United States District Court, District of Columbia
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
P. MEHTA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Memorandum Opinion and Order addresses the government's
pending motions to admit evidence of prior convictions and
bad acts under Federal Rules of Evidence 404(b) and 609, and
the oppositions thereto. In addressing the government's
motions, the court proceeds as follows. First, the court
addresses the prior gun-related convictions that the
government seeks to admit or use against Defendants Fields
and Samuels. Next, the court considers the various
drug-related convictions and conduct that the government
proposes to admit or use against each Defendant. And,
finally, the court tackles the government's request to
use Defendant Samuels' conviction for aiding and abetting
manslaughter under Rule 609 should he testify.
settled law that, for purposes of Rule 404(b), prior firearm
possession by a defendant is probative of his knowledge and
intent to possess a weapon when the theory of prosecution is
one of constructive possession. See United States v.
McCarson, 527 F.3d 170, 173 (D.C. Cir. 2008); United
States v. Garner, 396 F.3d 438, 442-44 (D.C. Cir. 2005);
United States v. Cassell, 292 F.3d 788, 792-95 (D.C.
Cir. 2002); cf. United States v. Linares, 367 F.3d
941, 946-948 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (holding that prior gun
possession evidence has little or no probative value where
the evidence shows that the defendant actually possessed the
weapon). The D.C. Circuit has said that the probative value
of a prior weapons offense in such cases is
“high.” See Cassell, 292 F.3d at 796. To
prove constructive possession, the government will have to
show that the defendant had knowing dominion and
control over the gun. See Garner, 396 F.3d at 443.
That requirement is “heightened” in cases, such
as this one, where the evidence is likely to be that others
had access to the locations where law enforcement found the
weapons-in Fields' case, on the second floor above the
barbershop, and in Samuels' case, his residence.
Id. Therefore, the probative value of
Defendants' prior acts of gun possession is significant.
question remains whether the probative value of the prior gun
possessions is substantially outweighed by the danger of
unfair prejudice under Rule 403. See Cassell, 292
F.3d at 796. To be sure, the gun offenses here are old-16
years for Mr. Fields' two convictions (2001-FEL-6917
(D.C. Super. Ct.) and 2001-FEL-3831 (D.C. Super. Ct.)) and 23
years for Mr. Samuels' offense (1994-FEL-6422 (D.C.
Super. Ct.)), see Gov't Rule 404(b) Mot. at
15-16, 18; Gov't Rule 609 Mot. at 3. But staleness in
this instance does not create the kind of unfair
prejudice that would substantially outweigh the
evidence's “high” and
“heightened” probative value. Samuels relies on
United States v. Sheffield to support the
proposition that the age of his weapons conviction diminishes
its probative value and heightens its unfair prejudice.
See Samuels' Resp. at 2 (citing
Sheffield, 832 F.3d 296 (D.C. Cir. 2016)).
Sheffield, however, involved the admission of a
prior drug trafficking conviction, not gun possession. That
distinction is material, because prior drug trafficking
convictions are admissible to show that a person “knew
how to get drugs, what they looked like, where to sell them,
and so forth.” United States v. Crowder, 141
F.3d 1202, 1208 n.5 (D.C. Cir. 1998). The logic underlying
the staleness finding in Sheffield is that knowledge
of the drug trade will fade over time, such that the more
remote the prior conviction the less probative it will be of
a defendant's present knowledge of drug trafficking.
See Sheffield, 832 F.3d at 307-08 (“Moreover,
by telling the jury only about the fact of a decade-old
conviction, the evidence bore little evidentiary relevance to
the question of Sheffield's knowledge in 2011 about such
matters as how to acquire or to market PCP.”). That
same rationale does not, however, apply to prior gun
possessions. The age of a prior weapons offense does not
diminish one's present knowledge or intent to exercise
dominion and control over a gun. In other words, evidence of
knowledge and intent relating to constructive possession of a
gun does not have the same temporal quality as knowledge of
the drug trade. The staleness of a prior possessory gun
conviction therefore does not warrant exclusion of evidence
that, according to the D.C. Circuit, has significant
probative value. Accordingly, the government will be
permitted under Rule 404(b) to present evidence of
Fields' and Samuels' prior gun possession offenses in
its case in chief.
