Wake Forest Law Review

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By Sophia Blair

On October 27th, 2016, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded a civil case, Makia Smith v. Baltimore City Police Dep’t, to the District of Maryland after determining that the district court improperly admitted evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) and the admittance resulted in reversible error.

Summary of the Facts and District Court Proceedings

On May 8, 2013, appellant Makia Smith (“Smith”) filed this action in the District of Maryland against the Baltimore City Police Department as well as individual officers Campbell, William Pilkerton, and Nathan Ulmer in their official capacity (collectively, “Appellee”). Smith alleged excessive force, deprivation of property without due process, and violations of the First and Fourth Amendments pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Smith made additional state claims under Maryland law including intentional inflictions of emotional distress.

Smith claimed that, on March 8, 2012, two police officers observed her filming them as they arrested a juvenile in the middle of a street, and then battered and unlawfully arrested her. In a prior related criminal case, Smith was charged with second-degree assault of an officer, resisting or interfering with arrest, failing to display a license on demand, willfully disobeying a lawful order of the police, and causing a vehicle to obstruct a free vehicle passage of a roadway. The charges were dropped via a nolle prosequi disposition in January 2013.

The arresting officer, Nathan Church (“Church”), and Smith gave conflicting reports of the events that led to Smith’s arrest. Church testified that he received a call for back up at Hartford Road in Baltimore. When he arrived, there were juveniles running through the streets, and another officer, Talmadge Jackson (“Jackson”), was attempting to arrest a juvenile. As Church assisted Jackson in his efforts, he heard tires screech as multiple cars came to a stop. When he looked up, he saw Smith’s car blocking traffic and Smith standing behind her car holding her phone up, as if she was videotaping. Church and Smith’s account of events diverged from here: Church testifying that Smith was verbally aggressive, combative, and non-compliant, and Smith testifying that Church menaced and threatened her because he saw her videotaping.

On March 9, 2015, Smith filed a motion in limine to exclude all evidence of her prior arrests: second degree assault in 2005, fleeing and eluding in 2006, and second degree assault in 2010, none of which resulted in convictions. The district judge granted the motion, however the case was reassigned to a new judge prior to trial.

At trial, Appellee successfully introduced evidence of Smith’s three prior arrests as relevant to her claim for damages. Smith’s mother testified that the March 8, 2012 arrest had a significant emotional impact on Smith, supporting Smith’s claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Following the mother’s testimony, Appellee’s counsel argued that she had “opened the door” and gave Appellant’s counsel notice that they might bring the prior arrests in. Calling the mother’s testimony “overemotional” and “tainted with hearsay,” the district judge said he would let the prior arrests in;­ he felt they went to whether this arrest did cause Smith emotional distress.

When Appellee’s counsel introduced the prior arrests at trial, the district court gave limiting instructions and clarified that the prior arrests should only be considered with respect to the amount of damages awarded, not Smith’s credibility. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the police officers on all counts.

Abuse of Discretion and Harmless Error

This issue on appeal was whether the district court erred in admitting evidence of Smith’s prior arrests. The Fourth Circuit analyzed whether there was an abuse of discretion and reversible error. An abuse of Discretion occurs where a district court “arbitrarily or irrationally” admits evidence. Additionally, citing United States v. Madden, the test for harmless error is whether “after pondering all that happened without stripping the erroneous action from the whole, that the judgment was not substantially swayed by the error.” The appeal turned on whether Smith’s prior arrests, which did not involve struggles with police, made it more or less probable that she suffered emotional damage.

Admittance of Prior Acts under FRE 404(b)

Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b)(1) prohibits the admission of evidence of prior arrests to prove a person’s character or to demonstrate that someone acted in accordance with that character on a particular occasion. Prior acts are admissible to prove “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident,” under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b)(2). Pursuant to United States v. Garcia-Lagunas, the Fourth Circuit employs a four-part test to determine whether prior-act evidence is admissible: “(1) the prior-act evidence must be relevant to an issue other than character, such as intent; (2) it must be necessary to prove an element of the [claim]; (3) it must be reliable; and (4) its probative value must not be substantially outweighed by its prejudicial nature.” In this case, the Fourth circuit limited its analysis to relevance and prejudicial nature because they were the only elements that Smith raised on appeal.

