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United States v. Ashburn

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 9, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
YASSA ASHBURN, JAMAL LAURENT, and TREVELLE MERRITT, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

NICHOLAS G. GARAUFIS, District Judge.

This Memorandum and Order addresses Defendant Jamal Laurent's various motions to suppress or exclude certain evidence related to the discharge of a firearm from his bedroom on June 21, 2010. The court presumes familiarity with the facts regarding the incident that occurred that day, as well as the charges and alleged conduct underlying the instant criminal prosecution. (See May 5, 2014, Mem. & Order (Dkt. 141) at 4-7 (providing factual background regarding the events of June 21, 2010); Dec. 30, 2014, Mem. & Order (Dkt. 252) at 1-2 (outlining criminal charges and alleged conduct in this case).) For the reasons that follow, Laurent's motions to suppress or exclude this evidence are DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND

In its Memorandum and Order dated May 5, 2014, the court denied Laurent's motion to suppress a 9 mm Smith & Wesson semi-automatic handgun (the "handgun") seized from his bedroom on June 21, 2010. (Dkt. 141 at 5.) The court also directed the Government to advise the court whether it intended to offer certain additional evidence that officers of the New York Police Department ("NYPD") had recovered from Laurent's bedroom that day. (Id. at 14-15.) This additional evidence consisted of 13 rounds of ammunition recovered from the magazine of the handgun, one spent round of ammunition (more specifically, a bullet fragment), [1] and a bag of marijuana. (Id. at 4.) By letter dated July 3, 2014, the Government indicated that it planned to introduce the 13 rounds of ammunition and the bullet fragment, but not the marijuana. (July 3, 2014, Gov't Ltr. (Dkt. 150) at 1-2.)

Laurent responded to the Government's letter on September 2, 2014, arguing on several grounds that the ammunition and bullet fragment-as well as all other evidence related to the discharge of the firearm on June 21, 2010, aside from the handgun-should be excluded at trial. (Reply Mem. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. to Suppress ("Def.'s Reply Mem.") (Dkt. 177) at 2-4.) The Government submitted a reply responding to Laurent's Fourth Amendment claim and stating that it would address his remaining arguments in its forthcoming motion to admit enterprise evidence, prior bad acts, and uncharged conduct. (Sept. 19, 2014, Gov't Ltr. (Dkt. 184).) On October 3, 2014, the Government filed its Motion in Limine to Admit Evidence of Other Acts, in which the Government indicated that it anticipated proving at trial, among other things, that the handgun and ammunition were recovered from Laurent's room on June 21, 2010, and that the handgun had been fired by Laurent earlier that day. (Mem. in Supp. of Gov't's Mot. to Admit Evid. of Other Acts ("Gov't Mot. to Admit Other Acts") (Dkt. 197) at 10.) Laurent responded to the Government's Motion to Admit Other Acts in a letter dated November 11, 2014, in which he reiterated his argument that the ammunition, the bullet fragment, and all testimony regarding the events of June 21, 2010, should be excluded. (Nov. 11, 2014, Def.'s Supplemental Ltr. ("Def.'s Resp. in Opp'n") (Dkt. 223) at 2.) The Government replied on November 21, 2014 (Nov. 21, 2014, Gov't Ltr. ("Gov't's Reply") (Dkt. 230)), and Laurent filed a sur-reply on December 1, 2014 (Dec. 1, 2014, Def. Ltr. ("Def.'s Sur-Reply") (Dkt. 233)).

II. DISCUSSION

Laurent challenges the admissibility of the ammunition, the bullet fragment, and all testimony regarding the events of June 21, 2010, on relevance grounds, among others. (See, e.g., Def.'s Resp. in Opp'n at 2 ("Although the Defense recognizes that the Court has denied its motion to suppress the gun itself... the ammunition, bullet fragment, and all testimony concerning the events of June 21, 2010, leading to the seizure of the firearm would add nothing relevant to the Government's case and should be excluded as irrelevant under [Federal Rule of Evidence] 402....").) As a result, the court first considers Laurent's motion to exclude all testimony related to the incident on June 21, 2010, before addressing Laurent's motion to suppress or exclude the 13 rounds of ammunition found in the magazine of the handgun and the bullet fragment recovered from the room adjacent to Laurent's bedroom.

