Monday, January 11, 2010

Joinder Improper & Prejudicial In Trial for Carjacking and Later Felon In Possession

US v. Hawkins: Hawkins was a suspect in the carjacking of a cab in Baltimore, during which it was alleged he threatened to shoot the driver. When authorities tracked down Hawkins at a convenience store, he made movements indicating he might be armed. He was subdued and a pistol recovered from him. As a result of these activities, Hawkins was charged with carjacking, a 924(c) count for the use of a firearm therein, and being a felon in possession of a firearm, based on the pistol recovered during his arrest. Prior to trial, Hawkins sought to sever the two counts related to the carjacking from the felon in possession count, but the district court denied his request. Hawkins was convicted on all three counts.

On appeal, Hawkins argued that the district court erred by denying his motion to sever. The Fourth Circuit agreed and reversed his convictions on the carjacking and 924(c) counts and remanded for resentencing on all three counts. In doing so the court rejected the Government's argument that the three charges were sufficiently related because "all three were firearms offenses" and "all these events occurred within a three-week period." Therefore, the carjacking and 924(c) counts were not of the "same or similar character" as the felon in possession count.

Furthermore, the court found that the error was prejudicial to Hawkins, particularly given the use at trial of a statement Hawkins made about the felon in possession count that referenced other actions that might have bolstered the Government's case on the other counts. Judge Motz concurred in the result, but wrote separately to explain that "this circuit's approach to Federal Rules of Evidence 404(b) and 403 may well have precipitated error in this case."

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