Monday, February 09, 2015

Limiting 404(b) evidence, one unpublished opinion at a time

One could be forgiven for missing the defense win in United States v. Richardson, buried as it is in the bottom of Friday's unpublished cases. But in it, Judge Clay wages his quiet campaign against the government's ever-expanding use of 404(b) evidence to prove "motive" or "intent" in drug cases.

The opinion addresses the familiar case in which the government seeks to use a defendant's prior drug conviction to prove "intent" to commit a similar crime: here, drug-trafficking convictions that were 13 years old at the time of the defendant's new drug-trafficking trial. The appeals court vacated the conviction and sentence. The problem, as Judge Clay correctly points out, is that the government never actually presented any evidence or argument regarding exactly how these prior convictions prove intent to act 13 years later, aside from a post-hoc series of inferences that the government suggested on appeal. Absent any such proof, the evidence veered dangerously into the territory of impermissible propensity evidence, especially in light of other, more convicing proof the government had available to it. (Which may speak to Mr. Richardson's chances at his retrial.)

A few notes:
1. The opinion deftly side-steps a circuit-split regarding the standard of review.
2. In a dissent, Judge White agrees that the district court erred in admitting the 404(b) evidence but believes the error was harmless.
3. This is one of those unpublished opinions that makes the reader wonder exactly why it is unpublished.
4. Unmentioned in the opinion is the fact that this was the product of the characteristically fantastic advocacy of the Vanderbilt Appellate Litigation Clinic.

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