Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lengthy Detention of Vehicle OK, Use of Prior Bad Act Not So Much

US v. McBride: Officers in South Carolina were performing surveillance of a club parking lot at about 6:15 in the evening.  Their attention was drawn to the club, which has in the past been a site of drug dealing, because there were several cars in the parking lot at the time, although the officers thought the club usually opened around midnight.  Officers saw what they thought might be a drug deal, which transpired in and around a black Cadillac SLS in the parking lot.  When one of the men involved drove away in the rain without his lights on, the officers pulled him over.  A subsequent search of that vehicle uncovered a large amount of cash.

The officers returned the club and went inside and were met at the door by McBride, who was the other man involved in the alleged drug deal they had observed.  The officers repeatedly told McBride and the others in the club that they were free to leave, but their vehicles outside were being detained pending the arrival of a drug dog from the next county.  At first, McBride claimed that the SLS was his, but after the drug dog was mentioned he "got very[,] very loud, nervous, [began] pacing back and forth, [and was] sweating profusely."  He also recanted his claim to ownership of the SLS.  After again being told he was free to leave (without his car), McBride left the club.  The drug dog arrived about an hour after the "detention" began and alerted on the SLS.  A later search pursuant to a warrant uncovered cash, drugs, and a firearm.

McBride was charged with gun and drugs offenses and moved to suppress the evidence seized from the SLS, which the district court denied.  McBride went to trial, where the Government introduced prior bad act evidence under FRE 404(b) from a CI who had tried to purchase crack from McBride in the past, but could not because the drugs were in the process of being cooked from powder to crack cocaine.  The district court instructed the jury that it could only consider the CI's testimony as to the issue of McBride's knowledge, intent, or lack of mistake.  McBride was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 235 months.

On appeal, McBride challenged both the denial of his motion to suppress and the admission of the 404(b) evidence.  As to the search, he made two arguments, both of which the Fourth Circuit rejected.  First, he argued that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to detain the SLS.  The court disagreed, pointing to the officers' prior knowledge of the club and McBride, the potential drug deal that took place in the parking lot (and the resulting traffic stop and search), and the fact that so many people were at the club during non-business hours.  Second, McBride argued that even if the initial detention of the SLS was proper, the nearly hour-long delay caused by waiting for the drug dog was unreasonable.  The court disagreed, noting that the nature of the detention "did not impede McBride during any travel, because McBride already had arrived at his club" and that the duration of the detention, while lengthy, was not the result of any lack of diligence on the part of the officers.  As to the 404(b) evidence, the court agreed with McBride that it was improperly admitted because it was of dubious relevance to McBride's charged drug offense (possession with intent) and unduly prejudicial.  Further, the court was unable to conclude that the error was harmless.  Thus, McBride's convictions for possession with intent and using a gun during a drug trafficking offense were reversed, while the conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm was affirmed.

Judge Wilkinson dissented on the 404(b) issue, arguing that the majority's position "pulls the trial process away from both the trial court and the jury, substituting its own assessment of the relevance and weight of the defendant's prior criminal activity."

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