United States v. Coontz, 041720 FED4, 19-4167

Docket Nº:19-4167
Opinion Judge:PER CURIAM
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee, v. WILLIAM TODD COONTZ, Defendant-Appellant.
Attorney:David G. Barger, GREENBERG TRAURIG, LLP, McLean, Virginia, for Appellant. R. Andrew Murray, United States Attorney, Anthony J. Enright, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellee.
Judge Panel:Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and WYNN and RICHARDSON, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:April 17, 2020
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,

v.

WILLIAM TODD COONTZ, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 19-4167

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

April 17, 2020

UNPUBLISHED

Submitted: February 21, 2020

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, at Charlotte. Robert J. Conrad, Jr., District Judge. (3:17-cr-00184-RJC-DSC-1)

David G. Barger, GREENBERG TRAURIG, LLP, McLean, Virginia, for Appellant.

R. Andrew Murray, United States Attorney, Anthony J. Enright, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and WYNN and RICHARDSON, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by unpublished per curiam opinion.

Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit.

PER CURIAM

A jury convicted William Todd Coontz on three counts of willful failure to pay income taxes (Counts 1 to 3), in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7203 (2018), and four counts of aiding and assisting the filing of false tax returns (Counts 4 to 7), in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7206(2) (2018). The district court sentenced Coontz above the applicable Sentencing Guidelines range to an aggregate 60 months' imprisonment. In this appeal, Coontz raises multiple challenges to his convictions, arguing that the district court abused its discretion in several of its evidentiary rulings and that the evidence was insufficient to support the jury's verdicts on Counts 4 to 7. He also challenges the upward-variant sentence he received. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.

I.

We review a district court's evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretion and "will only overturn a ruling that is arbitrary and irrational." United States v. Farrell, 921 F.3d 116, 143 (4th Cir.) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted), cert. denied, 140 S.Ct. 269 (2019). Even if an evidentiary ruling is erroneous, we will not vacate the conviction if the error was harmless. United States v. Medford, 661 F.3d 746, 751 (4th Cir. 2011). "An error is harmless if we can say with fair assurance, after pondering all that happened without stripping the erroneous action from the whole, that the judgment was not substantially swayed by the error." United States v. Burfoot, 899 F.3d 326, 340 (4th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks omitted).

A.

Coontz first asserts that the district court erroneously admitted opinion testimony from Trent Arnold, Coontz's former accountant, regarding Coontz's understanding of the tax laws, as that evidence was without foundation and irrelevant. "A witness may testify to a matter only if evidence is introduced sufficient to support a finding that the witness has personal knowledge of the matter," which "may consist of the witness's own testimony." Fed.R.Evid. 602. Arnold was permitted to give lay opinion testimony that was "(a) rationally based on [his] perception; (b) helpful to clearly understanding [his] testimony or to determining a fact in issue; and (c) not based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge within the scope of [Fed. R. Evid.] 702." Fed.R.Evid. 701; see United States v. Perkins, 470 F.3d 150, 155 (4th Cir. 2006).

Relevant evidence generally is admissible. Fed.R.Evid. 402. "Evidence is relevant if: (a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action." Fed.R.Evid. 401. "The threshold for determining whether evidence is relevant is comparatively low, and we rarely reverse such decisions because they are fundamentally a matter of trial management." United States v. Recio, 884 F.3d 230, 235 (4th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks omitted).

We conclude that Arnold's testimony as to his tax-related interactions with Coontz on multiple occasions over a period of years provided a sufficient base of personal knowledge to support Arnold's opinion. While testimony linking Arnold's opinion to Coontz's specific statements or actions, or to specific provisions in the tax code, may have strengthened the value of this evidence, we conclude that those limitations are pertinent to the weight, not the admissibility, of the evidence. Further, Arnold's opinion was relevant to the central disputed issue of willfulness. We therefore find no abuse of discretion in the admission of this evidence.

B.

Coontz next argues that the district court abused its discretion in allowing Arnold to testify as to why he resigned from preparing Coontz's taxes and why he documented his advice to Coontz regarding the need to take a salary reportable on a W-2 tax form. Arnold's testimony that he advised Coontz multiple times that he should take a salary and complete a W-2, rather than taking distributions from his companies; that Arnold emphasized the importance of this advice to Coontz by documenting it in writing; and that Coontz did not take this advice are all relevant to Coontz's willfulness in failing to properly report the distributions he received as income. See Spies v. United States, 317 U.S. 492, 499 (1943) (describing facts probative of willfulness in tax fraud context). Even assuming, without deciding, that the district court abused its discretion in allowing Arnold to testify that he resigned because Coontz would not take his advice and that he believed he needed to protect himself, our thorough review of the trial record convinces us that the admission of this evidence was harmless. See Burfoot, 899 F.3d at 340.

C.

Coontz further argues that the district court abused its discretion in excluding testimony from his proposed expert witness, accountant Peter Bell. District courts possess "considerable discretion to determine whether to admit expert testimony." United States v. Iskander, 407 F.3d 232, 238 (4th Cir. 2005). An expert may give an opinion on "matters involving . . . specialized knowledge so long as the testimony will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue." United States v. Offill, 666 F.3d 168, 175 (4th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Fed. R. Evid. 702. "[O]pinion testimony that states a legal standard or draws a legal conclusion by applying law to the...

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