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United States v. Davis - 726 F.3d 434 (3d Cir. 2013)


The use of prior-acts evidence requires care from prosecutors and judges alike. In proffering such evidence, the government must explain how it fits into a chain of inferences—a chain that connects the evidence to a proper purpose, no link of which is a forbidden propensity inference. And then the district court, if it admits the evidence, must articulate reasons why the evidence also goes to show something other than character. The reasoning should be detailed and on the record; a mere recitation of the purposes in Fed. R. Evid. 404(b)(2) is insufficient. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has affirmed even when a district court's analysis was somewhat flimsy—but only when the government had already established a valid chain of inferences. 


Two Philadelphia police officers were patrolling near 5100 Market Street when they saw a black Jeep Grand Cherokee on the opposite side of the street. Inside the Jeep were two men: Terrell Davis and Jamar Blackshear. After a period of time, the two men inside the vehicle began to act suspiciously, and their actions indicated that they were closing a drug deal. Upon investigation, the police officers were able to confirm that the Jeep had nearly a kilo of cocaine in the backseat. Davis and Blackshear were charged with possessing a controlled substance with intent to distribute under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and with possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Davis and Blackshear filed a motion to suppress all evidence from the Jeep. They argued that because the Jeep's front driver's side window was tinted, the officers could not have seen the alleged reaching, gawking, and tossing—and so they could not have had any cause for suspicion in the first place. The District Court inspected the Jeep and discovered that the window was in fact tinted. The Court nonetheless denied the suppression motion. It credited the testimony of the officers who said that the window had been tint-free on the day of the arrests eight months earlier. Thereafter, the defendants pursued different paths – Blackshear pleaded guilty while Davis opted for a jury trial. As the trial approached, the government asked permission to introduce Davis's two prior convictions for possessing cocaine. The District Court consented, stating that the convictions were admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) to show that Davis recognized the drugs in the Jeep. Subsequently, the jury found Davis guilty of the drug crime but not of the gun crime. On appeal, Davis alleged that since he was illegally stopped by the officers after he exited the jeep, the cocaine that was obtained from the Jeep’s backseat was inadmissible as it was a product of illegal seizure; thus, its admission in the trial violated his constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment. Davis further argued that the district court err in admitting his two prior convictions for possessing cocaine as evidence during trial.


Was the cocaine obtained from the Jeep’s backseat a product of illegal seizure, and thus, inadmissible as evidence against Davis? Furthermore, was it an error to use Davis’ prior convictions for possessing cocaine as evidence in the present trial?


No, on the issue on inadmissibility of evidence; and yes as to the alleged error in admitting prior convictions for possession as evidence.


The Court held that the police officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they stopped Davis after he exited a vehicle in which he had been sitting, as the officers testified that they observed defendant and a co-defendant behaving suspiciously while parked in a high-crime area. As regards the other issue, the Court ruled that evidence of Davis’ prior convictions for possessing cocaine was improperly admitted under Fed. R. Evid. 404(b) to show that Davis recognized the cocaine found in the vehicle, as possession convictions were not admissible to show knowledge or intent in a distribution trial.

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