United States v. Payne-Owens, 010417 FED8, 15-3445

Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
Judge Panel:Before RILEY, Chief Judge, MURPHY and SMITH, Circuit Judges.
Opinion Judge:RILEY, Chief Judge.
Party Name:United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee v. Christopher Tracy Payne-Owens Defendant-Appellant
Case Date:January 04, 2017
Docket Nº:15-3445

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee


Christopher Tracy Payne-Owens Defendant-Appellant

No. 15-3445

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

January 4, 2017

          Submitted: September 23, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa - Des Moines

          Before RILEY, Chief Judge, MURPHY and SMITH, Circuit Judges.

          RILEY, Chief Judge.

         A jury found Christopher Payne-Owens guilty of possession of a firearm by a felon and unlawful drug user, see 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), (3), and the district court1sentenced him to 63 months in prison. Payne-Owens filed this timely appeal. He contends the district court erred by allowing the government to present evidence of his gang affiliation and by rejecting his combined motion for a new trial or judgment of acquittal. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND2

         In January 2014, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) began investigating Payne-Owens and obtained a search warrant to access his Facebook account. While reviewing his profile, ATF agents found two pictures of interest from November 2012. In the first photo, entitled "Bout that life, " Payne-Owens posed with what looked to be a bandolier of ammunition around his head, and he held up four fingers-a gang sign associated with the Four Corner Hustlers, an offshoot of the Chicago-based Vice Lords gang. In the second photo Payne-Owens had what appeared to be a .45-caliber 1911-style handgun in his waistband and again raised the four-finger sign. Shortly after posting the pictures Payne-Owens sent two private Facebook messages to a friend, which included telling the friend to "See mi new pic big 45 on mi hip."

         Payne-Owens was subsequently indicted for unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition under § 922(g)(1) and (3). He pled not guilty, arguing there was no proof that the gun or ammunition was real because neither artifact was recovered. Instead, the government planned to introduce circumstantial evidence that suggested the items were real, including: Facebook posts by Payne-Owens where he threatened general gun violence in the context of his involvement with the Four Corner Hustlers gang; testimony to explain the four-finger sign, who the Four Corner Hustlers are, and the various slang words in the Facebook messages; and a threatening Facebook exchange between Payne-Owens and another individual that apparently stemmed from a gang dispute about whether the other was a "real" or "fake" gang member. The parties filed competing motions in limine regarding the evidence that revealed Payne-Owens's gang ties, and after a hearing the district court deemed the evidence admissible to the extent it provided context for "the circumstances surrounding the alleged crime" and suggested the gun and ammunition were, in fact, real.

         At trial, the government called two witnesses. First, an ATF firearms expert testified that, although he could not state with absolute certainty the gun was real, the picture was consistent with a .45-caliber handgun like the one Payne-Owens referenced in the post-picture messages. Second, the ATF agent in charge of the case spoke about Facebook posts made by Payne-Owens, which were then admitted into evidence. As put by the district court, these Facebook statements by Payne-Owens evidenced his "desire to acquire a firearm, ability to help others acquire a firearm, and willingness to use a firearm against other people." But the district court was also aware that some of the evidence and testimony "explicitly referenced gang activity, " so the district court verbally instructed the jury to consider the gang references only for the "real specific purpose" of determining "whether the firearm and ammunition were real and whether the defendant on trial here had a motive to possess [a real gun] and nothing else."

         Payne-Owens moved for acquittal at the conclusion of the government's case, and the district court declined to rule on the motion immediately. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a)-(b). Payne-Owens did not offer any additional evidence. During closing arguments, the government again mentioned Payne-Owens's boastful Facebook statements about being a real gang member, unlike the fake gang member he taunted and threatened, to suggest the pictures show a "real gun and real ammunition because that's what you pose with when you're a real Four Corner Hustler from Chicago." The jury then received its written instructions-including one regarding how to assess evidence that referenced his gang membership3-and found Payne-Owens guilty of possessing a real firearm, but not ammunition. The district court rejected his combined motion for a new trial or judgment...

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