Law School Case Brief
United States v. Wright - 901 F.2d 68 (7th Cir. 1990)
The use of evidence of other crimes to establish a propensity to commit the type of crime charged is the use of such evidence that Fed. R. Evid. R. 404(b) forbids.
On two different days in May 1988, three plainclothes police officers bought a total of four bags of "crack" at $ 20 a bag from a man who sold it to the officers at curbside on a Chicago street a few blocks from Hyde Park, handing the bags through the window of the unmarked police car. The sales occurred in daylight, and from police photographs the officers identified the man as Stanley Wright. No arrest was made, however, and instead the police waited six months and then with court authorization placed a wiretap on Wright's telephone line in November 1988. The tap intercepted a conversation between Wright and an unidentified woman in which Wright bragged about being a drug dealer. A case was filed against him for distributing cocaine and distributing it within a 1000 feet of a school. At trial, over Wright's objection, the judge let the government play a tape recording of portions of the conversation to the jury. Wright was convicted and appealed the case. The trial court also held that while there were discrepancies between their descriptions of the man as identified by the police and Wright's actual appearance, these discrepancies do not invalidate the identification, especially since, as the officers testified, it is difficult to gauge a person's height and weight from inside a car.
Was the tape was improperly admitted under Fed. R. Evid. 404(b) as evidence of defendant's propensity to commit the crimes charged?
The court reversed and remanded for a new trial, holding that the tape did not show that the man who had sold crack to the officers six months earlier was correctly identified as defendant, but rather depicted defendant as a drug dealer. Thus, the tape was improperly admitted under Fed. R. Evid. 404(b) as evidence of defendant's propensity to commit the crimes charged. The court held that the tape's admission was not harmless error due to the fact that the officers had positively identified defendant because identification evidence was not infallible and the officers were not disinterested witnesses.
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