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United States v. Pritchard

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Bowling Green Division

December 13, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA PLAINTIFF
v.
STEVEN ALLEN PRITCHARD DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Greg N. Stivers, Judge United States District Court.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion in Limine (DN 64). For the reasons set forth below, the motion is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On November 9, 2016, a grand jury returned a two-count indictment against Defendant, charging him with arson and mail fraud. (Superseding Indictment 1-2, DN 31). In particular, count one states that Defendant violated 18 U.S.C. § 844(i) when he, acting with Brandi Pritchard (“Brandi”), “maliciously damaged and destroyed” Brandi's house “by means of fire . . . .” (Superseding Indictment 1). Count two indicates that Defendant violated 18 U.S.C. §§ 2, 1341 when he assisted Brandi in fraudulently applying for and receiving insurance proceeds for losses that the fire allegedly caused. (Superseding Indictment 2).

         Based on the indictment, the United States prepared to prosecute Defendant, and in doing so, learned that Defendant may have implemented a similar arson/mail fraud scheme on three prior occasions. Specifically, the United States discovered that Defendant allegedly set fire to the following structures or items “in order to obtain insurance proceeds”: (1) “the residence of David Newcomb” (the “Newcomb Fire”); (2) a “2009 G8 Pontiac of Whitney Clark” (the “Clark fire”); and (3) “the residence of Tena Dishman (now Tena Gowens) (the “Gowens fire”)” (collectively, the “prior acts”). (Def.'s Mot. Lim. Attach. 1-2, DN 64-1).

         Thereafter, the United States notified Defendant that it intended to introduce evidence of the prior acts. In response, Defendant moved to exclude that evidence pursuant to Fed.R.Evid. 404(b). (Def.'s Mot. Lim. Attach. 1-2; Def.'s Mot. Lim. 3-9, DN 64). In his motion, Defendant argued that the United States lacks evidence sufficient to show that Defendant committed the prior acts, and that it seeks to admit what little evidence it has for an improper purpose: showing Defendant's propensity to commit arson and mail fraud. (Def.'s Mot. Lim. 5-6). Defendant also claimed that the evidence must be excluded because its probative value is substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect. (Def.'s Mot. Lim. 8).

         The United States responded to Defendant's motion, arguing that the prior act evidence should be admitted because it intends to offer such evidence for permissible purposes. In particular, the United States asserted that evidence establishing that Defendant initiated the Gowens fire is admissible as res gestae evidence. (Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Lim. 2-3, DN 65). Further, the United States argued that evidence of each of the prior acts is admissible under Fed.R.Evid. 404(b)(2) because it suggests that Defendant committed the charged offenses: (1) intentionally, (2) as part of a “common scheme or plan that [Defendant] had performed before, ” and (3) without mistake. (Def.'s Mot. Lim. Attach. 2). The motion is ripe for adjudication.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The United States argues that evidence of the prior acts is admissible in whole or in part for two reasons: res gestae and Rule 404(b)(2). Each argument is addressed below.

         A. Res Gestae

         The United States contends that evidence showing that Defendant committed the Gowens fire is admissible as res gestae evidence. Specifically, it avers that the evidence provides a prelude to the charged offense because Brandi “will testify that part of the reason she agreed to allow [Defendant] to set fire to her house is because of a conversation she had with Ms. Gowens” wherein “Ms. Gowens suggested that [Brandi] allow [Defendant] to burn her house down in order to collect insurance proceeds because she had had similar success with the same scheme just a few months prior . . . .” (Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Lim. 2-3).

         The Court will permit the United States to present evidence of the Gowen fire as res gestae evidence. According to Brandi's anticipated testimony, evidence of the Gowen fire is causally and temporally related to-and, therefore, “inextricably intertwined with”-the charged offense. See United States v. Hardy, 228 F.3d 745, 748 (6th Cir. 2000) (noting that res gestae evidence must have a “causal, temporal or spatial connection with the charged offense”); see also United States v. Churn, 800 F.3d 768, 779 (6th Cir. 2015) (reasoning that district court did not abuse discretion when it admitted evidence showing the defendant had previously implemented the mail fraud scheme he was charged with because evidence showed that the prior scheme was causally and temporally related to the pending charges).

         B. Rule 404(b)

         The United States also asserts that evidence showing that Defendant committed the prior acts is admissible pursuant to Rule 404(b)(2). Generally, “[e]vidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove” that a person has a propensity to act in a certain manner; but under Rule 404(b)(2), such “evidence may be admissible for another purpose, such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.” Fed.R.Evid. 404(b)(2). Sixth Circuit precedent holds that courts may admit prior act evidence under Rule 404(b)(2) if: (1) there is sufficient evidence that the prior act occurred, (2) the proponent of the evidence offers it for a permissible purpose, and (3) the prejudicial effect of the evidence is not substantially outweighed ...


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