On February 16, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit published an opinion for U.S. v. Cowden.
I. Facts and Procedural History
This case involves the appeal of Defendant Mark Cowden, who was charged with deprivation of rights under color of law under 18 U.S.C. § 242, and knowingly making a false statement to impede a federal investigation under 18 U.S.C. § 1519.
Michael Hoder, a West Virginia State Police Trooper, initiated a traffic stop of Ryan Hamrick, who was speeding and had a taillight violation. As Hoder attempted to arrest Hamrick, Hamrick engaged in a physical altercation with Hoder. Hoder called for additional law enforcement assistance, which arrived after Hoder had effectively placed Hamrick under arrest. Hamrick was then driven to the HCSO station for processing, without offering further resistance or speaking in any threatening manner to the officers.
Defendant Mark Cowden, an HCSO lieutenant, was waiting to process Hamrick when he learned that Hamrick resisted Hoder’s efforts in arresting him. Officers surrounding Defendant Cowden noticed that he was “unusually hostile” and stating threats against Hamrick for his behavior. When Hamrick arrived at the station, he was restrained in handcuffs securing his hands behind his back, and he was not threatening any officers physically or verbally. Hamrick did display a “loud and drunken demeanor,” but no other officers other than Defendant Cowden perceived him as a threat.
As Hamrick was entering the lobby of the HCSO, he attempted to pull away from Cowden and Sergeant Cline, who were escorting him in the building. Even though no other officers viewed this as a threat, Defendant Cowden “pulled Hamrick toward the elevator and threw him against the wall.” Cowden then slammed Hamrick’s head into the wall and told Hamrick that he was in “our house” and that Hamrick needed to “play by our rules.” Cowden continued to physically abuse Hamrick, until Sergeant Cline intervened and told Cowden to “back off.” After the altercation, Hamrick had injuries around his face and was bleeding from his nose and mouth. He was taken to a hospital to receive additional care, which costed $3,044.
At trial, the district court allowed the jury to hear evidence regarding Defendant Cowden’s previous use of force on two prior occasions during other criminal investigations. The district court instructed the jury that it “may not consider” that evidence “in deciding if the defendant committed the acts charged in the indictment.” Instead, the judge charged the jury that they should only use the evidence to show the state of mind or intent necessary to commit the crime charged in the indictment and to show that it was not due to mistake or accident. Cowden also submitted proposed jury instructions to the district court, which included a generic “Lesser Included Offenses” instruction, showing that a charge of Section 242 can qualify as a lesser offense depending on whether a victim suffered bodily injury. The district court, however, adopted the government’s proposed instructions of Section 242, and Cowden did not object to the court’s decision at the charge conference.
The jury acquitted Cowden of the false statement charge but found Cowden guilty on the deprivation of rights charge. Cowden appealed the decision.
II. Issues Presented
Four issues were presented on this appeal: (1) whether evidence of Cowden’s two prior uses of force were properly admitted by the district court; (2) whether the evidence was sufficient to support his felony conviction; (3) whether the jury was properly instructed on the elements of the Section 242 offense; and (4) whether Cowden was improperly held liable for injuries Hamrick sustained at the time he was arrested by another law enforcement officer.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held in the following manner for each issue on appeal: (1) evidence of Cowden’s two prior uses of force was properly admitted by the district court; (2) the evidence was sufficient to support his felony conviction; (3) Cowden failed to show plain error regarding the denial of a particular jury instruction; and (4) Cowden was properly held liable for injuries Hamrick sustained at the time he was arrested by another law enforcement officer.
The court reasoned that evidence of Cowden’s two prior uses of force was properly admitted by the district court because, although potentially constituting prior “bad acts,” the evidence was properly admitted under an exception to Rule 404(b). The evidence was used to help establish the defendant’s state of mind and not simply that he had a propensity for violence. In addition, the court concluded that any possible unfair prejudice did not “substantially outweigh” the probative value of this evidence.
Next, the court concluded that the evidence provided by the government was more than sufficient to support the jury’s determination that Cowden acted willfully. From the evidence presented, the jury could conclude that Cowden, while acting as a law enforcement officer, willfully used unreasonable force against Hamrick.
The court then determined that Cowden failed to show any error, let alone plain error, regarding the court’s denial of his requested jury instruction. The court reasoned that the instructions given by the district court correctly explained the statutory distinctions, permitting the jury to find Cowden guilty of a misdemeanor rather than a felony if the jury determined that Hamrick had not suffered a bodily injury as a result of Cowden’s actions. Thus, although the district court used different words, it instructed the district court as Cowden requested.
Lastly, the court reasoned that the government carried its burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence “the amount of the loss sustained by a victim as a result of the offense.” Therefore, based on the overwhelming evidence regarding the injuries Hamrick sustained as a result of Cowden’s actions, the court held that the district court acted within its discretion in requiring Cowden to pay the full amount of Hamrick’s medical expenses.