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United States v. Finley

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 5, 2014

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
TARA FINLEY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

KIM R. GIBSON, District Judge.

I. Introduction

On May 15, 2012, the government filed a three-count indictment against the Defendant, charging her with one count of conspiracy to commit arson and mail fraud, and with two counts of mail fraud. Before the Court is a motion in limine, which seeks to exclude certain testimony of government witnesses at trial (ECF No. 88). For the reasons explained below, the motion is denied.

II. Background

The government charges that Defendant and a person known to the grand jury as KF conspired to set fire to the Cozy Acres furniture store (the "building") located at 2906 Oklahoma Salem Road, in Dubois, Pennsylvania. At all times relevant to the indictment, the Westfield Insurance Company ("Westfield") provided insurance coverage to Defendant for the building and for the personal property contents of the building.

According to the indictment, KF allegedly set fire to the building on the morning of April 11, 2007. The indictment further alleges that, as part of the conspiracy, Defendant and KF provided false information to law enforcement officers and to Westfield regarding the cause of the fire. Westfield eventually paid in excess of $2 million on an insurance claim made by Defendant in connection with the fire. The indictment also alleges that, as part of a fraudulent scheme to obtain insurance proceeds from Westfield, Defendant caused to be delivered at least two letters through the United States mail.

III. Applicable Law

The instant motion raises evidentiary issues under Federal Rules of Evidence 401, 402, 403, 602, and 802. The Court will first review the offenses contained in the indictment and the pertinent rules of evidence.

A. Elements of the alleged crimes

Defendant is charged with conspiracy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371, and mail fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341. With respect to the conspiracy charge, "the government must show: (1) the existence of an agreement to achieve an unlawful objective; (2) the defendant's knowing and voluntary participation in the conspiracy; and (3) the commission of an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy." United States v. Rigas, 605 F.3d 194, 206 (3d Cir. 2010) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

The conspiracy charge involves an alleged agreement to violate the federal arson statute and the mail fraud statute. The federal arson statute states, in material part, that "[w]hoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire... any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in... any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce[, ] shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years, fined under this title, or both..." 18 U.S.C. § 844(i). "The elements of traditional mail fraud, in which money or property is the object of the fraud, are: (1) a scheme or artifice to defraud by means of a materially false or fraudulent pretense; (2) participation by the defendant with specific intent to defraud; and (3) use of the mail in furtherance of the scheme." United States v. Bryant, 655 F.3d 232, 248 (3d Cir. 2011).

B. Applicable rules of evidence

Federal Rule of Evidence 401 provides that evidence is relevant if "(a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action." Fed.R.Evid. 401. Federal Rule of Evidence 402 states that relevant evidence is admissible unless the Constitution, a federal statute, the Federal Rules of Evidence, or rules prescribed by the Supreme Court provide otherwise. Fed.R.Evid. 402. Although evidence must be relevant to be admissible, Rule 401 does not set a high standard for admissibility. Hurley v. Atl. City Police Dep't, 174 F.3d 95, 109-10 (3d Cir. 1999) (citation omitted). The Third Circuit has stated:

"Relevancy is not an inherent characteristic of any item of evidence but exists only as a relation between an item of evidence and a matter properly provable in the case." Because the rule makes evidence relevant "if it has any tendency to prove a consequential fact, it follows that evidence is irrelevant only when it has no tendency to prove the fact."

Blancha v. Raymark Indus., 972 F.2d 507, 514 (3d Cir. 1992) (emphasis in original) (quoting 22 Charles A. Wright & Kenneth W. Graham, Jr., Federal Practice and Procedure: Evidence § 5166, at 74 n.47 (1978)).

Under Federal Rule of Evidence 403, relevant evidence is inadmissible "if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence." Fed.R.Evid. 403. Rule 403 mandates a balancing test, "requiring sensitivity on the part of the trial court to the subtleties of the particular situation." United States v. Vosburgh, 602 F.3d 512, 537 (3d Cir. 2010). Relevant here, the advisory notes to Rule 403 state that "unfair prejudice" means an "undue tendency to suggest decision on an improper basis, commonly, though not necessarily, an emotional one." Fed.R.Evid. 403 advisory committee note; see Dollar v. Long Mfg., N.C. , Inc., 561 F.2d 613, 618 (5th Cir. 1977) ("Of course, unfair prejudice' as used in Rule 403 is not to be equated with testimony simply adverse to the opposing party. Virtually all evidence is prejudicial or it isn't material. The prejudice must be unfair.'").

In addition to these aforementioned rules, "a witness may testify to a matter only if evidence is introduced sufficient to support a finding that the witness has personal knowledge of the matter." Fed.R.Evid. 602. "Evidence to prove personal knowledge may consist of the witness's own testimony." Id. Similar to the relevancy requirement of Rule 401, the personal knowledge requirement of Rule 602 creates a low threshold for admissibility. United States v. Gerard, 507 Fed.App'x 218, 222 (3d Cir. 2012). A judge should admit witness testimony "if the jury could reasonably find that the witness perceived the event." Id. (citing United States v. Hickey, 917 F.2d 901, 904 (6th Cir. 1990)).

Notwithstanding the foregoing rules, hearsay evidence is inadmissible at trial unless a federal statute, the Federal Rules of Evidence, or other rules prescribed by the Supreme Court provide otherwise. Fed.R.Evid. 802. Hearsay is defined as "a statement that: (1) the declarant does not make while testifying at the current trial or hearing; and (2) a party ...


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