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7th Circuit cautions about propensity inference

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals today affirmed a man's drug convictions with intent to distribute, but questioned how a previous drug conviction showed the man had intent or absence of mistake in the instant case.

Titorian Webb appealed his convictions of possessing cocaine, marijuana, and ecstasy with intent to deliver in United States of America v. Titorian O. Webb, No. 08-1338, challenging the admittance of his 1996 conviction of distributing cocaine. The District Court allowed the prosecutor to introduce the 1996 conviction to show Webb's intent and the absence of mistake under Fed. R. Evid. 404(b).

"It is hard to see how the 1996 conviction shows either intent or absence of mistake," wrote Judge Frank Easterbrook.

The charges against Webb had an intent element, but Webb argued he didn't possess the drugs found in his girlfriend's house for any purpose. In terms of the absence of mistake element, Judge Easterbrook questioned how a conviction could show this except by the prohibited inference that a person who had distributed drugs once would do it again. The apparent position of the prosecutor - that a drug conviction can always be used in another drug prosecution, even if the crimes have nothing else in common - was rejected by United States v. Beasley, 809 F.2d 1273 (7th Cir. 1987), and United States v. Simpson, 479 F.3d 492 (7th Cir. 2007).

There are several case holdings showing a district judge hadn't erred in admitting prior convictions to show intent or absence of mistake in drug prosecutions, including United States v. Hurn, 496 F.3d 784, 787 (7th Cir. 2007). None of the opinions explain why a prior conviction shows intent or absence of a mistake, but it could be because the parties assumed the evidence was relevant and didn't present the question in an adversarial manner for decision on appeal, wrote the judge.

But the appellate court decided not to tackle the "tension" between Beasley and Hurn in the instant case because "even the lighter harmless-error standard would require us to affirm Webb's conviction," wrote Judge Easterbrook.

Based on the evidence, the fact Webb had a drug conviction on his record couldn't have affected the jury's verdict.

"The harmless-error rule means that district judges, rather than courts of appeals, are the principal enforcers of limits on other-crime evidence," he wrote. "We trust that district judges will review evidence of this kind carefully to ensure that it really is relevant, and serves a legitimate goal rather than leading to the forbidden propensity inference."

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  1. Someone off their meds? C'mon John, it is called the politics of Empire. Get with the program, will ya? How can we build one world under secularist ideals without breaking a few eggs? Of course, once it is fully built, is the American public who will feel the deadly grip of the velvet glove. One cannot lay down with dogs without getting fleas. The cup of wrath is nearly full, John Smith, nearly full. Oops, there I go, almost sounding as alarmist as Smith. Guess he and I both need to listen to this again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRnQ65J02XA

  2. Charles Rice was one of the greatest of the so-called great generation in America. I was privileged to count him among my mentors. He stood firm for Christ and Christ's Church in the Spirit of Thomas More, always quick to be a good servant of the King, but always God's first. I had Rice come speak to 700 in Fort Wayne as Obama took office. Rice was concerned that this rise of aggressive secularism and militant Islam were dual threats to Christendom,er, please forgive, I meant to say "Western Civilization". RIP Charlie. You are safe at home.

  3. It's a big fat black mark against the US that they radicalized a lot of these Afghan jihadis in the 80s to fight the soviets and then when they predictably got around to biting the hand that fed them, the US had to invade their homelands, install a bunch of corrupt drug kingpins and kleptocrats, take these guys and torture the hell out of them. Why for example did the US have to sodomize them? Dubya said "they hate us for our freedoms!" Here, try some of that freedom whether you like it or not!!! Now they got even more reasons to hate us-- lets just keep bombing the crap out of their populations, installing more puppet regimes, arming one faction against another, etc etc etc.... the US is becoming a monster. No wonder they hate us. Here's my modest recommendation. How about we follow "Just War" theory in the future. St Augustine had it right. How about we treat these obvious prisoners of war according to the Geneva convention instead of torturing them in sadistic and perverted ways.

  4. As usual, John is "spot-on." The subtle but poignant points he makes are numerous and warrant reflection by mediators and users. Oh but were it so simple.

  5. ACLU. Way to step up against the police state. I see a lot of things from the ACLU I don't like but this one is a gold star in its column.... instead of fighting it the authorities should apologize and back off.

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