A. Motion to Exclude Testimony Regarding the Events of June 21, 2010

Laurent argues that testimony regarding the events of June 21, 2010, is inadmissible because: (1) it is irrelevant under Federal Rules of Evidence 401 and 402; (2) it is not offered for a proper purpose under Rule 404(b); and (3) pursuant to Rule 403, the probative value of this testimony is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion, and wasted time. For the reasons discussed below, the court finds this testimony to be relevant and admissible as direct evidence of a charged crime, and furthermore, that it is not barred by Rule 403. As a result, the court declines to consider Laurent's argument that it should be excluded pursuant to Rule 404(b).[2]

1. Relevance

Evidence is relevant if: "(a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action." Fed.R.Evid. 401; see also Fed.R.Evid. 402 ("Irrelevant evidence is not admissible."). Laurent argues that no aspect of the circumstances under which the police came to his residence on June 21, 2010, would make a material fact more or less probable. (Def.'s Reply Mem. at 11.) According to Laurent, this is because whether he possessed or discharged the handgun on that date "has no bearing on his guilt or innocence of the crimes charged in this Indictment and does not tend, therefore, to make any material fact more or less likely." (Id.) In particular, Laurent asserts that there are no allegations that the residence in question, 1445 Schenectady Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, is related to any Six Tre activity. (Def.'s Resp. in Opp'n at 2.) Nor, as he contends, did the incident-which was "by all accounts an accident"-further any gang-related purpose. (Id.) Consequently, Laurent maintains, testimony about the events of June 21, 2010, should be excluded not only because it does not relate to any of the charged offenses, but also because it does not constitute background evidence with respect to the alleged criminal enterprise. (Def.'s Sur-Reply at 2.)

As the Government points out, however, Laurent is charged in various counts of the Fourth Superseding Indictment (Superseding Indictment (S-4) (the "Indictment") (Dkt. 237)), with committing the murder of Brent Duncan on or about June 19, 2010. (See Gov't Mot. to Admit Other Acts at 10; Indictment ¶¶ 7-8, 12, 32-34, 39-40.)[3] In support of these charges, the Government anticipates offering at trial expert testimony that the handgun recovered from Laurent's bedroom was the same gun used in Duncan's murder two days earlier.[4] (Gov't's Reply at 4.) Moreover, the Government reasons, the fact that Laurent had fired a bullet through the wall of his bedroom "minutes before it was recovered by responding police officers" is proof that the handgun belonged to Laurent, and not that he was "just holding it for someone else, as [he] is likely to argue at trial." (Id.) Accordingly, the Government's position appears to be that testimony related to the events of June 21, 2010, is relevant and therefore admissible as direct evidence of Laurent's ownership and possession of the weapon used in a murder he is alleged in the Indictment to have committed just two days earlier. (See id.)

In response, Laurent disputes the Government's inference that the discharge of the firearm from his bedroom establishes Laurent's ownership and possession of the weapon. (See Def.'s Sur-Reply at 2.) First, Laurent argues that "it is obvious, that someone does not necessarily own a weapon which he discharges." (Id. at 3.) Second, Laurent contends that a New York State jury verdict acquitting him of possession of the very weapon at issue "constitutes a conclusive finding" that he did not possess the handgun found in his box spring. (Id.) In that case, Laurent was charged with, among other crimes, criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree, in violation of New York Penal Law § 265.01. (See Donna R. Newman Decl., Ex. B, Indictment, People v. Laurent, No. 6052/10 (N.Y. Crim. Ct.) (Dkt. 178-2).) The court instructed the jury that a conviction on this charge required proof that on June 21, 2010, Laurent (1) knowingly (2) possessed-meaning that he had physical possession or otherwise exercised dominion or control over-a firearm (3) that was capable of discharging ammunition. (See Newman Decl., Ex. A, Trial Tr. at 438:12-439:5, Laurent, No. 6052/10 (N.Y. Crim. Ct. 2012) (Dkt. 178-1).) Because the jury issued a verdict of not guilty, Laurent concludes, there is no factual support for permitting the inference that he owned or even possessed the handgun on the basis that the weapon was discharged from his bedroom while he was present. (Def.'s Resp. in Opp'n at 2.) Laurent contends that as a result, under Rule 401, the events of June 21, 2010, are not relevant to the instant prosecution. (Def.'s Sur-Reply at 3-4.)

Laurent's arguments, however, are unavailing. That Laurent was not convicted in state court of having possessed the handgun on that date does not mean evidence with respect to the events of June 21, 2010, is not relevant here. To the contrary, this evidence clearly constitutes circumstantial proof of Laurent's involvement in a charged crime.[5] Under Rule 401, evidence is relevant if it has "any tendency" to make more or less probable a fact "that is of consequence in determining the action." Fed.R.Evid. 401. Here, there can be no dispute that whether Laurent owned or possessed the handgun used in the murder of Brent Duncan two days earlier is of consequence in this prosecution. See Fed.R.Evid. 401(b). Laurent is charged in connection with Duncan's murder in multiple counts of the Indictment. (See Indictment ¶¶ 7-8, 12, 32-34, 39-40.) ...


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