New(ish) opinion — major criminal reversal on evidentiary grounds

Akeem Caldwell was tried for being a felon in possession of a gun. He testified at trial, denying possession; during cross-examination, the prosecution introduced his prior conviction for felon-gun-possession. On appeal, CA3 reversed, holding that introduction of the prior conviction violated Rule 404(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence.

The court began by noting, “We have repeatedly emphasized that Rule 404(b) must be applied with careful precision, and that evidence of a defendant’s prior bad acts is not to be admitted unless both the proponent and the District Court plainly identify a proper, non-propensity purpose for its admission.” After surveying the history of prior-bad-act-admissibility, the court said, “let us be clear: Rule 404(b) is a rule of general exclusion, and carries with it no presumption of admissibility.” The court described in detail the four-step 404(b) analysis district courts must follow, which is summarized thus:

Rule 404(b) provides that prior act evidence is inadmissible unless the evidence is (1) offered for a proper non-propensity purpose that is at issue in the case; (2) relevant to that identified  purpose; (3) sufficiently probative under Rule 403  such that its probative value is not outweighed by any inherent danger of unfair prejudice; and (4) accompanied by a limiting instruction, if requested.

The court applied the four-step analysis to find a 404(b) violation. Finally, it found that the error was not harmless even “[t]hough the prosecution’s case may have been strong” and rejected the government’s argument that the prior convictions were admissible as impeachment under Rule 609. The opinion closed where it began, reiterat[ing]  the importance of a methodical approach by the proponent of prior act  evidence and  a carefully reasoned ruling by  the trial judge who must decide the question of admissibility.”

The case is United States v. Caldwell. Opinion by Smith, joined by Vanaskie and Shwartz. Arguing counsel were Renee Pietropaolo for the defendant and Michael Ivory for the Government.

This important opinion was issued back on July 24, but somehow I missed it until I saw it on Matt Kaiser‘s excellent Federal Criminal Appeals Blog.