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Circuit Court orders new trial on Rule 404(b) grounds

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has found an Indiana federal court should not have allowed evidence of a defendant’s prior drug convictions under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b). As a result of the violation, the judges reversed the man’s drug conviction and ordered a new trial.

In United States of America v. Billy L. Hicks, No. 09-3608, Billy Hicks appealed his conviction of knowingly distributing cocaine base, challenging the dismissal of a juror based on her relationship to his girlfriend, who was a witness; admittance of tape recordings between Hicks and a confidential informant; and the District Court’s allowance of federal agents to testify regarding their personal observations during an arranged drug buy.

Hicks also challenged the trial court’s allowance of two prior drug convictions under Rule 404(b) to prove his knowledge of the drug industry and his intent to distribute crack cocaine during a July 2006 sale to the confidential informant. On this issue, the 7th Circuit ordered Hicks’ conviction be vacated.

The government never explained why the prior convictions were relevant to show that Hicks’ actions were a result of a mistake, wrote Judge Ann Claire Williams, and the Circuit Court was also not persuaded by the government’s argument that the prior convictions were admissible to show intent.

Hicks didn’t put his intent at issue during the government’s case-in-chief. Hicks also didn’t introduce his entrapment defense until after the government’s case-in-chief. The government should have waited until after Hicks’ entrapment defense materialized to offer the convictions, she wrote.

“In our view, the only apparent relevance of the prior convictions was the very inference that Rule 404(b) prohibits — that is, that Hicks had sold drugs in the past and probably did so this time as well,” the judge continued. “The government has failed to demonstrate that Hicks’s prior convictions established knowledge, lack of mistake, or intent.”

This error affected Hicks’ substantial rights, so the Circuit Court vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial.

The judges also ruled that the District Court did not err in dismissing for cause the juror who recognized Hicks’ girlfriend’s voice once she began testifying; in admitting the taped recordings between Hicks and the confidential informant, who had died before trial; and in admitting FBI agents’ testimony regarding alleged counter surveillance during an attempted meeting with Hicks.

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