A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

third  circuit

By Burt Rose

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has granted a new trial in the case ofUNITED STATES of America v. Durrell SMITH, Appellant, #12–1516, 2013 WL 3985005 (Aug. 6, 2013), an appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. The case was before Judges SLOVITERFUENTES and ROTH. Judge Fuentes wrote the Opinion.

At Smith’s trial for threatening federal officers with a gun, the Government sought to establish that two years earlier Smith had been observed dealing drugs at the same location as the charged assault. Smith objected, arguing that the relevance of the drug deal to the gun crime required an inference that because Smith was a drug dealer in the past he must have been a drug dealer on the day in question. The District Court overruled Smith’s objection and permitted evidence about the earlier drug sale to show motive (to protect his “drug turf”). Smith was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the evidence of Smith’s drug distribution, two years before the incident for which he was on trial, violated the requirement that, when seeking to introduce evidence of prior bad acts under Rule 404(b), the proponent must set forth “a chain of logical inferences, no link of which can be the inference that because the defendant committed … offenses before, he therefore is more likely to have committed this one”, citing United States v. Sampson, 980 F.2d 883, 887 (3d Cir.1992). This evidence violated Rule 404(b) because the Government used the 2008 drug deal to prove Smith’s character as a drug dealer in order to show that on this particular occasion Smith acted in accordance with that character.

The Court also noted that it was not convinced that the curative instruction at trial was sufficient to permit it to overlook this error. Therefore, the Court reversed the District Court’s evidentiary ruling, vacated Smith’s convictions and remanded for a new trial. There was no dissent.

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