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United States v. Jones

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

July 26, 2019

United States of America,
v.
Lorenzo H. Jones, Defendant,

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL H. WATSON, JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Lorenzo Jones ("Defendant") has been charged with unlawful possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Defendant filed a motion in limine, ECF No. 21, motion to suppress, ECF No. 22, and motion to dismiss the indictment for failure to preserve exculpatory evidence, ECF No." 27.[1] On February 19, 2019, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on these motions. ECF No. 31. The Court also ordered the parties to submit post-hearing briefs on the motions, which they did. ECF Nos. 33, 35, and 36.

         For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendant's motion in limine, ECF No. 21, GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendant's motion to suppress, ECF No. 22, and DENIES Defendant's motion to dismiss, ECF No. 27.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 21, 2017, Officers Christopher Davis ("Officer Davis") and Matthew Dover ("Officer Dover") were on patrol in a marked police cruiser when they observed a car parked on E. Mound St. with the engine running. A man in the front passenger seat got out of the car, and the car then pulled away from the curb without signaling. The officers followed the car as it turned again, allegedly without using a turn signal. The officers then attempted to conduct a traffic stop. Defendant exited the car and ran from the officers. Officers commanded Defendant to stop, and eventually Officer Davis tackled Defendant. During the struggle, Officer Davis allegedly observed Defendant reach down and pull handgun from his waistband and place it inside of a tire in an attempt to hide the gun. Officers placed Defendant under arrest and located the loaded gun in the tire. After Defendant was arrested, his vehicle was impounded and towed and thus was subject to an inventory search wherein the officers discovered a digital scale, currency, and a small amount of cocaine.

         In September 2018, Defendant was indicted on one count of unlawfully possessing a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1). ECF No. 11.

         II. MOTION IN LIMINE

         Defendant's motion in limine seeks to preclude the use of two types of evidence at trial: (1) contraband or evidence of other crimes not identified in the indictment; and (2) any testimony regarding Defendant's criminal record or the nature of his prior felony convictions. ECF No. 21.

         A. Evidence Relating to Any Contraband or Evidence of Other Crimes Not Identified in the Indictment

         First, Defendant moves to "preclude testimony and/or evidence at trial relating to any and all contraband and/or evidence of other crimes not identified in the indictment." Mot. 1, ECF No. 21. Specifically, Defendant moves to exclude testimony or evidence related to "a small quantity of cocaine (approximately 1.9 grams), a small sum of currency . and a digital scale" that the government alleges were found in the vehicle driven by Defendant on the night of his arrest. Id. Defendant also seeks to preclude any "testimony and/or evidence relating to any allegation that he was under suspicion for drug trafficking, including any testimony about or recordings of his conversation(s) with law enforcement officers regarding such matter." Id.

         Defendant argues that this evidence is inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b)(1). Rule 404(b)(1) states, "Evidence 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." The rule also states that "[t]his evidence may be admissible for another purpose." Fed.R.Evid. 404(b)(2).

         The Government argues that the cocaine, currency, and scale were lawfully discovered in the vehicle driven by Defendant and are admissible as background evidence that is inextricably intertwined with the charged offense. Resp. 1, ECF No. 25. The Government specifically argues that the evidence is probative of Defendant's "mental state and his motive for fleeing the police and discarding a firearm upon being apprehended." Id. at 2.

         Background evidence is an exception to Rule 404(b). United States v. Hardy, 228 F.3d 745, 748 (6th Cir. 2000); see also United States v. Adams, 722 F.3d 788, 810 (6th Cir. 2013). Background evidence "consists of those other acts that are inextricably intertwined with the charged offense or those acts, the telling of which is necessary to complete the story of the charged offense." Hardy, 228 F.3d at 748. "Typically, such evidence is a prelude to the charged offense, is directly probative of the charged offense, arises from the same events as the charged offense, forms an integral part of a witness's testimony, or completes the story of the charged offense." Id. Background evidence is allowed "to put the charges in the appropriate context" and is permitted because "defendants are not entitled to a 'sanitized' recounting of the facts, and prosecutors are not restricted to proving only discrete elements of a crime in such a way that they would be unable to offer the jury a natural narrative of events.'" United States v. Gibbs, 797 F.3d 416, 424 (6th Cir. 2015) (internal citations omitted).

         Although the cocaine, currency, and digital scale allegedly found in the car do not go directly to proving one of the elements of the charged offense- unlawful possession of a firearm-they are relevant background that helps explain why Defendant would need a firearm. See United States v. Till, 434 F.3d 880, 884 (6th Cir. 2006) (affirming trial court's admission of evidence of drug possession as background evidence when trial court found it was "relevant evidence in this case because of the propensity of people involved with drugs to carry weapons"); United States v. Andrews, No. 11-1415, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 27380, at *5 (6th Cir. June 21, 2012) (finding that, "[u]nder any standard of review, the district court did not err by permitting a police officer to testify about evidence of drugs and drug-trafficking paraphernalia found in the car" in a felon in possession case); United States v. Rhodes, 314 Fed.Appx. 790, 793 (6th Cir. 2008) (affirming denial of motion in limine that sought to exclude evidence of drugs in case involving firearm-related offenses and noting that "[d]eclining to charge a drug offense does not bar appropriate trial reference to drugs"). Indeed, the Sixth Circuit has stated that "[t]here is strong authority for the proposition that evidence of drug possession can and perhaps ought to be admitted in cases of alleged firearm possession, partly to show motive for such possession." Till, 434 F.3d at 883.

