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United States v. Trant

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

May 15, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
REHELIO D. TRANT, Appellant

          Argued April 8, 2019

          On Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands District Court No. 3-18-cr-00004-001 District Judge: The Honorable Curtis V. Gomez

          Gretchen C.F. Shappert Sigrid M. Tejo-Sprotte [ARGUED] Office of United States Attorney Counsel for Appellee

          Omodare B. Jupiter Office of the Federal Public Defender Melanie Turnbull [ARGUED] Gabriel J. Villegas Office of Federal Public Defender Counsel for Appellant

          Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, JORDAN, and RENDELL, Circuit Judges

          OPINION OF THE COURT

          SMITH, CHIEF JUDGE.

         One evening on St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands (the V.I.), a minor dispute between two men over the use of a can opener escalated into each man menacingly showing the other his pistol. After law enforcement officers looked into these events, a federal grand jury charged one of them, Rehelio Trant, with being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Trant proceeded to trial and a jury found him guilty. On appeal, Trant argues that his conviction should be vacated because the District Court impermissibly allowed the Government to reopen its case-in-chief and also made two evidentiary errors. Trant also contends that the record contains insufficient evidence to support his conviction. Concluding that none of Trant's challenges have merit, we will affirm the judgment.

         I.[1]

         In the fall of 2017, Rehelio Trant and Jimez Ashby had a heated encounter at a gas station in Bovoni, St. Thomas, that ended with each displaying his pistol to the other. Trant wanted to use a can opener inside the gas station, but Ashby was at a counter and in his way. Trant asked Ashby to move, but Ashby did not hear him. Trant then yelled his request in Ashby's ear. Although Ashby complied, he admonished Trant for screaming at him. The encounter seemed to have ended when the two men shook hands and Trant exited the store. Yet Trant signaled Ashby to join him outside. When Ashby did so, a breeze blew hard enough against Trant that Ashby, standing less than a car's length away, was able to see Trant's waistband tighten and the imprint of a gun against his body. Ashby immediately brandished his firearm and backed away. Then standing "a little more than a car length" from Ashby, Trant lifted up his shirt and revealed a gun in his waistband. (App. 61.) Just then, a woman walked between the two men, and Trant left the gas station. Ashby quickly called the police to report the incident.

         Several months later, a federal grand jury charged Trant with one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Before trial, the Government and Trant stipulated that he had a prior felony conviction. In addition, Trant filed a motion in limine seeking the Court's permission to inquire into "Ashby's unlawful possession of two firearms for impeachment purposes which are probative of his character for untruthfulness." (App. 24-25.) The District Court deferred ruling on this motion until trial.

         At trial, the Government's case included the testimony of Ashby and Sergeant Bernard Burke, the Supervisor of the Virgin Islands Police Department's Firearms Unit. Ashby described his encounter with Trant, and added that the light "was good" when he saw both the imprint of a gun in Trant's waistband and Trant lift his shirt to expose the gun. (App. 60, 76-77.) On cross examination, Ashby testified that he knew the imprint in Trant's waistband was of a gun and recalled telling the police that Trant's firearm "look[ed] like a Glock"- a gun that Ashby said resembled his own Glock pistol. (App. 71.) Trant's counsel attempted to ask Ashby three questions about the unlawfulness of his possession of a firearm at the time of the altercation with Trant, but the District Court sustained, apparently under Federal Rules of Evidence 608 and 609, the Government's objections to these questions.[2] The Government then called Sergeant Burke to testify that there are no firearm manufacturing facilities within the territorial boundaries of the V.I. After that, the Government rested its case.

         Next, Trant moved under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29(a) for a judgment of acquittal. The District Court, noting that the trial record lacked evidence that Trant was a convicted felon (a requirement for conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), see United States v. Foster, 891 F.3d 93, 111 (3d Cir. 2018)), asked the prosecutor about the missing evidence to support this "essential element." (App. 84.) She responded that she had forgotten to move the admission of the stipulation of Trant's prior felony conviction. The prosecutor then incorrectly asserted that she had "asked the Court prior to the jury coming in to address [the stipulation] and to inquire as to when that stipulation would be presented to the jury." [3] (App. 85.) This left the Government with no alternative but to move to reopen its case-in-chief. In support of its motion, the prosecutor argued that the Court should grant the motion because Trant would not suffer any prejudice from the admission of the stipulation. Trant objected but offered no reason why the Court should deny the motion other than that "it's too late" and "[t]he [G]overnment has rested." (App. 88.)

         The District Court granted the Government's motion to reopen. After the stipulation was admitted into evidence, the Government again rested. Trant, not presenting any evidence of his own, also rested.

         The jury found Trant guilty of violating § 922(g)(1), and Trant was later sentenced to 71 months' imprisonment and three years of supervised release. Trant timely appealed.

         II.

         The District Court had jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 3231 and 48 U.S.C. § 1612(a), and we have ...


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