A preliminary finding by the court that the government has proved an act by a preponderance of the evidence is not called for under Fed. R. Evid. 104(a). This is not to say that the government may parade past the jury a litany of potentially prejudicial similar acts that have been established or connected to the defendant only by unsubstantiated innuendo. Evidence is admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 404(b) only if it is relevant. Relevancy is not an inherent characteristic of any item of evidence but exists only as a relation between an item of evidence and a matter properly provable in the case. In the Fed. R. Evid. 404(b) context, similar act evidence is relevant only if the jury can reasonably conclude that the act occurred and that the defendant was the actor.
Petitioner, Guy Rufus Huddleston, was charged with one count of selling stolen goods in interstate commerce and one count of possessing stolen property in interstate commerce. The two counts related to two portions of a shipment of stolen Memorex video cassette tapes that petitioner was alleged to have possessed and sold, knowing that they were stolen. The evidence at trial showed that a trailer containing over 32,000 blank Memorex video cassette tapes with a manufacturing cost of $ 4.53 per tape was stolen from the Overnight Express yard in South Holland, Illinois, sometime between April 11 and 15, 1985. On April 17, 1985, petitioner contacted Karen Curry, the manager of the Magic Rent-to-Own in Ypsilanti, Michigan, seeking her assistance in selling a large number of blank Memorex video cassette tapes. After assuring Curry that the tapes were not stolen, he told her he wished to sell them in lots of at least 500 at $ 2.75 to $ 3 per tape. Curry subsequently arranged for the sale of a total of 5,000 tapes, which petitioner delivered to the various purchasers, all who apparently believed the sales were legitimate. The District Court allowed the Government to introduce evidence of "similar acts" under Rule 404(b), concluding that such evidence had clear relevance as to the petitioner's knowledge of the stolen goods.
Was it proper for the district court to permit the Government to introduce evidence of “similar acts” under Rule 404(b), which eventually led to the conviction of the petitioner?
The Court held that the trial court properly allowed the evidence to go to the jury and that it was not required to make a preliminary finding that respondent had proved commission of the similar acts by a preponderance of the evidence. Rather, the trial court had only to determine that the evidence was offered for a proper purpose under Fed. R. Evid. 404(b), that its probative value outweighed its potential for prejudice under Fed. R. Evid. 403, and that it was relevant. The trial court properly concluded that the evidence was relevant under Fed. R. Evid. 402, as enforced through Fed. R. Evid. 104(a) and (b), because the jury could reasonably have found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the televisions were stolen.