Rules Of Evidence: The First Circuit Expands Rule 404(b) Other Crimes, Wrongs, Acts To Include “Context” Evidence And Under Rule 702 Defines Opinion Testimony
United States v. Habibi
Docket No. 14-1403
United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
Decided on March 20, 2015
Blog by: Stephen N. Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Lawyer
Issue: Whether the United States District Court for the District of Maine erred by admitting the testimony of two of defendant’s heroin customers and that of FBI Special Agent Christopher Peavey?
Summary: In October 2013, the United States District Court for the District of Maine convicted defendant for possession of a stolen firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(j). He was sentenced to sixteen months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. He appealed arguing that the District Court abused its discretion (1) in admitting evidence relating to his heroin use and heroin trafficking; and (2) in allowing an FBI agent involved in the investigation that led to defendant’s arrest to testify on issues relating to DNA residue. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit denied defendant’s appeal in its entirety and affirmed his conviction.
Holding: The First Circuit Court of Appeals held that the District Court of Maine did not abuse its discretion by admitting the testimony because it was relevant, material, and necessary to provide context for factual issues, to demonstrate motive, and it was all based upon personal perceptions and experience.
Facts: Defendant was known by authorities to be a heroin dealer. He was charged with possession of a stolen firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(j). During trial, the government called two of defendant’s longstanding heroin customers to testify about how the gun came to be in defendant’s possession. These two customers testified that they, along with a friend who had stolen the gun, hid it prior to the friend’s arrest. Further, the two of them along with defendant retrieved the gun after their friend’s arrest. They clarified that it was defendant who pick-up and carried the gun back to the car and then hid it in a hole in the basement wall of his residence. They also explained that defendant told them he intended to keep the gun to use it as leverage in case he was arrested for drug trafficking.
The government also called FBI Special Agent Christopher Peavey – one of the law enforcement officers involved in the investigation and arrest – and other government officials to testify about the lack of DNA residue on the firearm. During trial, the government asked Agent Peavey to address the fact that test results showed that DNA on the stolen gun did not belong to defendant. This, despite other government witnesses testifying that defendant had handled the gun and placed it in his basement. After voir dire on the inquiry, and over the objection of defense counsel, the District Court permitted the government to ask Agent Peavey if he was ever involved in a case where an individual touched or handled an object with a bare hand, but when tested, no detectable DNA was found on the object. He testified ‘yes’. On cross-examination, Agent Peavey testified that he was not able to testify with any certainty the probability of DNA being available on a gun after it has been handled.
In October 2013, defendant was convicted for possession of a stolen firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(j) based upon the testimony and evidence presented during trial. He was sentenced to sixteen months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. He appealed the decision arguing that the District Court abused its discretion (1) in admitting evidence relating to his heroin use and heroin trafficking; and (2) in allowing an FBI agent involved in the investigation that led to defendant’s arrest to testify on issues relating to DNA residue. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit denied defendant’s appeal in its entirety and affirmed his conviction.
Legal Analysis: Defendant’s appeal involved procedural and evidentiary questions, which are reviewed under the differential ‘abuse of discretion’ standard. This standard presumes that a trial court’s decision is correct on issues of evidence, weight, admission, and discovery. So, the First Circuit started its analysis by determining if the testimony of the two heroin customers had any evidentiary relevance. It is well recognized that character evidence is not admissible to demonstrate that a defendant acted in accordance with his or her character (Fed.R.Evid. 404(b)(1). However, it is relevant, and therefore admissible, to prove among other things motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident (Fed.R.Evid. 404(b)(2); United States v. Doe, 741 F.3d 217, 229[1st Cir. 2013]). Here, the testimony was admissible because it had special relevance: it was introduced to show how defendant came into possession of the gun; his motive to keep and hid the gun in his home; and his relationship with his heroin customers. As to the weight of this evidence, the First Circuit deferred to the District Court’s determination finding that the government had a legitimate purpose in showing defendant’s ties to the people who stole the gun and his motive for taking and hiding the gun. Stated another way, the testimony’s probative value to the case outweighed any prejudice to defendant’s due process rights. Accordingly, the First Circuit affirmed the District Court’s evidentiary determination regarding the testimony of defendant’s heroin customers.
The First Circuit turned next to defendant’s challenge that the opinion testimony of FBI Special Agent Christopher Peavey was impermissible under Federal Rules of Evidence 701 and 702. Rule 701 provides that a lay witness, like Agent Peavey, may offer “testimony in the form or an opinion” so long as it is (a) rationally based on the witness’s perception; (b) helpful to clearly understanding the witness’s testimony or to determining a fact issue; and (c) not based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge within the scope of Rule 702.” Here, the objected-to testimony satisfied each of these criteria. First, Agent Peavey’s testimony was based upon his perception and experience on the job as a federal law enforcement officer. Second, his testimony helped the jury understand that DNA residue is not always left on objects handled by people, which could explain why defendant’s prints were not found on the gun. Finally, his testimony was not based upon “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge” that he did not possess. Rather, his perceptions and experience were based upon his own investigative experience. Accordingly, the First Circuit affirmed the District Court’s evidentiary determination regarding Agent Peavey’s testimony.