         Even though this evidence is properly admissible as background evidence, it would still be excluded under Rule 403 "if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of. .. unfair prejudice." Fed.R.Evid. 403. The Court has "broad discretion" to make "determinations of admissibility based on considerations of relevance and prejudice[.]" United States v. Bell, 516 F.3d 432, 440 (6th Cir. 2008) (quoting United States v. Chambers, 441 F.3d 438, 455 (6th Cir. 2006)). Here, in line with what courts have found in similar cases, evidence of the drugs, scale, and currency has probative value that is not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. See Till, 434 F.3d at 884 (agreeing with the district court's reasoning, including that drug evidence was "admissible as temporally and spatially-connected background evidence, and [was] directly probative of defendant's knowing possession of the firearm" and that "its probative value cannot be said to be substantially outweighed by its potential for unfair prejudice"); Rhodes, 314 Fed.Appx. at 793 (noting as part of its analysis that "the district court followed the accepted view that guns ... are 'tools of the trade' used to protect drugs and drug money").

         Accordingly, the Court DENIES this portion of Defendant's motion in limine and concludes that evidence or testimony regarding the cocaine, currency, and digital scale that were allegedly found in the car Defendant was driving is admissible in this case. Defendant relies on the "same reason[s]" to argue that evidence that Defendant was suspected of drug trafficking should also be excluded. Therefore, for the same reasons, the Court will not exclude such evidence on this basis.

         B. Any Testimony Regarding Defendant's Criminal Record or the Nature of His Prior Felony Convictions

         Defendant is charged with unlawful possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). As mentioned previously, under § 922(g)(1), the Government must prove the following elements: "(1) at the time of the offense, the defendant previously had been convicted of a felony offense punishable by imprisonment for more than one year; (2) the defendant knowingly possessed a firearm or ammunition; and (3) the firearm or ammunition previously had been shipped or transported in interstate commerce." United States v. Workman, 755 Fed.Appx. 533, 536 (6th Cir. Nov. 9, 2018).

         Defendant is willing to stipulate to the first element, that he has a prior felony conviction. Accordingly, Defendant requests that the Government be precluded from presenting any testimony or evidence regarding his criminal record or the nature of his prior felony convictions. Additionally, Defendant argues that the Indictment, which lists his prior felony convictions, should not be introduced into evidence or otherwise presented to the jurors due to the potential for undue prejudice. On January 25, 2019, at a hearing before the Court, the Government orally agreed to stipulate to the element of a prior felony conviction. Therefore, the Court GRANTS this portion of Defendant's motion in limine, and the only evidence permitted at trial concerning the first element of the charged offense is the parties' stipulation that the Defendant has been convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year.

         Accordingly, Defendant's motion in limine is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         III. MOTION TO SUPPRESS

         Defendant seeks to suppress all evidence obtained as a result of his detention and all statements that he allegedly made after his arrest. Defendant makes three arguments in support of his suppression request: (1) the initial stop of Defendant was pretextual and without probable cause; (2) Defendant's car was unlawfully searched; and (3) Defendant did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his right to counsel and right to remain silent.

         A. Traffic Stop

         Defendant contends that the initial stop was pretextual and without probable cause that Defendant committed a traffic violation. On this basis, Defendant argues that all evidence and statements subsequently obtained must be suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree.

         In contrast, the Government argues that the seizure was supported by reasonable suspicion and probable cause that Defendant committed a traffic violation. An officer may lawfully stop a car if the officer possesses probable cause based on reasonable grounds to believe that a violation occurred. United States v. Warfield, 727 Fed.Appx. 182, 185-86 (6th Cir. 2018). This is a "fact-dependent determination [that] is made from the totality of the circumstances and includes a 'realistic assessment of the situation from a law enforcement officer's perspective.'" Id. at 186. Columbus City Code 2131.14 requires a driver to signal when moving right or left. "A driver's failure to use a turn signal provides probable cause to justify a traffic stop irrespective of the officer's subjective intent." United States v. Jackson, 682 F.3d 448, 453 (6th Cir. 2012).

         Here, Officers Davis and Dover both testified that they observed Defendant twice fail to signal when he pulled to and from the curb. Tr. 14, 60, ECF No. 32. In light of the Officers' testimony, the Court finds that the Officers had probable cause to conduct a traffic stop. Officers Davis and Dover also testified that upon initiating a traffic stop, Defendant fled from the officers on foot. Id. at 19, 67. As such, Defendant's subsequent arrest for fleeing and eluding an officer was supported by probable cause, and the subsequent discovery of the firearm was lawful and not fruit of the poisonous tree. The Court therefore DENIES this portion of the motion to suppress.

         B. ...


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