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United States v. Seko

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

April 10, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
JEN SEKO, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES C. CACHERIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Sammy Araya's (“Defendant” or “Araya”) First Motion in Limine on any 404(b) Allegations.[1] [Dkt. 495.] Defendant's Second Motion in Limine on Untimely Rule 16 and Exhibits is also before the Court.[2] [Dkt. 504.] For the following reasons, the Court will deny Defendant's motion in limine to exclude evidence involving his other business ventures, with one exception. The Court will grant Defendant's request to exclude any videos showing him throwing money into the air. The Court will also deny Defendant's motion in limine to exclude his tax returns. Finally, the Court will deny Defendant's motion in limine to exclude untimely Rule 16 materials and exhibits.

         I. Standard of Review

         The purpose of a motion in limine is to allow the trial court to rule in advance of trial on the admissibility and relevance of certain forecasted evidence. Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 40 n.2 (1984). A court's ruling regarding a motion in limine is "subject to change when the case unfolds, particularly if the actual testimony differs from what was [expected]." Luce, 469 U.S. at 41. Such evidentiary rulings “are entitled to substantial deference and will not be reversed absent a clear abuse of discretion." United States v. Moore, 27 F.3d 969, 974 (4th Cir. 1994); see also United States v. Perkins, 470 F.3d 150, 155 (4th Cir. 2006). "[The Court of Appeals] will find that discretion to have been abused only when the district court acted 'arbitrarily or irrationally.'" Id. (quoting United States v. Ham, 998 F.2d 1247, 1252 (4th Cir. 1993)).

         As a general matter, all relevant evidence is admissible unless there are constitutional, statutory, or rule-based exceptions preventing its admission. See Fed. R. Evid. 402. Rule 401 of the Federal Rules of Evidence defines “relevant” evidence as “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” Fed.R.Evid. 401. What constitutes “relevant evidence” depends on the facts of the case, the nature of the claims, and the associated defenses to those claims.

         One example of a rule-based exclusion to the admission of relevant evidence is Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. This Rule states that “[t]he court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” Fed.R.Evid. 403.

         In addition, the Rules also contemplate the exclusion of evidence of “‘other crimes, wrongs, or acts' solely to prove a defendant's character.” United States v. Basham, 561 F.3d 302, 326 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Rule 404(b)). At the same time, however, Rule 404(b) recognizes that this same evidence “may ‘be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.'” Id. In order for proffered evidence to be admissible, the evidence: (1) “must be . . . relevant to an issue other than character, ” such as motive, intent, or knowledge, United States v. Siegel, 536 F.3d 306, 317-18 (4th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted); (2) “must be necessary to prove an element of the crime charged, ” United States v. Queen, 132 F.3d 991, 995 (4th Cir. 1997), or to prove context, see Id. at 998; and (3) “must be reliable, ” id. at 995. Finally, the evidence must not otherwise be subject to exclusion under Rule 403. United States v. Lighty, 616 F.3d 321, 352 (4th Cir. 2010).

         II. Analysis

         A. Araya's Motion in Limine to Exclude Evidence of his Other Business Ventures under Rule 404(b)

         Defendant argues that the Government plans to introduce inadmissible evidence regarding his other business ventures under the exceptions to Rule 404(b)'s prohibition on character evidence. Def. Mot. [Dkt. 495] at 2. He objects to the introduction of this evidence as both irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial. Id. Defendant also asserts that the Government's notice of its intent to introduce this evidence was insufficiently detailed. Id. at 1. As a result, Defendant claims that he is unable to prepare a defense. Id.

         The Government argues that Defendant's prior business ventures “are admissible as intrinsic to the charged fraud offenses, or at a minimum admissible under Rule 404(b)” to prove the Defendant's motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.[3]Gov. Mem. in Opp. [Dkt. 514] at 1. It seeks to introduce evidence about Defendant's use of other companies-including MakeItRain.TV and Currency Productions-to allegedly launder profits derived from the victim homeowners' payments. Id. at 2. The Government asserts that such evidence is admissible, even without regard to Rule 404(b), because the companies were in operation during the charged fraud scheme, many of the alleged co-conspirators worked for these two companies, and Defendant used these companies' names on documents created in furtherance of the conspiracy. Id. at 2-3. The Government also claims that such evidence, including the videos showing Defendant throwing money onto a boardwalk, is not unfairly prejudicial under Rule 403 because it is proof of what Defendant “was doing with the ill-gotten gains” and depicts interactions between Defendant and his co-conspirators. Id. at 3.

         Here, the Court finds that the evidence regarding Defendant's other business ventures-specifically, MakeItRain.TV and Currency Productions-is admissible. Such evidence is relevant under Rule 401. Moreover, given the connections the Government intends to prove at trial between these two companies and the charged fraud scheme, such evidence is intrinsic to the crimes charged. See United States v. Chin, 83 F.3d 83, 87-88 (4th Cir. 1996) (finding that “acts intrinsic to the alleged crime do not fall under Rule 404(b)'s limitations on admissible evidence”). The Court therefore denies Defendant's motion to exclude this evidence.[4]

         Despite the Court admitting this evidence, it nevertheless grants Defendant's motion in limine insofar as it relates to the MakeItRain.TV videos on YouTube. The Court finds that these videos, depicting Defendant literally throwing money into the air to “make it rain” along with some of his co-conspirators, create unfair prejudice under Rule 403. This prejudice arises from the videos' ability to inflame the passions of the jury, who may rightly or wrongly conclude that the money being thrown around by Defendant originated from the victim homeowners. As a result, the MakeItRain.TV videos are inadmissible.

         B. Araya's Motion in Limine to Exclude ...


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