Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Identity Evidence Insufficient to Sustain Robbery, Firearm Charges

US v. Bonner: Bonner was charged with a Hobbs Act robbery and use of a firearm. The charges arose from the robbery of a Subway restaurant in North Carolina by two African American men. One was wearing a NY Yankees cap. That was the only description provided by the two employees present during the robbery. Police pulled over an SUV exiting the parking lot shortly thereafter that, while it only included one occupant (who was never charged), did contain items linking the vehicle to Bonner. Police also recovered a Yankees cap from behind the store which contained DNA that matched Bonner (as well as several other people who could not be identified). Finally, a canine followed a scent from the area to a nearby gas station, from which a phone call was placed to Bonner's girlfriend several hours after the robbery.

Bonner was convicted at trial. However, the district court granted his motion for a judgment of acquittal after the conviction, having deferred ruling on Bonner's motion made after the close of the Government's case (and every subsequent opportunity). The Government appealed, arguing that the evidence was sufficient to support the convictions, when considered in the light most favorable to the Government.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of the motion for acquittal. The court concluded that there was a "conspicuous absence of any contemporaneous 'identity' evidence linking the defendant to the robbery." As for the DNA match to the Yankee cap, the court noted that the cap had several different DNA samples on it and nothing proved that Bonner wore it the night of the robbery (as opposed to some other time). The court also refused to rely on an inference put forth by the Government that the dog tracking a scent from the scene to the gas station did so based on the "predominant DNA" present on the cap (Bonner's). The court noted that the Government's inference lacked any basis in the record. In addition, "not every articulable inference is proper because scientific rigor demands more than a theory of plausible deductions strung together."

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