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United States v. Sams

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

July 3, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
AMARI SAMS, Defendant.

          ORDER

          R. STAN BAKER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Amari Sams' Motion in Limine. (Doc. 64.) Through this Motion, Defendant requests that the Court exclude “certain improper character evidence at trial” and asks the Court to hold a hearing to “determine the issue of 404(b) evidence.” (Id.) The Government did not file a response to Defendant's Motion but did file a pleading titled “Motion to Introduce Other Act Evidence.”[1] (Doc. 66.) Therein, the Government seeks permission to introduce several prior criminal convictions of Defendant during the trial of this case. After consideration, the Court GRANTS IN PART Defendant's Motion, (doc. 64) and DENIES IN PART the Government's Motion, (doc. 66). Specifically, the Court agrees with Defendant that his prior convictions for theft by receiving and theft by taking are not admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b). However, the Court RESERVES RULING on the issue of whether the Government can introduce Defendant's prior firearm-possession conviction as well as his convictions for drug offenses.

         BACKGROUND

         In this case, Defendant is charged with five felony counts: conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances (cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana); possession with intent to distribute controlled substances (cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana); possession of a firearm by a prohibited person; possession of a stolen firearm; and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. (Doc. 1.) On February 20, 2019, the Government filed a “Notice of Intent to Introduce Other Act Evidence.” (Doc. 38.) Therein, the Government stated that it intended to introduce Defendant's prior convictions during the trial of this case under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) and also for purposes of cross-examination. (Id.)

         On June 7, 2019, Defendant filed his Motion in Limine addressing the Government's Notice. (Doc. 64.) Defendant argued that the Government's Notice “[did] not indicate how the prior convictions relate to the conduct charged in this case.” (Id. at p. 2.) The Government then filed its Motion to Introduce Other Acts Evidence. (Doc. 66.) Through this Motion, the Government requested permission to introduce evidence of several prior convictions of Defendant, including three convictions for theft by receiving stolen property, one conviction for theft by taking, one conviction of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and two convictions for drug offenses. (Id. at pp. 4-5.) It argued that these convictions were admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b). (Id.) The Court heard argument from the parties on their Motions at the pretrial hearing on June 20, 2019. (Doc. 84.)

         DISCUSSION

         Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) prohibits the use of “[e]vidence of a crime, wrong, or other act . . . to prove a person's character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character.” Evidence of other crimes may be admissible, however, for other purposes, such as to prove intent, knowledge, or absence of mistake or accident. Fed.R.Evid. 404(b)(2). The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has explained “Rule 404(b) is one of inclusion which allows extrinsic evidence unless it tends to prove only criminal propensity.” United States v. Sanders, 668 F.3d 1298, 1314 (11th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Courts in the Eleventh Circuit employ a three-prong test for assessing the admissibility of evidence under Rule 404(b)(2). United States v. Jernigan, 341 F.3d 1273, 1280 (11th Cir. 2003). “First, the evidence must be relevant to an issue other than the defendant's character.” Id. (quoting United States v. Miller, 959 F.2d 1535, 1538 (11th Cir.1992)). Second, “there must be sufficient proof so that a jury could find that the defendant committed the extrinsic act.” Id. “Third, the evidence must possess probative value that is not substantially outweighed by its undue prejudice, and the evidence must meet the other requirements of Rule 403.” Id.

         The Government has failed to satisfy the first and third prongs of this analysis as to Defendant's prior theft by taking and theft by receiving convictions. These convictions do not appear to be relevant to an issue other than Defendant's character. In its Motion, the Government did not offer any specific argument or explanation regarding the admissibility of these convictions. At the pretrial hearing, the Government argued that Defendant Sams and his codefendants in this case were apprehended in a stolen car and, therefore, his prior theft convictions are somehow relevant to his state of mind in the case at hand. However, Defendant has not been charged in this case with stealing the vehicle or some other offense relating to the vehicle. Thus, his knowledge of the vehicle's stolen status is not at issue. Moreover, Defendant's theft convictions predate his charges in this case by several years and do not appear to involve his codefendants. Thus, it does not appear those convictions could be used to prove some common plan amongst him and his codefendants. Put simply, the Government has not made any link between Defendant's prior theft convictions and the charges in this case.

