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United States v. Knowles

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

May 15, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
MARLETTA JASMINE KNOWLES, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 0:16-cr-60066-BB-1

          Before MARTIN, JORDAN and GINSBURG, [*] Circuit Judges.

          JORDAN, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         Marletta Knowles appeals her convictions for the use of an unauthorized access device in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1029(a)(2) and aggravated identity theft in violation of § 1028A(a)(1). She argues that the district court abused its discretion by excluding lay identification testimony from a defense witness while admitting similar testimony from a government witness. After reviewing the briefs and the record, and with the benefit of oral argument, we agree with Ms. Knowles that the district court erred. We conclude, however, that the error was harmless because the defense presented identification testimony from other witnesses.

         I

         On February 25, 2015, North Miami Beach Detective Craig Caitlin, accompanied by Department of Labor Special Agent William Tippens (who was part of a task force investigating identity theft and other crimes), stopped a Cadillac for having illegally tinted windows. Camelin Desrosiers was driving the Cadillac, and Ms. Knowles was a passenger. During the traffic stop, Ms. Knowles was outside of the car and in view of Agent Tippens for approximately 20 minutes.

         A records check revealed that Mr. Desrosiers was on probation for a state fraud offense. After receiving his consent to search the car, Detective Caitlin found four Publix money orders-each in the amount of $500-and money order receipts in the center console, along with $1, 000 in cash in a compartment behind the radio. When asked about the money orders, Ms. Knowles said that they were bought with cash.

         Agent Tippens later obtained the surveillance videos from the Publix stores where the money orders were purchased. The videos showed a woman enter each store and purchase the money orders from customer service. The purchases depicted on the videos matched the dates, times, and Publix store numbers reflected on the money orders and money order receipts found in the Cadillac. The money orders were purchased with prepaid debit cards, which were obtained under the names and social security numbers of two individuals whose identities had been stolen.

         Following the investigation, a federal grand jury charged Ms. Knowles with the use of unauthorized access devices and aggravated identity theft. She pled not guilty and proceeded to trial.

         A

         Prior to trial, Ms. Knowles moved in limine, under Federal Rule of Evidence 701, to prohibit the government from eliciting identification testimony from either Officer Caitlin or Agent Tippens regarding the identity of the person depicted in the Publix surveillance videos. Ms. Knowles also gave notice of her intent to rely on the identification testimony of Robert Wyman, a proposed defense expert who would testify that, in his opinion, the person in the Publix surveillance videos was not Ms. Knowles. Mr. Wyman based his opinion on his two-hour interaction with Ms. Knowles (at which time he took photographs of her at various angles); his review of the videos, which he reduced to still frames; and his comparison of the photographs that he took of Ms. Knowles to the still frames from the videos.

         The government opposed Ms. Knowles' motion in limine, arguing that the identification testimony of Officer Caitlin and Agent Tippens would be helpful to the jury because they were sufficiently familiar with Ms. Knowles. Specifically, the government argued that Officer Caitlin and Agent Tippens personally observed Ms. Knowles during the traffic stop and compared those observations to the person depicted in the Publix store videos. The government also moved to exclude Mr. Wyman's testimony. It argued that Mr. Wyman was not qualified to testify as either an expert or a lay witness.

         At a pre-trial hearing, the district court denied Ms. Knowles' motion in limine, finding that the officers' identification testimony was admissible under Rule 701 because it would be helpful to the jury. The district court stated that "[t]he length of time of the interaction between Ms. Knowles and the officer[s] and the breadth of any relationship certainly goes to the weight of the testimony as opposed to its admissibility." D.E. 126 at 15. The district court was satisfied that the officers personally observed Ms. Knowles during the traffic stop and compared the person depicted in the Publix store videos with their personal observation of Ms. Knowles.

         The district court then addressed the government's motion to exclude Mr. Wyman's identification testimony. Ms. Knowles responded that Mr. Wyman should be permitted to testify as a lay witness on the matter of identification under the same circumstances as Agent Tippens: "[I]f . . . [Agent Tippens] had only 20 to 30 minutes to observe Ms. Knowles on the side of a road, while cars are passing by, and then render an opinion as to the identity of Ms. Knowles, as contained in the video, then Mr. Wyman should be able to do the same thing after having an opportunity of several hours to identify Ms. Knowles in a controlled setting." D.E. 126 at 109. The district court ruled that Mr. Wyman did not qualify as an expert witness and denied Ms. Knowles' request to admit ...


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