United States v. Mikel Clotaire (11th Cir. June 2020)

The Federal Docket

July 7, 2020

Evidence/Video and Photo Stills – Photograph stills from video surveillance, even if enhanced for clarity, qualify under the business records exception to hearsay and do not implicate the Confrontation Clause as being neither statements nor hearsay, nor is a certification of such a business record is not testimonial.

Sixth Amendment/Cross-Examination – A district court has the ability to restrict cross-examination that is marginally relevant and has the potential to confuse the jury of the issues.

Evidence/Impeachment – A defendant, that does not fully articulate and raise impeachment as a justification for the admission of hearsay testimony is not entitled to introduce the testimony on the basis of impeachment.

Evidence/Expert Witnesses – It is not error to allow a witness to provide expert testimony if the record otherwise supports the witness’s specialized knowledge and expertise and if the defendant fails to object.

Evidence/Lay Witness Identification – A lay witness’s identification is admissible if the witness is more likely to identify the defendant.

Evidence/Mugshot – The introduction of a defendant’s mugshot is not in error if there is demonstrable need for the mugshot, there is no implication of a defendant’s prior criminal history from the mugshot, and no attention is drawn to the circumstances surrounding the mugshot.

Mikel Clotaire was convicted of conspiracy to commit access device fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1029(b)(2), access device fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1029(a)(2), and aggravated identity theft under 19 U.S.C. 1028(a)(1).

Clotaire appealed, challenging the admission of ATM images, limitations on his ability cross-examine witnesses, the exclusion of emails, the admissibility of a lay witness’s identification, and the admission of his mugshot.

The Court disagreed, holding that the admission of ATM photograph stills instead of the full surveillance video was not in error because “the format of an extracted dataset has nothing to do with whether it qualifies as a business record. What matters is whether the original record met the requirements” of the business records exception to hearsay. The Court noted that the content was unchanged and that little discretion and judgement was used when converting from video to still photos. Further, the selection of photos from the full surveillance video did not transform the otherwise qualifying business record into a record prepared for trial.

The Court also held that the photographs did not implicate the Confrontation Clause since the photographs were neither statements nor testimonial. Further, whether someone enhances a photo for clarity does not make the photographs statements or testimonial. Finally, the Court also held business records certifications are not testimonial.

The Court also held that the trial court did not err by limiting Clotaire’s cross-examinations of witnesses since the testimony would only have been marginally relevant and had the potential to confuse the jury of the real issues in the trial. The Court further held that the trial court, ruling on evidentiary objections before the jury, was not in error.

The Court also held the trial court properly excluded two emails as hearsay since they “were offered to prove the truth of the matters asserted by the declarants.” By failing to fully argue and raise that the emails were being offered for impeachment purposes, Clotaire could not introduce otherwise hearsay testimony for impeachment purposes.

The Court also held that the trial court did not “err[], let alone plainly, by allowing” a witness to testify as an expert when the record established the witness’s specialized training and experience. Further, Clotaire failed to object to the witness’s qualifications or claim unreliability.

The Court also held there was no error with the admission of lay identification testimony since there were sufficient bases to conclude that the witness was more likely to correctly identify the defendant. The witness had personal interaction for a period of time with the subject of the identification.

The Court also held that the introduction of Clotaire’s mugshot over objection was not in error. First, the Court noted that there was a demonstrable need to introduce the mugshot because the identification of Clotaire was “central to the government’s case.” Second, the Court noted there was no implication from the mugshot that Clotaire had a prior criminal record since it was stipulated that the mugshot was taken on the same day as Clotaire’s arrest and the mugshot had all jailhouse administrative markings removed. Third, the Court held that the government “did not draw attention to how or under what circumstances the photographs were taken” nor accentuate any prejudicial implications.

Appeal from the Southern District of Florida

Opinion by Grant, joined by Rosenbaum and Hull

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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