United States v. McBride, No. 10-5162
Decided: April 23, 2012
McBride appealed his conviction by jury of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, being a felon in possession of a firearm, and knowingly using and carrying a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. The Appellate Court addressed, specifically, whether there was reasonable suspicion to detain McBride’s vehicle, whether the duration of the vehicle’s detention was reasonable, and whether certain prior bad acts evidence was admitted erroneously. The Court found that the detention of McBride’s vehicle was proper, but that the admission of the prior bad acts evidence was improper. Thus, the Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case to the District Court.
Under cover officers observed suspicious activity taking place at a club that was known for prior drug activity during hours in which the club was typically not open. After observing the suspicious activity, the officers initiated a routine traffic stop pulling over a vehicle leaving the club for failing to use headlights while it was raining. The driver of the vehicle was unable to produce a license and was arrested, and the officers found a bag containing over $9,000 in cash. The officers then proceeding to the club, asked the patrons to identify their vehicles, and informed everyone that the vehicles were being detained. The vehicles were detained for approximately 55 minutes while a canine narcotics unit from another jurisdiction came to the location. When the drug dogs alerted at McBride’s vehicle, the officers obtained a warrant, searched the vehicle and found, large amounts of drugs, cash, and a loaded gun.
On appeal McBride first challenges the lower court’s denial of his motion to suppress the evidence found in his vehicle arguing that the detention of his vehicle was not supported by reasonable suspicion and thus his Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The Court reviewed the District Court’s decision for clear error and found that, considering the totality of the circumstances – evaluating the cumulative information available to the detaining officers – there was reasonable, articulable suspicion to support the detention of McBride’s vehicle on the ground that it may have contained illegal drugs.
McBride next contends that even if the detention was supported by reasonable suspicion, the duration of the detention was unreasonable under the circumstances and thus amounted to a seizure unsupported by probable cause. The Court again disagreed with McBride and, balancing the nature and quality of the intrusion on McBride’s interests against the importance of the government’s interests, found that the 55 minute detention of the vehicle was reasonable and did not result in an unlawful seizure of his vehicle, stressing the officer’s diligent pursuit of the investigation throughout that time period.
Finally, McBride challenged the admission of certain prior bad acts evidence. The evidence in question was testimony of events occurring 18 months earlier that illustrated McBride’s attempts and willingness to manufacture and sell crack cocaine. In addressing the issue the Court laid out the four-factor test to be used when determining the admissibility of prior bad acts evidence:
- The evidence must be relevant to an issue, such as an element of an offense, and must not be offered to establish the general character of the defendant.
- The act must be necessary in the sense that it is probative of an essential claim or an element of the offense.
- The evidence must be reliable.
- The evidence’s probative value must not be substantially outweighed by confusion or unfair prejudice in the sense that it tends to subordinate reason to emotion in the fact-finding process.
Additionally, the Court noted the requirements that the criminal defendant be given notice of the government’s intent to present the evidence, and that the jury be given an appropriate limiting instruction.
In this case, the Court found that the prior bad acts evidence at issue clearly falls under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) and is thus subject to the four-factor test laid out above. The Court found the evidence to be clearly reliable, but addressed the other factors in more detail. The Court discussed the fine line that separates when prior bad acts evidence is relevant and necessary and when it is not, noting that in cases in which the admission of such evidence was upheld there was a linkage of some sort between the prior bad acts evidence and the drug crimes charged in the indictment. The Court found that no such linkage existed in this case and that the evidence’s effect, and perhaps even its purpose, was to portray McBride as a drug dealer in the eyes of the jury – an improper use under FRE 404(b). As such, the Court found that the admission of the prior bad acts evidence was error.
In addressing impact of this error the Court determined that it could not 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.” In other words, the Court found that it could not conclude that it was highly probably that the error did not affect the jury’s judgment, and as such, remanded both counts of the indictment that required evidence of McBride’s intent to distribute drug in order to support a conviction. However, it upheld the conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm, as that count was unaffected by the determination that the prior bad acts evidence was improperly admitted.
In conclusion, the Appellate Court affirmed the District Court’s order denying McBride’s motion to suppress the evidence found in his vehicle, finding that the detention of the vehicle was proper; affirmed McBride’s conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm; and reversed and remanded McBride’s convictions for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and knowingly using and carrying a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, based on its finding that the prior bad acts evidence involving his prior drug activity was improperly admitted.
Judge Wilkinson concurred in the majority’s holding that the detention of McBride’s vehicle was proper, but dissented from the majority’s finding that the admission of the prior bad acts evidence was error. Specifically, Judge Wilkinson stressed that in a case such as this, the task of determining if a defendant’s prior drug transactions are relevant is an “intensely factual” question – one that is better addressed by the lower courts – and as such, Appellate Courts owe significant deference to the District Court’s discretion on admission of the evidence and to the jury’s determination of how much weight to give the evidence.
– Kassandra Moore