Friday, August 29, 2014

Stash House Robbery Conspiracy Convictions Affirmed, Sentence Vacated

US v. McLaurin: McLaurin sold two guns to a CI and, after the offer of a third sale, was introduced to undercover officers who recruited him to be part of a "stash house robbery."  That is, to rob drug dealers of their product in bulk and then sell it themselves.  McLaurin said he was interested and had committed a "similar" robbery in the past.  He also talked about the need to acquire a gun, since he had sold his.  After a couple of weeks passed, McLaurin contacted the officers and arranged a meeting to discuss the robbery.  He brought along Lowery, his codefendant, to this meeting.  At the meeting, they discussed what weaponry would be needed and how the take from the robbery would be split.  On the appointed day, the defendants and the officers met at a storage area that was to be the staging area for the robbery.  Instead, McLaurin and Lowery were arrested and charged with multiple conspiracy counts.  They were convicted on all counts, with McLaurin also being convicted of two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

On appeal, both defendants challenged their conviction, which McLaurin challenging his sentence as well.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the convictions, but vacated McLaurin's sentence.  On the convictions, the court first found that the district court had correctly instructed the jury that inducement, in the context of an entrapment defense, "is a term of art necessitating government overreaching," which the defendants argued allowed the jury to rejected their defense based on a "non-factual, value-laden determination" while avoiding "the corse issue of an entrapment defense - predisposition."  Read in conjunction with the rest of the entrapment instructions, the court held that language did no remove predisposition and only "elaborated on the circumstances that can be considered inducement."  The court also affirmed the district court's admission of prior bad act evidence against McLaurin (the earlier robbery) and Lowery (firearm possession).  Finally, the court concluded that the district court's decision to deny McLaurin's motion to sever his felon in possession counts was not error and, if it was, not harmless, as the evidence underlying those charges were admissible under FRE 404(b).  As to McLaurin's sentence, the court found that the district court erred by including two robberies committed as a juvenile in McLaurin's criminal history calculation.  Although limited to plain error review, the court found the error plain, affecting substantial rights, and in need of notice.

Judge Floyd dissented in part, arguing that the district court erred in not granting McLaurin's motion to sever and that the error was not harmless.

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