Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, December 09, 2004

"Lights out"

In U.S. v. Wright, No. 03-13359 (Dec. 8, 2004), the Court (Edmondson, Pryor, Fay) affirmed the conviction of a defendant convicted of being a felon in unlawful possession of a weapon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g) and 924.
The defendant was stopped for speeding and driving erratically. He was stopped, and failed a field sobriety test. When the officer instructed Wright to place his hands behind his back, a struggle ensued. After Wright was subdued, his vehicle was searched, and a firearm was found under the seat. After his arrest, Wright, making the signal of a hand pointing a gun, commented that the officers were luck he had not made it back to his car, because "it would have been lights out."
The Court rejected a sufficiency of the evidence challenge, noting that the jury was free to reject Wright’s father’s testimony that it was his gun under the seat in the vehicle, and that Wright’s constructive possession of the gun in the vehicle he was driving, coupled with the incriminating "lights out" comment, sufficed.
The Court also rejected the argument that the trial court abandoned its neutral role when it (1) told the prosecutor he had neglected to have the witness identify the defendant as the perpetrator, and (2) asked a testifying officer to give clarifying details regarding Wright’s hand-pointing gesture. The Court found this did not evidence bias, and that the district court was authorized to "clarify" the evidence presented through its own questions.
The Court found no error, under Fed. R. Evid. 404(b), in admitting evidence of Wright’s driving which led to his stop, or of his resisting arrest. The Court noted the need "to put a cohesive sequence of the crime before the jury." Further, resisting arrest was probative consciousness of guilt.
The Court rejected a challenge to a jury instruction that resisting arrest may help establish guilt or innocence. The Court reviewed the issue for plain error, because the defendant objected at trial only that the instruction was not a pattern jury instruction, rather than the argument on appeal that the instruction was unwarranted. . The Court noted that evidence of flight must meet certain criteria of probativeness before it will be admitted. Significantly, these criteria must include permit an inference from consciousness of guilt concerning the crime charged to actual guilty of the crime charged. The Court noted that while in this case the defendant’s resisting arrest could be only related to his arrest for drunk driving, and not for unlawful weapon possession, it was for the jury to decide how to weigh this evidence, and the instruction merely authorized the jury to draw a permissible inference.
Further, the Court rejected the challenge to the trial court’s decision, without informing the parties, to furnish the jury, during deliberations, with a ruler, in response to the jury’s request for a ruler. Again, reviewing the matter for plain error, the Court found that the ruler merely functioned as a visual aid and was unlikely to have made a difference.
Finally, the Court rejected the argument, raised for the first time on appeal, that § 922(g) lacked constitutional support under the Commerce Clause. Noting that the Eleventh Circuit had previously decided this issue, the Court dismissed the challenge, stating that "it would not be useful for us to address this issue."