. 
            Finally, the Circuit rejects defense argument that the out of court confession made by a second person at the scene should have been admitted as a statement against interest under Rule 804(b)(3).  Where a statement is offered to exculpate the accused in a criminal trial, it must be “supported by corroborating circumstances that clearly indicate trustworthiness.  Examples of corroborating circumstances include the lack of a close relationship between declarant and the accused, the fact that the statement was voluntarily made after the declarant was advised of his Miranda rights, and the fact that the statement was not made to curry favor with the government.

Summary by Renee D. Pietropaolo


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