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United States v. Gains

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 23, 2017

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Antuan Rochelle Gaines Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: March 10, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Little Rock

          Before RILEY, [1] Chief Judge, GRUENDER, Circuit Judge, and SCHREIER, [2]District Judge.

          RILEY, Chief Judge.

         Antuan Gaines appeals his conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), arguing (1) the district court[3] abused its discretion in admitting gang-related evidence, and (2) the evidence introduced at his jury trial was insufficient to find him guilty. Having appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In the early afternoon of November 4, 2013, Little Rock, Arkansas, plain clothes police officers observed a person-of-interest in a homicide investigation standing in a parking lot with a group of men dressed in red and black attire. Due to a concern for safety, because the officers were aware of a recent increase in gang activity and the individuals' clothing indicated they might be members of a local gang, the officers called for uniformed backup. Several marked police cars responded. As Officer Charles Starratt approached the group, he saw one man, later identified as Gaines, make a motion toward the man's waist and then duck down out of the officer's sight next to a vehicle. Officer Starratt then heard "a metal on pavement sound." Gaines obeyed officers' commands to get on the ground, and while handcuffing Gaines, Officer Starratt spotted a handgun underneath the car next to which Gaines had been standing.

         Gaines was indicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) and proceeded to a jury trial in February 2016. Before trial, the government filed notice of its intent to present evidence of Gaines's "gang membership, and the fact that he was with several other members of the gang when he and three others were found in possession of firearms" and "[l]imited evidence regarding the homicide investigation" as "'relevant to multiple aspects of th[e] case: the overarching factual scenario at issue, [Gaines's] presence at the scene, and why he would have a [firearm].'" (Second and third alterations in original) (quoting United States v. Molton, 743 F.3d 479, 482 (7th Cir. 2014). The district court permitted the government to introduce limited evidence of Gaines's gang affiliation, but noted "any sort of expert taking the stand and giving a dissertation on gang life and the violence of gangs and the violence of this gang in particular, . . . at some point that becomes objectionable under 403." See Fed.R.Evid. 403 ("The court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of . . . unfair prejudice.").

         Over Gaines's objection at trial, the district court allowed an expert witness to testify about Gaines's involvement in a local gang. Before this testimony, the district court instructed the jury to consider the evidence only as to Gaines's knowledge, intent, and motive in possessing the firearm.[4]

         The expert testified the local gang, Highland Park Pirus (HPP), is associated with the color red and included the parking lot where Gaines was arrested in its territory. The government had previously introduced photographs-to which Gaines did not object at trial-of the clothes Gaines was wearing the day of his arrest, including a knit cap with the initials HPP, and the expert witness testified this cap indicated Gaines was affiliated with the HPP gang. As part of the expert witness's testimony, the government attempted to introduce photographs of clothing items worn by individuals other than Gaines in the parking lot the day of his arrest that referenced the HPP gang, but the district court found these photographs unduly prejudicial. The government then introduced, over Gaines's objection, photographs of two of Gaines's tattoos that the expert witness also identified as associated with the HPP gang.

         The expert witness went on to testify that members of street gangs like HPP are involved in illegal activity and possess firearms, but the district court sustained Gaines's objections to further testimony regarding why members of street gangs possess guns, and that the homicide the officers were investigating was gang-related.

         In addition to the expert testimony linking Gaines to the local street gang, Officer Starratt testified he responded to the call for backup and, while approaching the group, Gaines caught his attention "[b]ecause he made a motion [Officer Starratt] would consider as a threat to [his] person." Officer Starratt testified he discovered the firearm underneath the vehicle after Gaines dropped out of sight next to the vehicle and Officer Starratt heard a "metal on pavement sound." While Officer Starratt testified "[t]here was another individual at the front of the car" near Gaines, he also testified no other individual was within reaching distance of the gun. No officer testified to actually seeing Gaines with a firearm, and no physical evidence tied Gaines to the firearm recovered at the scene.

         Gaines moved for a judgment of acquittal at the close of the government's case, which the district court denied. After the district court overruled Gaines's motion to exclude evidence of his potential witnesses' affiliation with the HPP gang, Gaines rested without introducing any evidence. The district court instructed the jury and included a second limiting instruction on the gang-affiliation evidence. The jury returned a guilty verdict. Gaines filed timely notice of appeal.

         II.DISCUS ...


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