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When jury instructions are claimed to be erroneous, they are reviewed as a whole to determine whether they adequately informed the jury of the relevant considerations and provided a basis in law for aiding the jury in reaching its decision. A judgment may be reversed if the instructions, viewed as a whole, were confusing, misleading and prejudicial. The adequacy of jury instructions is a question of law an appellate court reviews de novo. A district court's refusal to give a requested jury instruction is reviewed for an abuse of discretion.
Defendant Randall H. Burchard was charged with three counts of knowingly possessing a firearm in and affecting commerce while being an unlawful user or addicted to a controlled substance, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3) and § 924(a)(2). During trial, the district court rejected defendant’s proposed instruction and read an instruction patterned after the Eighth Circuit's criminal pattern jury instruction defining "unlawful user." Defendant was found guilty of possessing five of the nine firearms charged in the indictment. The district court sentenced defendant to concurrent terms of 27 months' imprisonment and two years' supervised release on each of the three counts, and imposed a $ 6,000 fine. Defendant appealed the sentence and final judgment, challenging the adequacy of the jury instruction defining an "unlawful user of controlled substance" and the district court's denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal, contending that the Government failed to establish that his drug use was consistent or prolonged.
The appellate court found that given that the term "unlawful user" under 18 U.S.C.S. § 922(g)(3) was undefined statutorily, and that the instruction upon which defendant's proposed instruction was based had been abandoned, the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to read defendant's proposed instruction and opted for one based on the Eighth Circuit's pattern instruction, which made clear that regular use of cocaine contemporaneous with, or near the time of possession of a firearm, was required. The court further held that the district court did not err when it denied defendant's motion for judgment of acquittal because the government presented evidence from which a rational jury could have concluded that his drug use was consistent and prolonged, thus there was adequate evidence to support his conviction of possession of a firearm by an unlawful user of drugs under 18 U.S.C.S. § 922(g)(3).