EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Fourth Circuit Explores the "Complete the Story" Exception to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b)

Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b)(1) states that

Evidence of a person’s character or character trait is not admissible to prove that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character or trait.

That said, courts have found that the prosecution can introduce evidence of other bad acts when they are "necessary to complete the story of the crime[s] on trial." So, what does that mean?

In United States v. Brizuela, 2020 WL 3393440 (4th Cir. 2020), Dr. Felix Brizuela operated a medical practice in West Virginia. After complaints about his opioid prescription-writing practices, Brizuela was investigated by the DEA and ultimately convicted of 15 counts of unlawfully distributing controlled substances. After he was convicted, Dr. Brizuela appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the district court improperly admitted the testimony of patients whose treatment by Brizuela was not the basis for any of the charges in the indictment

In addressing this argument, the Fourth Circuit held that "[w]hen, as here, we are tasked with determining whether uncharged conduct is intrinsic to the charged offenses, we have consistently held that such conduct is intrinsic, and not barred by Rule 404(b), when it 'arose out of the same...series of transactions as the charged offense,...or is necessary to complete the story of the crime on trial.'"

The court then presented two contrasting cases. First, it noted that,

In Kennedy-this Court’s seminal case on the “complete the story” doctrine- the defendant was charged with conspiracy to distribute, and possession with the intent to distribute, cocaine....At trial, the district court admitted testimony describing Kennedy’s drug distribution activities with suppliers not named in his federal indictment....On appeal, Kennedy argued that the testimony constituted impermissible “other crimes” evidence under Fed.R.Evid. 404(b) because it described a separate conspiracy that involved different people and fell outside the conspiracy time period charged in the indictment....We rejected this argument, holding that the testimony “constituted predicate evidence necessary to provide context to the [federally charged] drug distribution scheme... ” because it “proved Kennedy’s participation in drug distribution activities, and addressed Kennedy’s sources for the cocaine that he supplied ... during the charged conspiracy period.”...Additionally, we held that the testimony “served as evidence of a subset of the charged conspiracy—Kennedy's own distribution network—that helped the jury to understand how Kennedy's group obtained its cocaine and how that group related to and became part of the bigger [drug] conspiracy.”...As a result, we held that the testimony “did not constitute ‘other crimes’ evidence under Rule 404(b)” because it “served to complete the story of the crime on trial.”...

Conversely, the court then noted that

In contrast, in United States v. McBride, 676 F.3d 385, 389-90 (4th Cir. 2012), McBride was charged with possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, stemming from a 2009 drug sale at the Nu Vibe Club in Clarendon County, South Carolina. At trial, the government elicited testimony—over McBride’s Rule 404(b) objection—describing a 2008 encounter during which a confidential police informant attempted to purchase crack cocaine from McBride at his residence....On appeal, we rejected the argument that the 2008 encounter arose out of the same series of transactions as, or completed the story of, his possession of cocaine at the club in 2009....We explained “nothing that occurred at McBride’s residence in January 2008 was necessary to ‘complete the story’ of the crimes alleged at the club.”...Instead, the evidence was “relevant primarily to establish McBride’s character as a ‘drug dealer’ ” and constituted “the very type of evidence that the limitation imposed by Rule 404(b) was designed to exclude.” 

The Fourth Circuit then found that McBride was more applicable to the current case, concluding that

From our review of the record, their testimony was not necessary to “complete the story” of the charged offenses and, therefore, described conduct that was extrinsic to the offenses for which Brizuela was charged. First, the testimony does not describe acts that “arose out of the same ... series of transactions as the charged offense[s]....”...Under the CSA and accompanying regulations, registered doctors are prohibited from writing a prescription for controlled substances if the prescription is not “issued for a legitimate medical purpose by an individual practitioner acting in the usual course of his professional practice.”...

Second, none of the conduct described by these four patients was “necessary to complete the story of the crime[s] on trial.”...The testimony did not, for example, offer facts that were necessary to prove a specific element of a charged offense or provide information that was essential to understanding how the offense was committed. Instead, the testimony offered new patient stories that were neither the basis for, nor necessary to prove, any of Brizuela’s charges. These new stories constituted “overkill” or “piling-on” by the prosecution, which invited the jury “to find guilt by association or as result of a pattern,” rather than examining whether sufficient evidence supported a conviction under each count in the indictment.



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Wow. I love it when courts give thoughtful and complete answers and evidence to boot. This is facinating!

Posted by: Megan Pawlak | Jun 26, 2020 7:40:52 AM

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