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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Daddy Was A Bankrobber: Seventh Circuit Makes Several Interesting Evidentiary Rulings in Chicago Bankrobber Case

The Seventh Circuit's recent opinion in United States v. Price, 2008 WL 426463 (7th Cir. 2008), is the rare case where a court has found a business record to be inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 803(6) because it was insufficiently trustworthy.  In Price, inter alia, Cornelius Price appealed his conviction for robbing a Chicago bank and carrying a firearm during the robbery.  Price was actually allegedly involved in 2 Chicago bank robberies:

     -(1) the October 2, 2002 robbery of a Federal Savings Bank on Western Avenue; and

     -(2) the March 11, 2003 robbery of a Bank Chicago on South Torrence Avenue.

The 2002 heist was allegedly completed by Price, Cleve "Hollywood" Jackson, and brothers Eddie and Michael Hill.  The robbery was apparently completed just as the bank was opening, with Price, wearing a black stocking mask and gloves, approaching the assistant branch manager with a gun as he opened the bank, getting him to disable the alarm and open the safe, and having him fill a laundry bag with money.  According to evidence presented in the case, "[i]n the two days after the heist, with the cash apparently burning a hole in their pockets, all four men purchased rather pricey used cars. Eddie Hill bought a Jaguar, Michael Hill bought a Lincoln Navigator, Jackson bought a Lincoln Navigator in the name of his more credit-worthy uncle (John V. Brown), and Price bought a Ford Expedition." 

The 2003 robbery was apparently completed solely by Price.  Again, as the bank was opening, Price, wearing a ski mask and gloves, approached a teller with a gun as she opened the bank, got her to disable the alarm and open the safe, and had her fill a laundry bag with money.  This time, however, the police caught Price in a foot chase soon after the robbery and found a gun and car keys with an attached keyless entry remote.  According to the Seventh Circuit, "With the remote, using the kind of police work that would make McNulty and 'The Bunk' of The Wire proud, the officers walked around, continually pressing the 'unlock' button around cars parked in the vicinity of the bank. Eventually, the remote found its mate: a 1997 black Ford Expedition, the one purchased by Price a day after the October 2002 robbery. The police also recovered the take from the the bank-$31,983."

While in custody, Price admitted that he owned the Ford Expedition and that he had committed the robbery of the Bank Chicago; however, he maintained that it was his first and only heist.  Subsequently, in 2005, Price said he would “cooperate” with the FBI by providing details about the October 2002 robbery (including the names of those involved).

In his appeal, Price raised three arguments:

     -(1) the trial court improperly precluded him from introducing his statement of prior innocence to police in 2003 under Federal Rule of Evidence 106 when the prosecution introduced his "cooperation" statement from 2005;

     -(2) the trial court improperly allowed the prosecution to present evidence relating to the 2002 robbery as evidence of modus operandi under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b); and

     -(3) the prosecution improperly proved that Eddie Hill purchased a Jaguar two days after the 2002 robbery through records that didn't qualify for admission under Federal Rule of Evidence 803(6).

The easiest argument for the court to address was the first one.  Under  Federal Rule of Evidence 106, the rule of completeness, "[w]hen a writing or recorded statement or part thereof is introduced by a party, an adverse party may require the introduction at that time of any other part or any other writing or recorded statement which ought in fairness to be considered contemporaneously with it."  The Seventh Circuit rejected Price's argument and "agree[d] with the district judge that Price's March 2003 statement was not necessary to explain the admission he made nearly two years later." 

The second argument was more difficult.  The court noted that there were some differences between the two robberies, such as the fact that the first was allegedly committed by four people and the second was allegedly committed solely by Price, making it difficult to argue that Price had a modus operandi or common plan or scheme that was provable pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b).  At the same time, the court found that the general way in which the banks were robbed and their proximity (they were 5.4 miles apart) allowed for the admission of evidence about the prior bank robbery under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b).  I'm not sure that I agree with the court on this point.  While the two robberies appear somewhat similar, I simply don't see how a crime committed by four people and a crime committed by one person can be considered part of a common plan or scheme.

The third argument was the only one accepted by the court.  Eddie Hill allegedly purchased his Jaguar from the American Car Exchange (ACE), and the prosecution introduced into evidence an ACE purchase order with Eddie Hill's name to prove the purchase.  Price, however, introduced evidence that at the request of the buyer, ACE employees "would inaccurately designate on the purchase order someone who had accompanied the buyer to the store as the 'purchaser' of the vehicle. Second, the employee sometimes underreported the vehicle's purchase price and the purchaser's down payment."  The trial court admitted the purchase order under Federal Rule of Evidence 803(6), which states, inter alia,  that records kept in the course of regularly conducted business activity are admissible if certain conditions are "shown by the testimony of the custodian or other qualified witness...unless the source of information or the method or circumstances of preparation indicate lack of trustworthiness."

The Seventh Circuit, however, found that Price's evidence showed that the method or circumstances of preparation of the ACE purchase orders indicated lack of trustworthiness and thus found that the trial court erred in admitting the purchase order.  The court, however, found that this was a harmless error because there was significant other evidence of Price's guilt. 

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2008/02/business-record.html

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