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United States v. James

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

March 21, 2017



          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge United States District Court.

         This case is set for trial on March 27, 2017. In anticipation of his trial, Defendant Kenyatta James, proceeding pro se, filed another round of pretrial motions. The Court will discuss each in turn.[1]

         I. Motions in Limine to Exclude Evidence

         A. Federal Rule of Evidence 103

         James filed three motions seeking to exclude certain items of evidence in his upcoming trial. First, James contends that the Court erred by admitting the government's documentary and physical evidence during his first suppression hearing because the United States failed to tender an exhibit list. [DN 183 at 1-2.] James argues that the admission of that same evidence at trial would therefore violate Federal Rule of Evidence 103(a) and James' due process rights. [Id. at 2.]

         James' motion is based upon a misinterpretation of the Court's prior Order and a misunderstanding of Rule 103. This Court has scheduled and rescheduled James' jury trial on multiple occasions, primarily due to James' extensive motion practice in this matter. The Order to which James refers in his motion to exclude evidence, [DN 74], is a pretrial scheduling order entered by the Court on December 22, 2015. At that time, James' trial was set to begin February 16, 2016. Pursuant to the Court's December 22 Order, the United States was to produce a list of its proposed exhibits fourteen days prior to the beginning of James' trial. [Id. at 1.] The December 22 Order did not, as James suggests, require the government to provide an exhibit and witness list fourteen days prior to James' October 17, 2016 suppression hearing. Therefore, James is incorrect in saying that the Court “erroneously admitted” the government's testimony and exhibits during his suppression hearing based upon a lack of prior notice. [DN 183 at 1.] The Court also notes that the United States has timely provided an exhibit list in anticipation of James' March 27, 2017 trial date. See [DN 213.]

         Rule 103 does not provide James with any relief, either. The subsection of that rule upon which James relies states that “[a] party may claim error in a ruling to admit or exclude evidence only if the error affects a substantial right of the party and . . . a party, on the record[, ] timely objects or moves to strike.” Fed.R.Evid. 103(a). As the Sixth Circuit has noted, Rule 103(a) “is intended to allow the trial court to fix errors in its decision to admit or exclude evidence on the spot, thus preventing errors that could easily be alleviated without recourse to the appellate courts.” United States v. Kelly, 204 F.3d 652, 655 (6th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted). The rule does not provide district courts grounds upon which to decide the substantive admissibility of evidence. Rather, Rule 103(a) is directed at the preservation of error for appellate review. Accordingly, James' first motion in limine [DN 183] must be DENIED.

         B. Misconduct

         Second, James argues that a substantial amount of the United States' evidence should be excluded based upon alleged prosecutorial and police misconduct. See [DN 185.] Citing a litany of evidentiary rules, James claims that the government has fabricated the testimony of Detective Aaron Browning and Crime Scene Unit (CSU) technician Dona Stephenson, as well as the chain of custody documentation for the Glock .40 caliber firearm, serial number DNX903, which James is alleged to have possessed. As explained below, James' arguments go to the weight of the contested evidence, not its admissibility.

         James first contends that the government, through Hon. Randy Ream, “coerced Det. Browning into perjurying [sic] himself.” [Id. at 2 (emphasis in original).] This assertion stems from Browning's testimony during James' first suppression hearing. There, Browning stated under oath that he initially recorded the serial number of James' weapon as “DNX930, ” but Ream later informed Browning that he had inadvertently transposed the last two digits. [DN 159 at 19-20.] Based upon Browning's admission, James argues “that if Det. Browning was not coerced into testifying that the serial numbers . . . [were] erroneously transposed by him, Det. Browning would have surely attested at the suppression hearing that he allegedly arrest [sic] James in possession of [a] Glock 23 .40 caliber handgun bearing serial number DNX930.” [DN 185 at 2 (internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis in original).]

