United States v. Hall, 060117 FED4, 15-4720

Docket Nº:15-4720
Opinion Judge:WYNN, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee, v. HAROLD HALL, JR., Defendant-Appellant.
Attorney:Jeffrey Michael Brandt, ROBINSON & BRANDT, P.S.C., Covington, Kentucky, for Appellant. Benjamin Neale Garner, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee. William N. Nettles, United States Attorney, William K. Witherspoon, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE ...
Judge Panel:Before WILKINSON, WYNN, and FLOYD, Circuit Judges. WILKINSON, Circuit Judge, dissenting.
Case Date:June 01, 2017
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,

v.

HAROLD HALL, JR., Defendant-Appellant.

No. 15-4720

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

June 1, 2017

Argued: January 24, 2017

Amended: June 21, 2017

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Columbia. Joseph F. Anderson, Jr., Senior District Judge. (3:14-cr-00629-JFA-1)

ARGUED:

Jeffrey Michael Brandt, ROBINSON & BRANDT, P.S.C., Covington, Kentucky, for Appellant.

Benjamin Neale Garner, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

William N. Nettles, United States Attorney, William K. Witherspoon, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee.

Before WILKINSON, WYNN, and FLOYD, Circuit Judges.

Reversed, vacated, and remanded by published opinion. Judge Wynn wrote the opinion, in which Judge Floyd joined. Judge Wilkinson wrote a dissenting opinion.

WYNN, Circuit Judge.

A jury convicted Defendant Harold Hall, Jr., of possession with intent to distribute marijuana, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime based on evidence obtained during law enforcement officers' search of a Columbia, South Carolina, home in which Defendant resided along with, he maintains, three other individuals. The search revealed approximately six kilograms of marijuana and three firearms inside a deadbolt-locked bedroom in the home.

To establish Defendant's possession of the guns and marijuana, the government relied on a constructive possession theory, under which it had to prove that Defendant "kn[e]w[] of [the contraband's] presence and ha[d] the power to exercise dominion and control over it." United States v. Schocket, 753 F.2d 336, 340 (4th Cir. 1985) (emphasis added). At trial, the government presented no evidence directly linking Defendant to the guns and marijuana or to the locked bedroom in which the contraband was found. The guns and marijuana did not include Defendant's fingerprints, nor was there evidence that he had ever used any of the three guns or the marijuana. Defendant did not have a key to the bedroom's lock. And the remaining items found in the locked bedroom provided no evidence that Defendant had ever been inside that room.

How then did the government establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, Defendant's constructive possession of the contraband in the locked bedroom? The government successfully sought admission of Defendant's prior convictions-one for possession of marijuana and three for possession with intent to distribute marijuana-under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b)(1). The district court concluded that these convictions were admissible to establish that Defendant (1) knew, based on his familiarity with the smell of marijuana, that the house contained marijuana; and (2) had the specific intent to distribute the marijuana.

Rule 404(b)(1) provides that "[e]vidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove a person's character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character." Rule 404(b)'s prohibition is not based on the notion that "character is irrelevant; on the contrary, it is said to weigh too much with the jury and to so overpersuade them as to prejudge one with a bad general record and deny him a fair opportunity to defend against a particular charge." Michelson v. United States, 335 U.S. 469, 475-76 (1948) (footnote omitted).

To ensure that defendants are protected from the prejudicial effect of their prior convictions, the government must establish that evidence of a defendant's prior bad acts is admissible for a proper, non-propensity purpose, such as "proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident." Fed.R.Evid. 404(b)(2). In meeting this burden, the government must prove that the evidence is "relevant to an issue, such as an element of an offense, and [is] not . . . offered to establish the general character of the defendant." United States v. Queen, 132 F.3d 991, 997 (4th Cir. 1997). "The more closely that the prior act is related to the charged conduct in time, pattern, or state of mind, the greater the potential relevance of the prior act." United States v. McBride, 676 F.3d 385, 397 (4th Cir. 2012). The government also must demonstrate that the evidence is "necessary in the sense that it is probative of an essential claim or an element of the offense, " that the evidence is "reliable, " and that "the evidence's probative value [is] not . . . substantially outweighed by confusion or unfair prejudice." Queen, 132 F.3d at 997.

The district court in this case concluded that the government-which simply provided the district court with the name and date of the convictions, but offered no information regarding the facts and circumstances giving rise to those convictions-met its burden to establish that Defendant's prior convictions were admissible under Rule 404(b) as to Defendant's knowledge and intent. In doing so, the district court abused its discretion. In particular, because the government proffered no evidence of any connection between Defendant's prior possession conviction and the instant possession with intent to distribute charge, that possession conviction was not relevant to whether Defendant intended to distribute the marijuana found inside the locked bedroom. Likewise, the absence of factual similarity and temporal proximity between Defendant's prior possession with intent to distribute convictions and the conduct alleged in the present case renders those prior convictions irrelevant to establishing Defendant's intent to distribute the marijuana in the locked bedroom. And although Defendant's prior marijuana possession and distribution convictions were relevant to establishing Defendant's knowledge of the smell of marijuana, the minimal probative value of admitting those convictions for that purpose was substantially outweighed by the likelihood of unfair prejudice, particularly in light of (1) Defendant's decision not to contest his knowledge of the smell of marijuana or its presence in the house; and (2) the absence of evidence linking Defendant to the contraband in the locked bedroom.

The dissenting opinion would reduce the government's burden under Rule 404(b), allowing admission of evidence that a defendant committed a prior drug offense to establish the defendant's knowledge and intent to commit a later drug offense, even absent any linkage between the prior offense and the charged conduct. But it is well established that the "fact that a defendant may have been involved in drug activity in the past does not in and of itself provide a sufficient nexus to the charged conduct where the prior activity is not related in time, manner, place, or pattern of conduct." United States v. Johnson, 617 F.3d 286, 297 (4th Cir. 2010). In accordance with that principle, we have held on numerous occasions that a district court abuses its discretion by admitting evidence of a defendant's prior drug convictions when those convictions are removed in time from the charged offense and the government fails to establish a sufficient link between those prior convictions and the events giving rise to the charge at issue. This precedent requires that we reach the same conclusion here.[1]

We turn first to the issue at hand, after which we devote a separate section to responding to our dissenting colleague's protestations.

I.

A.

On June 25, 2012, a confidential informant working on behalf of several law enforcement agencies completed a probable cause purchase of marijuana at a residence on Steadham Road in Columbia, South Carolina (the "residence, " or the "Steadham Road residence"). The confidential informant did not purchase the marijuana from Defendant. Rather, the informant bought the marijuana from an individual referred to only as "Jeezy, " who, the informant testified, was not Defendant. J.A. 394-95. Following the purchase, law enforcement officers obtained a warrant to search the residence.

On June 27, 2012, law enforcement officers went to the Steadham Road residence to execute the search warrant. Minutes before conducting the search, Officer Brien Gwyn saw two men leave the residence and drive away in a blue Ford SUV. Officer Gwyn followed the SUV and conducted a traffic stop several blocks away. Defendant and his cousin, Gerald Hall ("Gerald"), were in the SUV. When questioned, Defendant told Officer Gwyn that he lived at the Steadham Road residence by himself. Gerald was later charged with simple possession of marijuana arising from the officers' search of the SUV. Although Gerald's...

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