Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Green: Harmless Rule 404b errors

In U.S. v. Green, No. 14-12830 (Nov. 30, 2016), the Court affirmed the conviction and sentence of 262 months for a defendant charged with being a felon-in-possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The Court rejected Green’s challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence: Green was hiding in the same room in which the firearm was discovered, had been living at this residence, and had admitted to the arresting officer that the firearm was his. The Court also rejected the argument that Green’s admission was uncorroborated and therefore should not have been considered, finding that there was circumstantial evidence of constructive possession. The Court agreed with Green that the district court should have redacted the indictment’s reference to prior “crimes” in the plural, given that Green had stipulated to having a single prior conviction. The Court recognized that communicating to the jury that a defendant could have “dozens of convictions” increases the risk of unfair prejudice. However, the error was harmless in light of the significant circumstantial evidence. The ammunition possession conviction that the government relied on for purposes of Rule 404(b) had been entered after Green pled nolo contendere to the charge. Citing Federal Rule of Evidence 803(22), which precludes the use of a nolo plea to prove the truth the matter asserted in a judgment of conviction, the Court concluded that the admission of Green’s prior conviction was insufficient to prove that Green actually committed the prior act at issue. However, again, the error was harmless in light of the “ample” evidence “independent of the Rule 404(b) conviction,” supporting guilt. Moreover, the nolo conviction was “not emphasized during trial or closing argument,” as the district court gave a cautionary Rule 404(b) instruction, and the prosecutor in closing told the jury that the 404(b) conviction was only admitted for the “very limited purpose” of showing whether Green had the “intent” to possess the items at issue. Turning to the sentence, the Court found no error in sentencing Green under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), based on prior Florida battery convictions. The Court noted that the Supreme Court left open the possibility of relying on Shepard documents to determine whether a prior battery conviction qualified as a “crime of violence.” Here, these documents (the agreed factual basis for Green’s nolo plea) indicated that Green “struck” another against his will. Specifically, that the victim said that Green “hit him in the face.”