court's ruling comes with a caveat. The government may
introduce only the possessory aspect of Defendants' prior
conduct, including the conviction itself (e.g., carrying a
pistol without a license), but not the convictions for, or
evidence showing, use of a weapon to commit a violent act
(e.g., assault with intent to kill while armed, assault with
a dangerous weapon). Evidence of prior gun violence
does risk unfairly prejudicing the jury.
foregoing limitation, however, applies only to the
court's 404(b) ruling. If either defendant takes the
stand, the court's calculus for allowing the government
to introduce the violent felonies for impeachment under Rule
609 may be different. See United States v. Lipscomb,
702 F.2d 1049, 1071 (D.C. Cir. 1983) (drawing a connection
between credibility and crimes involving a “conscious
disregard for the rights of others”). The court also
will have to evaluate Samuels' conviction for assault
with a dangerous weapon under a more stringent admissibility
standard, as it falls outside of Rule 609's 10-year
window. See Fed. R. Evid. 609(b). Accordingly, the
court defers ruling on the admissibility of these
violent-crime convictions until trial.
court now turns to the admissibility of Defendants'
various prior drug trafficking convictions and activities
under Rule 404(b). Generally speaking, prior drug trafficking
activities are admissible under Rule 404(b) to prove the
knowledge and intent elements of a new trafficking charge.
See Sheffield, 832 F.3d at 307. But, as the D.C.
Circuit held in Sheffield, the probative value of
prior trafficking activity diminishes over time and, if old
enough, can give rise to unfair prejudice. See Id.
at 308. In this matter, many of the drug convictions or
conduct the government seeks to admit under Rule 404(b) raise
staleness concerns. Accordingly, the court must consider the
particular prior conduct the government seeks to introduce as
to each Defendant.
March 21, 1998, Fields was arrested for possession with
intent to distribute heroin. See Gov't 404(b)
Mot. at 16. He “was in possession of 19 individual
packaged ziplocs of heroin, ” but the government
provides no more information. See Id. Months later,
Fields was sentenced for only possession of heroin. See
Id. This conviction and conduct occurred more than 19
years before the start of the conspiracy in this case, June
2017. Under Sheffield, the age of this conviction
and conduct diminishes its probative value insofar as
Fields' possession of heroin two decades ago would tell
the jury little about his knowledge of today's drug
trade, and risks resulting in unfair prejudice because of its
staleness. The 1998 conviction and conduct therefore is not
admissible in the government's case in chief.
1992 conviction for trafficking in crack cocaine has even
less probative value, and admitting it would risk greater
prejudice than his 1998 conviction for heroin possession.
That conclusion is underscored by the absence of any details
underlying the 1992 conviction and the fact that crack
cocaine is not one of the narcotics involved in the charged
conspiracy. Fields' 1992 trafficking conviction therefore
is not admissible.
government vigorously argues that the limitations placed on
prior trafficking convictions by Sheffield does not
apply here because Fields was incarcerated for the vast
majority of time between the prior drug offenses and the
start of the conspiracy period. See Gov't 404(b)
Mot. at 32. The government points to several other circuit
court decisions to support its argument. See Id. at
32-33 (citing cases). The D.C. Circuit has not addressed
whether time in prison between the new case and old crime can
essentially inoculate a prior drug conviction from becoming
stale. However, in United States v. Winstead, the
Circuit had this very issue squarely before it but declined
to reach it. See890 F.3d 1082, 1086 (D.C. Cir.
2018). Though it passed on the question, the court in
Winstead recognized that many circuit courts have
agreed with the position the government espouses here. Yet,
the court observed: “Although our sister circuits do
not explain their reasoning, we think that they are assuming
that conversations in prison would refresh a prisoner's
knowledge of the modus operandi of drug crimes. We are not
sure that is a legitimate assumption in every case.”
Id. (footnote omitted). In view of the doubt the