Man loses 7th Circuit appeal of drug-related firearm conviction

A federal appeals court has upheld the conviction of a man who was arrested after federal authorities set up a controlled drug purchase.

After Sevon Thomas agreed to sell meth to a government cooperator, he arrived at the rendezvous, a McDonald’s parking lot in Georgetown, in the car he described. Police arrested Thomas and searched his car, and when they opened the glove compartment, two guns and a bag of methamphetamine fell out.

Thomas was charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking crime. A federal jury in New Albany found him guilty as charged, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison — 10 for the drug crime and five consecutive years for the firearm conviction.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction Friday in United States of America v. Sevon Thomas, 19-2129.

In doing so, the circuit court rejected Thomas’ claims that the Southern Indiana District Court erred in its admission of the “dual-role” testimony of FBI Special Agent Paul Meyer — who testified in both an expert and a lay capacity — and in instructing the jury. Because Thomas did not object at the district court, he had to prove plain error on appeal regarding Meyer’s testimony about the gun found during the arrest.

While the 7th Circuit found that the district court did not follow procedures concerning dual-role testimony established under United States v. Jett, 908 F.3d 252, 267 (7th Cir. 2018), any error “almost certainly happened because the government failed to adhere to its obligation to identify Meyer as an expert in advance of trial,” Judge Michael Scudder wrote, citing Rule of Criminal Procedure 16(a)(1)(G).

“But the district court’s error in Thomas’s trial was not plain and so does not warrant reversal. Had the government disclosed and offered Special Agent Meyer as an expert, his testimony would have been unobjectionable,” the panel found.

“Even setting aside Meyer’s testimony, the government had ample evidence to show that Thomas was using the firearms found in his car to facilitate his drug dealing. Detective Stephen Coleman testified at trial and explained the search he conducted of Thomas’s car. He described opening the glove compartment only to see two guns and a significant amount of methamphetamine fall out. On these facts we have little difficulty seeing how the gun possession could have furthered Thomas’s drug dealing: the guns and drugs were stored together and both were within arm’s reach of the driver — Thomas — who had driven to a pre-arranged location to deliver methamphetamine,” Scudder wrote.

And while the district court did not use pattern jury instructions, the 7th Circuit found Thomas did not object to the instructions, which the 7th Circuit found should have elaborated on the “in furtherance of” element of the weapons charge. But the court found it could not say the lack of such an instruction compromised Thomas’ substantial rights.

“Whether we consider them individually or together, the errors at Thomas’s trial do not undermine his firearm conviction,” the panel concluded. “The jury had more than enough evidence to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Thomas possessed the two guns in furtherance of his sale of methamphetamine.”

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