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United States v. Seko

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

April 10, 2017

JEN SEKO, et al., Defendants.



         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Jen Seko's (“Defendant” or “Seko”) Renewed Third Motion in Limine. [Dkt. 491.] Defendant's Fourth Motion in Limine [Dkt. 470] and Fifth Motion in Limine [Dkt. 513] are also before the Court.[1]Having been fully briefed and argued, these matters are now ripe for disposition.

         For the following reasons, the Court will deny Defendant's renewed motion in limine to exclude testimony from government agents regarding an alleged caution they gave her in April 2013 about Mr. Araya. The Court will also deny Defendant's motion in limine to exclude her tax returns. Finally, the Court will grant her motion in limine to preclude the Government from asserting she was uncooperative with law enforcement agents.

         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. Seko's Renewed Third Motion in Limine to Exclude Testimony Regarding Guilt of Alleged Co-Conspirators

         Defendant argues that the Court should reconsider its prior Order denying her third motion in limine to exclude hearsay testimony from government agents. Def. Mot. [Dkt. 491], ¶¶ 1-2, 6. The disputed testimony involves a conversation between postal inspectors and Defendant on April 1, 2013, in which the inspectors allegedly cautioned Defendant against further participation in the processing and mailing of solicitation mailers for Mr. Araya's company. Id., ¶ 1. Defendant claims that the Government's true purpose for introducing this evidence is not, as it previously asserted, to prove its effect on the listener, but rather to establish Defendant's guilt by showing that she knew Mr. Araya was defrauding homeowners. Id., ¶ 17. Defendant's main point of contention with this evidence appears to be that the Government seeks to use it show that she had knowledge of the existence of a conspiracy. Id. at 8-9.

         The Government argues that it does not seek to offer the postal inspectors' statements to Defendant Seko for the truth of the matters asserted therein, or as opinion testimony by the postal inspectors themselves as to the question of Defendant's ultimate guilt. Gov. Mem. in Opp. [Dkt. 505] at 2. Rather, the Government plans to introduce these statements to show the effect they had on Defendant as the listener, as well as to establish her “actual knowledge, or at the very least her deliberate ignorance, ” that she was working with individuals involved in criminal activity. Id. at 2-3. The Government points out that such evidence is, by definition, not hearsay. Id. at 3. To ensure that the jury does not substitute the postal inspectors' assessment of the situation for their own reasoned judgment of the evidence, however, the Government supports an appropriate limiting instruction. Id. at 2.

         Federal Rule of Evidence 801 defines hearsay as an out-of-court statement that “a party offers in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” Fed.R.Evid. 801(c)(2). There is an absolute bar on the admission of hearsay unless an exception or exclusion applies. See Fed. R. Evid. 802. As pointed out by the Government, however, certain statements do not qualify as hearsay. For example, it is well established that statements offered to prove the effect of the statement on the listener, as well as statements offered to prove a person's state of mind, are not hearsay and are, therefore, admissible. See United States v. Martin, 2016 WL 4928669, at *5 (4th Cir. Sept. 16, 2016); United States v. Leake, 642 F.2d 715, 720 (4th Cir. 1981). Accordingly, the Court denies Defendant's renewed motion in limine. It will include an appropriate limiting instruction for the jury.

         B. Seko's Fourth Motion in Limine to ...

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