         Furthermore, even if the Government had demonstrated such a probative link, it has failed to satisfy the third prong of the 404(b)(2) analysis as to Defendant's theft convictions. Any probative value of Defendant's prior theft convictions would be substantially outweighed by the undue prejudice the convictions would cause to Defendant. Weighing against whatever minimal probative value that the theft convictions could provide would be the inherent risk that the jury would improperly use these convictions to ascribe to Defendant a criminal propensity. For all these reasons, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion to exclude evidence of his prior theft by taking and theft by receiving convictions and DENIES the Government's Motion to introduce these convictions pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b).[2]

         The Court now turns to Defendant's prior conviction for possessing a firearm as a convicted felon and his prior drug convictions. These convictions have at least some probative value as they are relevant to whether Defendant acted with the requisite mens rea in the case at hand. “A defendant who enters a not guilty plea makes intent a material issue which imposes a substantial burden on the government to prove intent, which it may prove by qualifying Rule 404(b) evidence absent affirmative steps by the defendant to remove intent as an issue.” United States v. Zapata, 139 F.3d 1355, 1358 (11th Cir. 1998). As all parties acknowledged at the pretrial hearing, Defendant Sams' intent will be a significantly disputed issue during the trial of this case. The charges against him arise out of a traffic stop in which drugs and firearms were found in a car occupied by him and two codefendants. Consequently, the Government will have to meet the “substantial burden” of proving that Defendant acted with the requisite intent as to the guns and drugs, and it will have to prove more than his mere presence at the scene.

         The Eleventh Circuit has held that there is a “logical connection between a convicted felon's knowing possession of a firearm at one time and his knowledge that a firearm is present at a subsequent time (or, put differently, that his possession at the subsequent time is not mistaken or accidental).” Jernigan, 341 F.3d at 1281. Thus, “the fact that [Defendant Sams] knowingly possessed a firearm . . . on a previous occasion makes it more likely that he knowingly did so this time as well.” Id. at 1282. “Moreover, when a defendant does not admit or stipulate to knowingly and intentionally possessing a firearm as a felon, the government may seek to admit evidence of a prior knowing possession of a firearm to prove the mens rea element of the offense.” United States v. Perrier, 619 Fed.Appx. 792, 796 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (citing United States v. Taylor, 417 F.3d 1176, 1182 (11th Cir. 2005)). Consequently, Defendant's prior conviction for possessing a firearm as a convicted felon is at least minimally relevant to whether he knowingly possessed a firearm on the occasion alleged in this case. Therefore, Defendant's prior firearm possession conviction satisfies the first prong of the Court's Rule 404(b)(2) analysis.

         Similarly, Defendant's prior drug convictions are relevant to an issue other than his character as they are probative of his intent and knowledge as to the drug charges levied against him in this case. See United States v. Edouard, 485 F.3d 1324, 1345 (11th Cir. 2007) (defendant's drug smuggling activities that predated allegations in indictment were pertinent to issue of intent and, thus, satisfied first 404(b)(2) prong). Even where a defendant was previously convicted for mere possession of drugs, the Eleventh Circuit has held that the prior conviction can be admitted in a subsequent unrelated prosecution for the distribution of drugs to prove the defendant's intent. United States v. Butler, 102 F.3d 1191, 1196 (11th Cir. 1997) (“[T]he logical extension of our current jurisprudence is to admit evidence of prior personal drug use to prove intent in a subsequent prosecution for distribution of narcotics.”); see also United States v. Matthews, 431 F.3d 1296, 1311 (11th Cir. 2005) (“circuit precedent regards virtually any prior drug offense as probative of the intent to engage in a drug conspiracy”). Consequently, Defendant's prior drug convictions are at least minimally probative, and, thus, the Government has satisfied the first Rule 404(b)(2) prong as to those convictions as well.

         Turning to the second Rule 404(b)(2) prong, the Court cannot asses at this time whether the Government has “sufficient proof so that a jury could find that the defendant committed” the prior drug offenses or the firearm offense. Jernigan, 341 F.3d at 1280. The Government stated at the hearing that it would be prepared at trial to introduce certified copies of these convictions. Should the Government do so, it will satisfy ...


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