August 26, 2019

Tenth Circuit: No Error in Failing to Grant Mistrial After Prosecution Elicited Previously-Barred Testimony

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States of America v. Hargrove on Wednesday, January 2, 2019.

Defendant Mr. Hargrove was convicted and sentenced to sixty months imprisonment for conspiracy to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and of possession with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of a substance containing a detectable amount of marijuana, and aiding and abetting said possession, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B), and 18 U.S.C. § 2.

Mr. Hargrove raised two challenges on appeal. First, the district court erred in failing to grant him a mistrial after the prosecutor elicited testimony that the district court had previously barred. Second, the district court erred in failing to grant him safety-valve relief under § 5C1.2 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.). The Court of Appeals found no error in the district court’s rulings, and affirmed the district court.

Mr. Hargrove and two others were all found in Mr. Hargrove’s truck in the desert near the border between Arizona and New Mexico. Mr. Hargrove’s truck contained nearly 300 pounds of marijuana and two firearms. Prior to trial, Mr. Hargrove filed a motion in limine, in part to request that the district court exclude evidence that one of the firearms was stolen. The district court ruled that this evidence was inadmissible, as the risk of prejudice substantially outweighed any conceivable relevance, but allowed testimony about the presence of loaded firearms in the truck.

During trial, the prosecutor elicited testimony about the stolen gun, to which Mr. Hargrove’s counsel promptly objected and moved for mistrial. The court instructed the jury that they were to disregard anything regarding the firearm or its ownership. The prosecutor also took remedial measures during the remainder of the trial. Specifically, the prosecutor withdrew an exhibit displaying weapons retrieved from the truck, did not seek testimony from its expert witness regarding the use of firearms in the narcotics trade, and did not discuss either firearm during its closing arguments.

Following Mr. Hargrove’s conviction, Mr. Hargrove argued that he qualified for the safety-valve adjustment during sentencing under U.S.S.G. § 5C1.2. The district court denied Mr. Hargrove safety-valve relief.

With respect to the district court’s denial of Mr. Hargrove’s motion for mistrial, the Court weighed the three factors of the Meridyth test. First, the Court considered whether the prosecutor acted in bad faith. The Court noted that the prosecutor had specifically instructed the witness not to testify about the stolen nature of the gun. Further, the prosecutor’s conduct in immediately accepting responsibility for the improper testimony and taking steps to mitigate its prejudicial effects throughout the remainder of the trial was a strong indication that the prosecutor did not act in bad faith. The Court found this factor to weigh in favor of the government.

Next, the Court considered whether the district court limited the effect of the improper statement through its instructions to the jury. The Court noted that the district court gave two limiting instructions to the jury, one directly following the improper testimony, and one following the close of evidence. Because the district court had expressly and specifically emphasized that the jury was not to consider the improper statement for any purpose, the Court presumed the jury understood it was obliged not to consider any inferences based on such testimony and found this factor to weigh in favor of the government.

Finally, the Court considered whether the improper remark was inconsequential in light of the other evidence of the defendant’s guilt. The Court found that there was undisputed testimony which unequivocally indicated Mr. Hargrove was aware of and actively participated in the drug exchange, and any improper effect the improper statement may have had on the jury paled in comparison to the total weight of the government’s evidence, and therefore found this factor to weigh in favor of the government. Because the Court found all three factors weighed in favor of the government, the Court concluded that the district court did not err in denying Mr. Hargrove’s motion for a mistrial.

Mr. Hargrove also asserted the district court erred in denying him a U.S.S.G. § 5C1.2 safety-valve adjustment during sentencing. The district court had concluded that Mr. Hargrove was ineligible for the safety-valve reduction because the loaded firearms were located in the truck in close proximity to the drug trafficking, and had the potential to facilitate the drug trafficking. Mr. Hargrove argued on appeal that his possession of the firearms was unrelated to the drug-trafficking activity.

The Court disagreed. The Court explained that in evaluating the firearms provision of the safety-valve provision, there is a focus on the defendant’s own conduct and the nature of possession. The Court stated that active possession, by which there is a close connection linking the individual defendant, the weapon, and the offense, is sufficient to bar the application of the safety-valve. The Court noted that Mr. Hargrove had made no argument that the firearms were not his nor that the firearms were merely constructively possessed, instead Mr. Hargrove had conceded actual possession of the firearms by admitting that the firearms belonged to him and that he had brought them in the vehicle to the scene of the arrest. The Court held that for purposes of satisfying the safety-valve criteria, a firearm is possessed in connection with the offense if the firearm facilitates are has the potential to facilitate the offense. The Court therefore concluded that the district court did not err in denying safety-valve relief.

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