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United States v. Newell

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

March 3, 2015




THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Defendant's Motion for New Trial [Doc. 30], and his Motion for Rule 29 Acquittal. [Doc. 32].


On April 1, 2014, the Defendant was named in a Bill of Indictment and charged with two identical offenses. Each count charged the Defendant with possessing one round of ammunition on July 30, 2013 (a separate bullet for each charge), after having previously been convicted of a felony, in violation of 18 U.S.C. ยง 922(g)(1). [Doc. 1]. On April 4, 2014, the Defendant made his initial appearance and submitted a financial affidavit requesting the appointment of counsel. [Doc. 3 (sealed)]. The Magistrate Judge appointed counsel to represent the Defendant. [Doc. 5 (sealed)]. The Defendant was arraigned on April 9, 2014, and appeared for a jury trial on June 23, 2014. [Docket Sheet]. The jury convicted the Defendant on both counts the following day. [Doc. 26].

On July 3, 2014, the Defendant filed a motion to extend the time within which he could file a post-verdict Rule 29 motion. [Doc. 28]. The Court granted such motion extending Defendant's Rule 29 motion deadline to July 22, 2014. [Doc. 29]. On July 9, 2014, Defendant filed his Motion for New Trial. [Doc. 30]. On July 22, 2014, Defendant filed his Motion for Rule 29 Acquittal. [Doc. 32]. The Government responded [Docs. 31 and 33] to the Defendant's motions and the Defendant's motions, therefore, are ripe for the Court's consideration.


I. Rule 29 Motion.

When confronted with a post-verdict motion for judgment of acquittal, the Court must assess whether, taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the Government, a rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the charged offense beyond a reasonable doubt. See United States v. Higgs, 353 F.3d 281, 313 (4th Cir. 2003) (holding that a conviction must be sustained if there is "evidence that a reasonable finder of fact could accept as adequate and sufficient to support a conclusion of a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt") (quoting United States v. Burgos, 94 F.3d 849, 862 (4th Cir. 1996) (en banc)). The Court does not weigh the credibility of witnesses but must accept any such determinations made by the jury which are necessarily resolved by the verdict. See United States v. Wilson, 118 F.3d 228, 234 (4th Cir. 1997) (holding that credibility determinations are reserved for the jury, and if the evidence supports different, reasonable interpretations, the jury decides which interpretation to believe) (internal quotation marks omitted); United States v. Arrington, 719 F.2d 701, 704 (4th Cir. 1983).

II. Rule 33 Motion.

A defendant's motion for new trial is a discretionary matter for the Court to resolve. A district court may order a new trial if the evidence weighs so heavily against the verdict that to deny a new trial would be contrary to the "interest of justice." Fed.R.Crim.P. 33(a). The Court's review is much more expansive when considering a new trial motion as opposed to an acquittal motion. "In deciding a motion for a new trial, the district court is not constrained by the requirement that it view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government. Thus, it may evaluate the credibility of the witnesses." United States v. Arrington, 757 F.2d 1484, 1485 (4th Cir. 1985); in accord, United States v. Campbell, 977 F.2d 854, 860 (4th Cir. 1992).


I. Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal (Rule 29).

In the light most favorable to the Government, the evidence considered by the jury was as follows. Henderson County, North Carolina, deputy sheriff Josh Hopper was on duty July 30, 2013, when he noticed a gold-colored car in an area known for criminal activity. [T. 119]. Hopper radioed in the license plate number of the car to the sheriff's communications center and learned that a "plate pickup order" had been issued for the tag. Hopper testified that a "plate pickup order" meant the vehicle displaying such tag was presently uninsured and any law enforcement officer could seize the license plate. [T.120]. Armed with this knowledge, Hopper initiated a traffic stop of the gold-colored car. The Defendant was driving the car at the time. [T. 120]. Also in the car as passengers were Rebecca Heath and Joseph Duncan. Hopper learned that the Defendant's driver's license was suspended and issued him a ticket for driving while his license was revoked. [T. 122]. Then, according to his testimony, Hopper asked both the Defendant and Heath[1] whether he could search the car. Both consented to the search. [T. 123].

In the trunk of the vehicle, Hopper located a black briefcase and then proceeded to ask the three occupants who owned the briefcase. [T. 124]. The Defendant claimed ownership of the briefcase. [T. 124]. Hopper opened the briefcase and found, among other things, a black mask, several gloves, several knives, and a silver-colored metal cylinder approximately 8 inches long. [T. 125]. Hopper testified that he had no idea what purpose the metal cylinder served. [T. 125]. Detective Westphal, who was assisting Hopper with the car search, opened the metal cylinder and discovered a.22 caliber bullet inside. [T. 126]. In the center of the butt-end of the bullet's shell casing was an indentation. Hopper noticed this indentation ...

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