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United States v. Watson

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 13, 2018

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
James Edward Watson, Jr. Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: January 12, 2018

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

          Before LOKEN, GRUENDER, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, Circuit Judge.

         James Watson was convicted after trial on one count of distributing five or more grams of actual methamphetamine, and was sentenced to 180 months' imprisonment. He appeals.

         I.

         The Arkansas Second Judicial District Drug Task Force conducted operations against repeat, violent drug offenders. Believing Watson to be such an offender, the task force employed a confidential informant (CI) to make controlled buys of methamphetamine from Watson.

         On August 29, 2014, the CI arranged to meet Watson to buy methamphetamine. The controlled buy took an extended period of time, and the CI traveled with Watson to several different locations. Although the task force captured much of the transaction on audio and video surveillance, it did not capture everything. Thus, the complete course of events is known only to Watson and the CI. In the end, the CI said he paid Watson $3, 000 for about 36 grams of actual methamphetamine.

         On September 19, 2014, the CI again sought to buy methamphetamine from Watson. Watson and the CI set up the exchange, and the controlled buy was captured on audio and video surveillance. Watson purported to sell the informant methamphetamine, but the substance later turned out to be epsom salt.

         A grand jury indicted Watson with one count of distributing five or more grams of actual methamphetamine for the August 29, 2014, controlled buy. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B). The case proceeded to trial. Two pieces of evidence are particularly relevant on appeal.

         First is evidence of Watson's history of violence, which the government sought to introduce to clarify why the task force became interested in Watson. Before trial, the government had sought to exclude any testimony about an excessive force lawsuit that Watson had filed against one of the task force officers involved in the criminal case. That lawsuit was settled right around the time of the controlled buys at issue. Watson objected. The district court[1] ruled that Watson could present evidence of his theory that he was targeted because he had filed a lawsuit against one of the task force members-but if he did, that would open the door to allowing the government to introduce, in rebuttal, evidence of Watson's prior bad acts to show that the task force's interest was the result of his history of violence, rather than retaliation.

         At trial, during cross-examination of the officer he had sued, Watson intimated that the task force targeted Watson in retaliation for the excessive force suit. At a bench conference, the district court determined that some, but not all, of the bad acts could come in because Watson had opened the door. The government said it wanted to introduce testimony of three allegations: (1) Watson had heated a knife and used it to burn the thighs of a victim, (2) Watson had committed domestic violence, and (3) Watson had assaulted police officers. Watson objected to the reliability of these allegations, but the district court overruled the objection and admitted the evidence.

         The second piece of evidence is the September 19, 2014, controlled buy, which netted only epsom salt. Over Watson's objection, the government introduced testimony from the CI and video of the transaction. The CI testified that Watson had contacted him about doing another deal, and the CI had asked for four ounces of methamphetamine. The transaction occurred outside Watson's house and was depicted on the video.

         At the close of the government's case, Watson moved for judgment of acquittal based on insufficiency of the evidence, which the district court ...


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