Circuit Court Opinions

United States v. Dustin McLellan (11th Cir. May 2020)

Evidence/Expert Testimony – An officer is not testifying as an expert when he testifies that firearms are often involved in drug activity where such lay opinion testimony is based on his professional experiences.

Evidence/Rule 403 – Evidence of drug distribution and possession is relevant in unlawful possession of firearm cases where the element of knowledge is in dispute.

Firearm Offenses/922(g) – An indictment’s failure to allege the knowledge element of 922(g) does not deprive the district court of its jurisdiction.

Jury Instructions – Failure to instruct the jury on knowledge element of 922(g) was plain error but did not substantially affect defendant’s rights where there was overwhelming evidence of his knowledge of his unlawful status, including a stipulation and the evidence, not introduced at trial but that would be introduced in a retrial, that he had spent years in prison on other crimes.

Dustin McLellan was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). He was sentenced to 15 years under the ACCA based on his prior convictions for first-degree burglary under Alabama law.

On appeal, McLellan raised several claims. First, he argued that the trial court improperly allowed an arresting officer to testify as an “expert” regarding the correlation between guns and drug activity and erred in allowing the officer to testify that McLellan was selling drugs based on finding a “sellable amount” of meth. The core of this argument was that the Government’s evidence essentially alleged that McLellan was involved in selling drugs, which he was not charged with.

The Court disagreed, first holding that the officer’s testimony did not require any scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge, but was rather “lay opinion testimony based on his professional experiences.” The Court distinguished this from situations such as testifying officers summarizing phone calls between drug traffickers, which typically involve officers interpreting otherwise unambiguous phone calls in order to “spoon feed” their interpretations to the jury.

The Court also held that it was not error under 403 to allow the officer to testify that the under-a-gram of meth found in the case was a “sellable amount,” essentially alleging that McLellan was a drug dealer. While McLellan was not on trial for drug crimes, the Court noted that, in cases where a defendant denies knowingly possessing a gun, “evidence of possession of illegal drugs is relevant in determining whether a defendant knowingly possessed a weapon found in close proximity to drugs.” In other words, “the connection between drug-dealing and firearm possession is an appropriate one to be drawn during a felon-in-possession case.”

The Court also held that the pre-Rehaif indictment’s failure to allege McLellan’s knowledge of his felon status did not deprive the court of its jurisdiction since defects in an indictment are not generally jurisdictional. The Court also held that the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on McLellan’s knowledge, while plain error, did not prejudice McLellan since 1) he had stipulated to it, and 2) in a retrial, the government would be able to introduce McLellan’s criminal history, which would make it “inconceivable” that he did not know he was a felon.

Appeal from the Southern District of Alabama

Opinion by Boggs (by designation from the 6th Cir.), joined by Rosenbaum and E. Carnes

Click here to read the opinion.

United States v. Johnny Benjamin, Jr. (11th Cir. May 2020)

The Court affirmed the conviction of a doctor charged with manufacturing and distributing a controlled substance analogue resulting in a woman's overdose death. The Court affirmed his conviction on the death count based on expert testimony, co-defendant testimony, and circumstantial evidence, and the Court held that the district court had sufficiently instructed the jury on scienter based on the defendant's knowledge of the identity of the substance. Nor did the trial court err in declining to investigate juror misconduct based on finding a list of "Do's and Don'ts of Jury Deliberations" in the deliberation room.

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United States v. Oniel Russell (11th Cir. May 2020)

The Court vacated the defendant's conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm by an unlawful immigrant. The Court held that the district court's pre-Rehaif order excluding the defendant's immigration applications and evidence that he believed he was legally in the U.S. amounted to plain error given the Supreme Court's opinion in Rehaif. The Court further held that the defendant was prejudiced by not being able to introduce this evidence given his consistent arguments in pre-trial and sentencing proceedings that he believed he was legally in the U.S.

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United States v. Willie Evans (11th Cir. May 2020)

The Court affirmed the district court's finding that officers' warrantless search of a home was justified under the "emergency aid exception." The Court held that the officers had a reasonable belief that a dog's whimpering inside the house was a human in need of emergency aid based on their initially responding to a 911 regarding gun shots, the defendant's belligerent behavior prior to his arrest, and the officers' belief that someone else may have been in the house.

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