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United States v. Lee

July 17, 2009


On Appeal from the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 2-05-cr-00216-001) District Judge: Honorable Lawrence F. Stengel.

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


Argued March 10, 2009

Before: FUENTES, CHAGARES, and ALDISERT, Circuit Judges.


Jelani Lee appeals from his conviction for possession with intent to distribute cocaine base ("crack") in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841. Lee's principal argument is that the District Court should have declared a mistrial after the jury discovered an inculpatory document that was never provided to defense counsel. Because we find that Lee's defense was irredeemably undermined by this discovery, we conclude that the jury's verdict is not one in which we can have confidence. Accordingly, we will vacate Lee's conviction and remand for a new trial.



Early in the evening of January 7, 2005, Lancaster police officers stopped the car Lee was driving. Co-defendants Tommie Spurill and James Kollore were also in the car, as was Linsey Boyer, a woman Spurill met at a bar the previous evening. The occupants of the car were searched and the officers found crack cocaine in Boyer's undergarments. Boyer claimed that the drugs belonged to Lee and Kollore, and all four were arrested.

When she was interviewed by the police, Boyer told the officers that Spurill had called her cell phone earlier in the day from a local motel. When the officers called the number stored in Boyer's phone, a representative from a local Red Carpet Inn answered. After his arrest, Lee was searched and the officers found keys with tags reading "34" and "42" in Lee's pocket. Lee told the officers that he was from New York, but that his address in Lancaster was 402 South Queen Street.

The officers went to the Red Carpet Inn and interviewed Kalpana Patel, one of the franchise owners. She provided the officers with a registration card for room 42. The front of the card indicated that the room had been rented to "Omar Martin" for one night on January 3, 2005, and listed 402 South Queen Street, Lancaster as Martin's address. The back of the card indicated that Martin had extended his stay through January 7, but the record is silent about whether the officers were aware of the back of the card. The officers showed Patel a photo array and she identified Lee as someone she knew. Based on this information, the officers obtained a warrant to search room 42.

There, the officers found substantial quantities of crack cocaine, cash, a digital scale, and plastic baggies.

The Lancaster Police turned the case over to federal authorities and Lee, Spurill, and Kollore were indicted for possession of 32.8 grams of crack with intent to distribute. Lee was also indicted for possession of 200.7 grams of crack with intent to distribute. The Lancaster Police made photocopies of the evidence they had obtained for the United States Attorney's Office. However, they only photocopied the front of the hotel registration card, which indicated that "Martin" had rented room 42 for one night on January 3, 2005. The prosecutor then provided this evidence to defense counsel, which included a photocopy of only the front of the registration card.


At trial, Lee attempted to show that "Martin"-whether identified as Lee or someone else-had checked out of the Red Carpet Inn days before drugs were found. Patel provided the primary testimony linking Lee to the Red Carpet Inn. She testified as follows: On about January 7, 2005, Lancaster police officers came to her hotel with keys to rooms 34 and 42. The key to room 34 had been missing for a few weeks. Patel answered affirmatively when asked: "Room 42 on the early morning when the police came out and interviewed you had that room been rented at that time?" When asked who was staying in the room, Patel testified that "I think-maybe-person staying for two or three days, I don't remember that." June 2008 Supp. App. at 386. All Red Carpet Inn guests are required to fill out a registration card.

After this testimony, counsel for the Government removed the original-double sided-Red Carpet Inn registration card from an envelope and handed it to Patel. Patel identified the card as the registration card for room 42 and testified that the name on the card was "Omar Martin." Martin wrote on the card that his address was 402 South Queen Street in Lancaster. Patel filled in the arrival date of January 3, 2005. Nothing was written on the line next to "departure date," but the numeral "1" was written next to "# of days." When asked about the significance of the blank next to "departure date," Patel responded, "I just write it down, you know, number of the days, so I writed [sic] it down, one." June 2008 Supp. App. at 391. Martin had previously rented room 34, but Patel did not remember when. Martin told her that he lost the key to room 34.

In addition, Patel testified that the police came back the next day and showed her photographs. She picked one of the photographs as someone she knew.

When Patel was cross-examined by defense counsel, she repeatedly testified that the registration card indicated that Martin stayed for only one day, January 3, 2005. Patel acknowledged that she was the one who filled in the number of days Martin had stayed. If a guest wanted to stay longer he would let Patel know: "If they wanted to stay-you know-longer than one night, they're telling us." June 2008 Supp. App. at 409. She would then indicate that a guest had asked to stay longer and paid for the extra nights by marking it on the registration card. However, she did not have a registration card indicating that Martin was staying at the hotel at the time the drugs were found. Guests did not check out when they were ready to leave; ...

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