Wake Forest Law Review

By Carson Smith

On April 8, 2015, in United States v. Donahue, the Fourth Circuit upheld the conviction of Timothy Donahue for conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a). A jury found him guilty and the district court sentenced him to 188 months in prison.

Donahue raised two issues on appeal. First, he argued “that the Government failed to establish a sufficient nexus to interstate commerce to support his convictions.” Second, he argued that the district court abused its discretion when it refused to instruct the jury that interstate commerce may not be implicated where a robbery “depletes the assets of an individual rather than a business.”

Factual Background of the Robbery

On July 21, 2011, Donahue, along with several accomplices, forcefully entered the home of Scott Beaver and demanded that he open a safe known to contain a large amount of money. Beaver complied and Donahue proceeded to rob the safe of 1.5 million dollars in cash.

Prior to the robbery, Donahue performed some glass work for Beaver. Beaver owned Beaver Honda and Salvage, a business that “sold cars and auto parts all across the United States and beyond.” Beaver compensated Donahue for his work with cash. Beaver would collect the cash from a room inside his house while Donahue waited in the living room. During one of these transactions, Donahue learned that Beaver kept all of his money in a house safe and that he was worth several million dollars. Upon learning this information, Donahue conspired to rob the safe and subsequently carried out the robbery.

There Was Substantial Evidence in the Record to Establish Federal Jurisdiction Under the Hobbs Act

On appeal, Donahue first argued that the Government failed to provide substantial evidence to establish that the robbery affected interstate commerce. Absent this element, federal jurisdiction does not exist.

The substantial evidence standard is satisfied where “a reasonable finder of fact could accept [the evidence] as adequate and sufficient to support the conclusion of a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The substantial evidence burden is very high and courts rarely reverse jury verdicts. Furthermore, under the Hobbs Act, the Government must only prove that the stolen funds had a “de minimis effect on interstate commerce.”

Donahue argued that the money in the safe did not have an affect on interstate commerce because it was taken from a private residence and it consisted only of Beaver’s private funds. However, in United States v. Powell, the Third Circuit held that money stolen from a private residence could still affect interstate commerce when the funds were used for business activities.

Here, the evidence was sufficient to show that Beaver used the funds in the safe for business purposes. Donahue specifically targeted Beaver because he knew Beaver “kept the proceeds from his business in a safe in his home.” Furthermore, evidence presented at trial proved that Beaver paid for his business with cash from the safe.

A substantial evidentiary basis existed for a jury to find that the money in the safe affected interstate commerce. Thus, the Government satisfied the jurisdictional element of the Hobbs Act.

The District Court Did Not Abuse its Discretion in Refusing to Give the Jury Certain Instructions Requested by the Defendant

Donahue also appealed on the basis that the district court abused its discretion when it refused to inform the jury that “interstate commerce may not be involved where the robbery depletes the assets of an individual rather than a business.” In reviewing a jury instruction for abuse of discretion, a court will only overturn the verdict when “the instructions, taken as a whole, [fail to] adequately state the controlling law.”

The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to give this particular instruction.

The District Court Ruling Was Affirmed

The Fourth Circuit upheld the jury verdict and affirmed the jury instructions provided by the district court.

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.