By: Kelsey Kolb

Today, in United States v. Davis, the Fourth Circuit affirmed by unpublished per curiam opinion the District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina’s admission of portions of one witness’ testimony and its entering of the jury’s guilty verdict.

Davis was convicted of carjacking and of carrying and using by brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence,in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2119(1), 2 (2012) and 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c)(1)(A)(ii), 2 (2012), respectively. Davis appealed first, on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence for the former conviction, carjacking. Second, Davis contended that the lower court erred in admitting portions of one witness’ testimony.

There was Sufficient Evidence from which the Jury Could Convict Davis for Carjacking.

The Fourth Circuit, in reviewing the challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence de novo, found that there was sufficient evidence presented to the jury by which it could find that Davis had (1) with intent to cause death or serious bodily harm (2) taken a motor vehicle (3) that had been transported, shipped, or received in interstate commerce (4) from the person or presence of another (5) by force and violence or intimidation.

In viewing the evidence and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the government, as is required for reviews of convictions, the court found substantial evidence in the record to support a conclusion of Davis’ guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The testimony of four witnesses that the jury deemed credible was “ample evidence.” The victim of the carjacking, Woods, testified that he and witness Neese were in a home when Davis and a co-defendant entered. Woods stated that the co-defendant held a pistol, demanded Woods’ car keys, and hit Woods in the head with the pistol when he did not comply. This caused Woods to surrender his car keys. Davis then reached into Woods’ pocket and took his wallet. Davis and the co-defendant exited the home and left in Woods’ car. Woods testified that Davis willingly participated in the offense. The second piece of testimony came from witness Neese. Although unable to identify Davis, Neese corroborated Woods’ testimony. Third, Davis’ cellblock mate further corroborated Woods’ testimony of the events and testified that Davis admitted to him his plan to steal Woods’ car, which included the use of his co-defendants pistol. Finally, Honda employee Brynes testified that the car was made in Ohio.

Regardless of the theories that Davis advanced in trial, the jury was free to take the evidence presented before it, weigh the credibility of each, and return a verdict based on the interpretation it believed. Davis’ argument that he merely borrowed Woods’ car was outweighed by contradictory evidence. His argument that he planned on returning the car was immaterial, given that “intent to permanently deprive” was not an element of carjacking. Finally, his argument that he was coerced by his co-defendant was outweighed by circumstantial evidence that suggested otherwise. Thus, Davis did not meet his burden of proving that the testimonial evidence presented against him was insufficient to support a conclusion of his guilt in the carjacking offense beyond a reasonable doubt.

The court further found that Davis’ argument as to the failure of the prosecution to prove the fourth element, “from the person or presence of another,” was untenable. Even though Woods was not “in or immediately next to his vehicle” when it was taken, the court reasoned that is well established that “presence” does not require this narrow reading. As quoted in United States v. Soler, presence is found when the vehicle is within the victim’s “reach, inspection, observation, or control, “such that he could, “if not overcome by violence or prevented by fear, retain possession of it.” The court found that “presence” was more than satisfied in this case.

Therefore, the Fourth Circuit held that the jury was provided with sufficient evidence from which it could find each element of the carjacking offense to be satisfied, implicating Davis beyond a reasonable doubt.

The District Court did not Err in Admitting Two Portions of Testimony.

Davis’ first preserved challenge, on the grounds of F.R.E. 404b and 403, was to testimony that he planned to bribe Woods with drugs if Woods would drop the charges. The court found that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in admitting this evidence under 404b because the testimony of his plan to intimidate or influence Woods, a witness for the government, was not being offered to prove the defendant’s bad character, but rather to prove his consciousness of guilt and that he knew his case was weak. The testimony was also offered to contradict one of Davis’ theories, that he merely borrowed Woods’ car. This testimony met 404b’s requirement of reliability because it was given by his cellblock mate, an acquaintance for several years, and included specific details of the offense. The testimony also met 403’s requirement that the probative value of the evidence not be outweighed by unfair prejudice. The court held that the extreme probative value of this evidence was not outweighed by its “undoubtedly,” yet not unfairly, prejudicial nature.

Davis’ second preserved challenge, on the grounds of F.R.E. 403, was to testimony that he planned to gain juror sympathy during the trail by crying on the witness stand. The court found that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in admitting this evidence as relevant under 403 because this plan tended to make a fact—his consciousness or guilt—more probable than it would have been without the evidence. Davis, for the first time on appeal, contended that this evidence was also inadmissible on the grounds of 404b. Because Davis failed to preserve this ground for objection, the court reviewed the lower court’s admission for plain error and found none, given the weight of the additional evidence admitted at trial.

Because There was Sufficient Evidence from which the Jury Could Find Davis’ Guilt of Carjacking Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Because Neither Piece of Challenged Testimony was Inadmissible Under Either 404b or 403, the Fourth Circuit Affirmed Davis’ Conviction.

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