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United States v. Roberts

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

March 28, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
John Roberts, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued: December 6, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee at Nashville. No. 3:16-cr-00199-1-Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr., District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          David L. Cooper, THE LAW OFFICE OF DAVID L. COOPER, PC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Thomas J. Jaworski, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          David L. Cooper, THE LAW OFFICE OF DAVID L. COOPER, PC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Thomas J. Jaworski, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

          Before: MOORE, GIBBONS, and COOK, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          COOK, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         John Roberts challenges several of the district court's decisions at trial and sentencing: an evidentiary ruling, the district court's refusal to authorize Criminal Justice Act (CJA) funds for a forensic accountant, its reliance on judge-found facts to calculate the appropriate Guidelines range, the application of six sentencing enhancements, and the substantive reasonableness of his sentence. We affirm in part and remand some issues for further proceedings.

         I.

         The facts of this case are not complicated. John Roberts and seven coconspirators worked together to steal millions of dollars' worth of sensitive military equipment from a local army base and sell it on eBay. Although Roberts took the stand and denied that he knowingly trafficked stolen goods, the jury convicted him on all thirteen counts in the indictment: one count of conspiracy to steal government property valued at over $1, 000 (18 U.S.C. § 371); ten counts of wire fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1343); and two counts of unauthorized export of prohibited military equipment (22 U.S.C. § 2778(b)(2)). The district court applied six enhancements to Roberts's sentence: eighteen offense levels for stealing more than $3.5 million of military equipment under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(1)(J), two levels for mass-marketing under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(2)(A)(ii), two levels as a "person in the business of receiving and selling stolen property" under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(4), two levels for committing a crime involving sophisticated means under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(10)(C), four levels for organizing or otherwise leading the criminal conspiracy under USSG § 3B1.1(a), and two levels for willfully obstructing justice under USSG § 3C1.1. Ultimately, the court sentenced Roberts to 180 months' imprisonment, varying downward from the 210- to 262-month range suggested by the Guidelines.

         Roberts appeals, contesting several of the district court's decisions at trial and sentencing.

         II.

         A. Evidentiary ruling

         Before trial, Roberts notified the government that he intended to introduce into evidence other, current eBay listings by different sellers to prove that he accidentally-rather than knowingly-committed a crime. These listings offered similar types of sensitive military equipment as those in the indictment: combat helmets, night vision goggles, body armor vests, and communication headsets. Roberts expected to tell the jury that he saw posts on eBay before he began selling on the internet, presumed that these military products freely circulated in the market, and concluded that he could have lawfully bought and sold them. He ended up selling stolen goods, he would have argued, but that doesn't mean that he did so knowingly. After reviewing the parties' motions in limine and discussing the issue during two bench conferences, the district court excluded the evidence.

         Roberts argues that the district court abused its discretion in excluding evidence that would have critically undercut the government's case. The government, on the other hand, contends that it did not ask the jury to infer mens rea from the nature of the equipment Roberts sold on eBay. Instead, the government called three of Roberts's coconspirators to testify that he knew that he sold stolen goods. And it introduced several text messages between the coconspirators further substantiating that testimony. Thus, the government argues, the eBay listings had limited probative value, if any, and could have confused the jury into reasoning that Roberts ought not be convicted for a crime that others freely continue to commit. The government has the better of the argument.

         An appellate court must be mindful of its limitations when reviewing evidentiary determinations. Unlike a district court, we rely on a record devoid of a trial's "nuances, dynamics, and atmosphere." United States v. Chambers, 441 F.3d 438, 456 (6th Cir. 2006). Thus, we review a district court's evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretion, deferring to the court's decision to admit or exclude evidence "unless we are left with the definite and firm conviction" that it clearly erred in weighing the relevant factors. United States v. Wagner, 382 F.3d 598, 616 (6th Cir. 2004); see also United States v. Weaver, 610 Fed.Appx. 539, 543 (6th Cir. 2015).

         Although the Federal Rules of Evidence favor admission, a trial court may exclude relevant evidence if the danger of unfair prejudice resulting from admitting it substantially outweighs its probative value. Fed.R.Evid. 403. We reject the trial court's balancing only when we are firmly convinced that the district court erred, and, even then, only if that error resulted in substantial injustice. United States ...


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