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United States v. Smith

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

August 6, 2013

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
DURRELL SMITH, Appellant.

Argued: May 15, 2013

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. Crim. No. 10-704) District Judge: Honorable Mary L. Cooper

Kevin F. Carlucci, Esq. [ARGUED] Office of the Federal Public Defender Attorneys for Appellant Durrell Smith.

Steven G. Sanders, Esq. [ARGUED] Office of the United States Attorney Attorney for Appellee United States of America.

Before: SLOVITER, FUENTES, and ROTH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

FUENTES, Circuit Judge.

At Durrell Smith's trial for threatening federal officers with a gun, the Government sought to establish that two years earlier Smith had been observed dealing drugs at the same location as the charged assault. Smith objected, arguing that the relevance of the drug deal to the gun crime requires an inference that because Smith was a drug dealer in the past he must have been a drug dealer on the day in question. The District Court overruled Smith's objection and permitted evidence about the earlier drug sale. Smith was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

We conclude that the evidence of Smith's drug distribution, two years before the incident for which he was on trial, violates our long-standing requirement that, when seeking to introduce evidence of prior bad acts under Rule 404(b), the proponent must set forth "a chain of logical inferences, no link of which can be the inference that because the defendant committed . . . offenses before, he therefore is more likely to have committed this one." United States v. Sampson, 980 F.2d 883, 887 (3d Cir. 1992) (emphasis added). We therefore reverse the District Court's evidentiary ruling, vacate Smith's conviction as to Counts 1 and 2 of the Indictment, and remand for a new trial.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

A. The September 2010 Incident

On September 1, 2010, FBI Agent Michael Alerassool and three other officers were conducting surveillance in an unmarked car with tinted windows on the corner of Brunswick and Parkhurst Streets, as part of an ongoing drug activity investigation in Newark. Most people in the vicinity scattered when the vehicle arrived on the street, but Alerassool observed Appellant Durrell Smith through the car window, standing his ground across the street and staring into the vehicle.

Smith then disappeared from Alerassool's sight but returned about one minute later, walking at a regular pace towards the car. As Smith passed under a street lamp, Alerassool noticed that he had a handgun in his right hand, "pointing [the gun] kind of at a downward angle, " about seven inches from his right thigh. App. 115. Smith then began to rotate his shoulder to face the officers as he approached the vehicle. Alerassool called out to the others in the car that Smith had a gun, and Smith was arrested before he could get any closer. The officers recovered a CF-380 semi-automatic handgun from Smith's person but there is no contention that drugs were found on Smith on that day.

The next day, Smith was interviewed by Newark Police Detective Raul Diaz. Smith waived his Miranda rights and confessed that he had been on the corner of Brunswick and Parkhurst the night before and that he had a gun. However, Smith denied that the gun belonged to him. Moreover, Smith claimed that he retrieved the gun in self-defense because, although he did not know who was in the car, he ...


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