         As James correctly points out, the prosecution may not knowingly use perjured testimony to obtain a conviction. Mooney v. Holohan, 294 U.S. 103, 112 (1935). Further, Rule 403 allows the trial court to “exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of . . . unfair prejudice.” Fed.R.Evid. 403. Neither situation is present in James' case. James presents no evidence suggesting that the United States and its attorneys compelled Det. Browning by force or threat to testify that he swapped the digits, the traditional definition of coercion. Coerce, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). Similarly, James makes no showing that Browning's testimony regarding the serial number was “deliberately . . . false or misleading.” Perjury, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). At trial, James is free to point out that Browning did not realize he had mistakenly recorded the serial number until he was told so by Hon. Randy Ream. But the Court fails to see how introduction of this fact will unfairly prejudice the jury against James or will violate any of the other evidentiary rules James perfunctorily cites.

         Next, James objects to the testimony of CSU technician Dona Stephenson. His argument in this regard is somewhat difficult to discern, but broadly speaking, James believes that Stephenson logged into evidence a firearm that was not actually recovered from James' person by Browning. [DN 185 at 4-5.] Rather, he alleges that the chain of custody for the DNX903 handgun shows that Stephenson obtained the weapon from the LMPD property room, not Browning. [DN 206 at 3.] In response, the United States explains that James' argument is based upon a misinterpretation of LMPD's chain of custody documentation. [DN 202 at 2-3.]

         James cites only one case in support of his motion to exclude Stephenson's testimony, Drake v. Portuondo, 553 F.3d 230 (2d Cir. 2009). In Drake, the Second Circuit granted the defendant's habeas petition after it concluded that the prosecution knowingly elicited false testimony from an expert witness. Id. at 247. But Drake is procedurally and factually distinguishable. During James' suppression hearing, the Court found Stephenson's testimony credible and her explanations of the chain of custody documentation plausible. Since that time, James has presented no evidence causing this Court to call that testimony into question. Again, James is free to raise these issues before the jury, but the Court sees no reason to wholly exclude Stephenson as a witness at trial.

         For many of these same reasons, the Court will not exclude the DNX903 handgun or the prosecution's documentary evidence. The Court previously denied James' motion to exclude the firearm. See [id. at 22-25.] In turn, that prior motion was based upon arguments that are substantively identical to those raised in James' instant motion. James presents the Court with no reason to second-guess its earlier ruling.

         James objects to the government's documentary evidence upon the basis of hearsay and unfair prejudice. See [DN 185 at 5-9.] The documents to which James objects are the tow slip for James' vehicle and the LMPD chain of custody documentation. In its tendered exhibit list, the United States does not include the tow slip as a potential exhibit. [DN 213.] As to the tow slip, then, James' motion is moot. As to the chain of custody, “police reports are hearsay and normally not admissible, but . . . they may be admitted for a limited, non-hearsay purpose.” United States v. Justice, No. 11-51-GFVT, 2013 WL 880080, at *4 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 8, 2013) (citing United States v. Graham, 391 F.2d 439, 447 (6th Cir. 1968)). Here, the Court can conceive of any number of other purposes for which the United States might use these documents, including (but not limited to) the purpose of rebutting James' repeated accusations that the government planted and fabricated the evidence against him. The Court will therefore defer any ruling upon the admissibility of the chain of custody documents and their potential for unfair prejudice until it hears testimony at trial. Of course, James is free to renew his objections if he feels that the United States has not shown that the documents fall under an exception or exclusion from the hearsay rule.

         For these reasons, James' motion in limine to exclude testimony and exhibits [DN 185] is DENIED in its entirety.

         C. Character Evidence

         Finally, James moves under Rule 404(b) to exclude evidence or testimony of prior crimes, wrongs, or other bad acts. [DN 184.] James list several items of purported character evidence that he seeks to exclude:

(1) that he is a “known drug trafficker”;
(2) that he “was a suspect . . . [in] any alleged ...

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