Under FRE 404(b), admission of evidence of prior acts is admissible to help the jury determine the extent of damages as a non-character based purpose, but it must still have probative value on the question of damages. The alleged relevance of the prior arrests to damages in this case is whether those prior arrests were responsible, in whole or in part, for the emotional distress experienced by Smith. The Fourth Circuit stated that, because Smith’s emotional distress claim was based on the specific interactions with officers in this case, and because she testified that she had never had a similar experience with an officer before this case, the prior arrests were not relevant.

Furthermore, because Appellee’s counsel asked Smith if this was her “first rodeo” when introducing the prior arrest evidence, it was clear that the evidence was being offered for character and propensity, and not the extent of damages. Additionally, Appellee’s counsel made no record of the nature of Smith’s prior arrests, none of which included altercations with police officers. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit held that the evidence was barred from admittance by FRE 404(b).

Additionally, the Fourth Circuit held that the evidence of prior arrests here was too prejudicial, noting that this type of evidence “generally impugns character.” The court doubted that the jury drew the distinction between the significance of an arrest and a conviction. While the district court attempted to curtail prejudice by giving limiting instructions, the Fourth Circuit doubted the effectiveness of limiting instructions and the sufficiency with which they were explained to the jury. The district judge gave a limiting instruction when the evidence was admitted, but did not do so prior to jury deliberations. Also, the instructions did not mention “character” or “propensity,” nor did they confine the use of the evidence to damages. As a result, the Fourth Circuit determined that prejudice outweighed any possible probative value.

Harmless Error

The Fourth Circuit found that there was reversible error, as there was no assurance the improperly-admitted evidence did not substantially sway the jury. Because this was a classic “he-said-she-said” case, the jury’s view of the Smith’s credibility and character was central to the verdict. Additionally, because the limiting instructions given by the district court were inadequate, they were not sufficient to cure an error.

Disposition

Therefore, the Fourth Circuit found abuse of discretion and reversible error, and reversed and remanded to the District Court of Maryland.

 

 

By Evelyn Norton

Today, in Hutcherson v. Lim, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland to deny Hutcherson’s motion for a new trial.

In the District Court, Hutcherson sought relief for personal injuries sustained during a routine traffic stop.  Specifically, Hutcherson alleged that Lim, a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority police officer, assaulted Hutcherson while issuing a citation for illegal window tints.

Following a three-day jury trial, the jury found that Hutcherson had proven assault and battery claims against Lim.  Yet, the jury awarded Hutcherson zero dollars in compensatory damages because Hutcherson’s wife failed to prove loss of consortium.  Twenty-nine days later, Hutcherson moved for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  The District Court denied the motion.

On appeal, Hutcherson alleged that (1) the District Court improperly admitted a medical evaluation into evidence; and (2) the jury’s award of zero damages is inconsistent with its verdict.

First, Hutcherson argued that a final medical evaluation from his physician was inadmissible hearsay.  The medical evaluation expressed uncertainty as to whether Hutcherson’s partial rotator cuff tear occurred during the incident at issue.  However, testimonial evidence was also offered.

In considering the District Court’s actions, the Fourth Circuit stated that it will not “set aside or reverse a judgment on the grounds that evidence was erroneously admitted unless justice so requires or a party’s substantial rights are affected.” Creekmore v. Maryview Hosp., 662 F.3d 686, 693 (4th  Cir. 2011).  The Fourth Circuit concluded that, even assuming that the District Court erred, the evidence was not sufficiently prejudicial to affect the outcome of the case.  As a result, the medical evaluation’s admission did not affect Hutcherson’s substantial rights. Thus, the Fourth Circuit would not set aside the District Court’s judgment on this basis.

Second, Hutcherson argued that the jury’s award of zero damages is inconsistent with its verdict. While the jury found that Hutcherson proved his assault and battery claims, Hutcherson did not object to the damages award until after the jury’s discharge.  As a result, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Hutcherson waived his objection to any alleged inconsistencies.

Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s order denying Hutcherson’s motion for a new trial.