By Katharine Yale

Yesterday, in the unpublished criminal case United States v. Hamilton, the Fourth Circuit reviewed the sentences of the defendant, Thomas Hamilton, and affirmed the district court’s judgment. A jury found Hamilton guilty of manufacturing marijuana and of possessing firearms and ammunition after having been convicted of a felony. The court sentenced him accordingly. On review, Hamilton argued that the court below erred in allowing the testimony of a state trooper and by applying the four-level enhancement under the United States Sentencing Guidelines (the “Guidelines”).

The Court Uses an Abuse of Discretion Standard in Reviewing a District Court’s Decision to Admit Evidence

In reviewing a district court’s decision to admit evidence, the Fourth Circuit uses an abuse of discretion standard. Evidence of prior bad acts, under Rule 404(b), “may be admitted as proof of ‘motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident. . . ’” However, such evidence cannot be admitted to prove a person’s character. Further, to be admissible under Rule 404(b), the evidence must be relevant to an issue other than character, necessary, and reliable. If the probative value of the evidence is “substantially outweighed by its unfair prejudice to the defendant,” the evidence should be excluded.

The District Court Did Not Err in Admitting Trooper Richardson’s Testimony

Here, Trooper Richardson testified that in 2005 he had seen Hamilton in possession of a handgun. The Fourth Circuit found that the testimony met all of the criteria for admissibility, that the district court was careful in its ruling, and the use of limiting jury instructions eliminated the risk of unfair prejudice.

The Court Uses a Clear Error Standard in Reviewing Guidelines Calculations and Reviews the Court’s Legal Conclusions De Novo

The Fourth Circuit reviews the district court’s Guidelines calculations using a clear error standard for findings of fact and reviews its legal conclusions de novo. Section 2k2.1(b)(6)(B) of the Guidelines allows for a four-level enhancement to the sentence if a defendant “used or possessed any firearm or ammunition in connection with another felony or offense.” In general, a firearm or ammunition is possessed “in connection with” another felony offense “if the firearm or ammunition facilitated, or has the potential of facilitating, another felony offense.”

Under the Guidelines, there is a presumption for drug trafficking offenses. A firearm is presumed to have the potential of facilitating another felony offense if it “is found in close proximity to drugs, drug-manufacturing materials, or drug-paraphernalia.”

The District Court Did Not Err in Applying the Four-Level Enhancement to Hamilton’s Sentence

Here, at least one of the firearms was found in close proximity to drug paraphernalia. Additionally, the presence of the firearms was not an accident. The firearms were “‘present for protection [and] to embolden’ Hamilton.” Thus, the district court did not err in applying the four-level enhancement.

The Fourth Circuit Affirmed the District Court’s Judgment