Prior Drug Possession Convictions Should Have Been Admissible in Court
Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, evidence of a past crime is not admissible to prove a person’s general character. However, evidence of “prior bad acts,” such as a prior drug possession charge, can sometimes be allowed for other purposes, such as proving motive, opportunity or intent.
There are several requirements for bringing in such evidence of past acts, and one of those is that the evidence must be relevant to the current charges. Where past crimes are not relevant, their mistaken introduction can lead to the vacating of a defendant’s conviction, as shown in the United States Court of Appeals case of United States v. Davis.
Drugs Discovered in a Vehicle
Two officers patrolling a high-crime area in downtown Philadelphia saw the defendant and another man sitting in a black Jeep Grand Cherokee, making motions between them that the officers alleged could indicate a narcotics transaction. When the officers approached the vehicle, the occupants were startled and exited the truck, leaving one of the doors ajar.
After a pat-down search revealed cash on the suspects, the officers looked inside the vehicle, spotting a handgun and an allegedly open shopping bag which contained a white substance. At this point, the officers called for a drug-detection dog which indicated there were drugs present. A subsequent search warrant discovered 740 grams of cocaine in nine small bags.
During the trial, the prosecution introduced evidence of the defendant’s two prior convictions for possessing cocaine. The District Court allowed this evidence, stating that the convictions were admissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence to show that the defendant recognized that the white substance in the vehicle was, indeed, an illegal drug.
The defendant was convicted of possessing a controlled substance with intent to distribute, receiving a 78-month sentence plus four years of supervised release. He appealed this conviction on several grounds, including the impropriety of allowing his two prior convictions into evidence during the trial.
Were the Prior Convictions Relevant?
The United States Court of Appeals noted that the use of prior bad-acts evidence requires great care. A court admitting such evidence must articulate the reasons why the evidence shows something other than character. Here, the District Court admitted the convictions as relevant to showing the defendant knew that the white substance in the vehicle was cocaine.
However, possession and distribution of drugs are different crimes. A person who has possessed a drug might not recognize the same drug if it has been prepared for distribution. For example, the packaging or quantity might be different, and objects in greater quantities often have a different appearance or smell. The jury was not informed of the packaging or quantity that led to the prior possession convictions, and so it could not have known whether the defendant’s past “bad acts” had helped him to recognize the large quantity of cocaine in the vehicle.
Thus, for this and other reasons, the prior possession convictions were not relevant to prove either knowledge or intent in the defendant’s drug distribution trial. The defendant’s possession convictions should have been inadmissible and, therefore, the defendant’s conviction was vacated and remanded back to the District Court.
Protect Your Rights and Freedom
A defendant charged with a drug-related crime can face substantial jail time and heavy fines. If you are faced with such charges, seek a criminal defense attorney with the experience to aggressively review the evidence and protect your rights throughout the proceedings.