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United States v. Williams

August 18, 2006


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. (D.C. Crim. No. 03-00664). District Judge: The Honorable Dennis M. Cavanaugh.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Aldisert, Circuit Judge


Submitted under Third Circuit LAR 34.1(a) July 10, 2006

Before: SMITH, ALDISERT and ROTH, Circuit Judges.


This appeal requires us to consider the admissibility of what is known as "reverse Rule 404(b)" evidence. See Rule 404(b), Federal Rules of Evidence. Defendant Richard Williams was convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)) after police discovered a semi-automatic handgun in the bedroom in which he was apprehended. At trial, Williams sought to introduce evidence that another individual with whom he was arrested, Andre Urlin, had previously been convicted of possessing a firearm. The evidence was offered to show that the weapon found in the bedroom belonged to Urlin rather than Williams. The District Court excluded the evidence. On appeal, Williams contends that the District Court erred and that, pursuant to our holding in United States v. Stevens, 935 F.2d 1380 (3d Cir. 1991), evidence of crimes or bad acts committed by persons other than the defendant ("reverse Rule 404(b) evidence") is admissible so long as its probative value is not substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice, undue delay or confusion of the issues.

As explained herein, Williams misreads Stevens, and we write to clarify that Rule 404(b)'s proscription against propensity evidence applies regardless of by whom, and against whom, it is offered. Under Stevens, we grant defendants more leeway in introducing "bad acts" evidence under one of the Rule 404(b) exceptions-requiring only that its probative value is not substantially outweighed by Rule 403 considerations such as unfair prejudice, undue delay or confusion of the issues. But Stevens did not afford defendants more leeway in admitting propensity evidence in violation of the prohibition of Rule 404(b). Because the only purpose for which Williams sought to introduce Urlin's prior conviction was to show that he has a propensity to carry firearms, the District Court correctly excluded the evidence. Accordingly, we will affirm Williams' conviction. We will also reject his reasonableness challenge to his sentence.


On May 16, 2003, detectives from the East Orange Police Department responded to a report of drug activity at 12 Birchwood Avenue. After arriving at the scene, the detectives surveilled the house from unmarked police cars. While they were watching the house, the detectives saw a silver Audi sedan pull into the driveway of the house. Williams and another man, Leon Clark, exited the vehicle. A third man, Andre Urlin, was waiting in the driveway for them. After Williams and Clark exited the car, Urlin got in the driver's side of the car and parked it in the garage at the back of the house.

Suspecting (correctly) that the car was stolen, one of the detectives drove past the house to confirm the address and then radioed his back-up to detain Urlin, Williams and Clark.Once the detectives converged on the scene, Williams fled up the driveway and into the house. As he fled, one of the detectives observed that he was clutching a "machine-pistol type weapon" against his chest. The detective cried out "Gun!" and chased Williams into the house.

The detective chased Williams through the first floor of the house, losing sight of him only as he turned the corners. He and another detective finally cornered Williams in a bedroom, where he was crouching over a bed with his back to the door. They apprehended, searched and handcuffed him. Findingno weapon, one of the detectives began searching the bedroom. She found a gun-a semi-automatic Cobray-Leinard, Model PM-11, nine-millimeter handgun loaded with a clip containing two hollow-point bullets and 18 "full metal jacket" bullets-hidden between the mattress and the box-spring of the bed over which Williams had been found crouching. The weapon had a long shoelace tied to it, serving as a strap. A consensual search of the house subsequently revealed 27 glassine envelopes of heroin, $2,455 in cash and a second stolen Audi. Two other individuals were also found in the home.

Williams, Urlin and Clark were arrested. A criminal history check revealed that Williams had several prior convictions, including a felony conviction for aggravated assault. Williams was subsequently turned over to the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ("ATF") and charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).

Prior to trial, Williams filed a motion in limine for admission of "reverse [Rule] 404(b)" evidence that Urlin had recently been convicted for possession of a firearm by a felon. Williams contended that this evidence was admissible to show that Urlin, rather than Williams, had possessed the weapon in question. The District Court delayed a ruling on the question until the close of evidence, at which time it denied the motion without explanation. The jury returned a verdict of guilty.

The Presentence Investigation Report, to which Williams did not object, stated that Williams' Guidelines range was 51 to 63 months' imprisonment, based on a total offense level of 20 and a criminal history category of IV.*fn1 At his July 27, 2005 sentencing, Williams requested a 41-month sentence, ten months below the applicable Guidelines range. He asserted that he had a troubled childhood and a history of alcohol and marijuana abuse, and that he was denied rehabilitative opportunities while incarcerated in New Jersey. The government opposed the request, noting that Williams was convicted ...

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