Monday, November 27, 2006

Insufficient Evidence in a Gun Case; Third-Party Consents

United States v. Daniel Groves, Sr., No. 05-2902 (November 22, 2006): This case raises two issues that are related only in the sense that they arose in the same case.

Mr. Groves was charged with being a felon in possession of a gun. No gun was ever recovered, but the government called an expert who stated that Indiana (the place of the alleged crime) is not the home to any "major" manufacturers of shotguns. The expert never expanded on what he considered to be a "major" manufacturer.

On appeal, it was argued that there was insufficient proof that the gun had traveled in interstate commerce, an argument that was not developed at trial in the Rule 29 motion. Considering this argument on a plain error basis, the Seventh Circuit found it persuasive, while noting that it rarely reverses for insufficiency of the evidence. The Court concluded that it would be pure speculation to say that this gun was manufactured outside Indiana, when the only evidence was that Indiana had no "major" manufacturers. There could be enough "minor" manufacturers in Indiana to make it more likely than not that the gun was manufactured in the state. In response to the government argument that its prosecutions would be stymied whenever the gun was not recovered, the Court suggested that testimony from the witnesses describing the gun could often provide a basis for identifying it as an out-of-state weapon. The Court also offered the possibility that if an expert gives percentages as to how many shotguns are manufactured out of state, then the record might make it "highly likely" that the gun was not locally manufactured.

The government also argued that even if the gun had not traveled from out of state, its possession could "affect" interstate commerce. In this regard, it offered imaginary scenarios of the effects of gun possession. These fanciful arguments foundered on United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995).

Mr. Groves was also charged with unlawful possession of ammunition, an increasingly popular tactic in weak gun cases. For this offense, the government had the actual ammunition, which it seized from his apartment after a claimed consent from Mr. Groves’ girlfriend. The Court reversed and remanded on the suppression issues, since the district court did not make findings of fact sufficiently detailed to permit meaningful appellate review. This part of the opinion contains a brief discussion of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Georgia v. Randolph, 126 S. Ct. 1515 (2006), which concerns denial of consent by one tenant and grant by another.