Florida Court Explains the Rules for Using Evidence of Previous Convictions in a Criminal Drug Trial – U.S. v. Ricketts

In U.S. v. Ricketts, a federal court in Florida explains how judges consider whether the prosecution in a federal criminal drug trial can introduce evidence about the defendant’s prior convictions.

Defendant Rodrigo Ricketts was indicted on one count of attempted possession of cocaine for distribution, a federal violation under 21 U.S.C. § 847(a)(1). According to the government, Ricketts told a confidential informant that he wanted to buy “several kilograms” of cocaine from the informant and was arrested when he allegedly tried to trade his car for one kilogram.

At trial before the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, which hears cases in Orlando, the prosecution attempted to introduce into evidence Ricketts’ prior convictions: in 1993 for marijuana possession; and in 2001 for possession of drug paraphernalia. Through his attorney, Ricketts challenged the move, arguing that the risk of unfair prejudice outweighs any probative value in introducing the evidence.

It is a fundamental tenant of federal criminal trial law – codified in Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) – that evidence related to a defendant’s prior convictions is not admissible to prove the defendant’s character in order to show action in conformity with that character. Such evidence may be admitted for another purpose, however, if its probative value outweighs the risk of unfair prejudice.

Ruling in Ricketts’ favor, the court explained that it operates under a three-part test in considering the admissibility of prior conviction evidence:

First, the evidence must be relevant to an issue other than the defendant’s character. Second, as part of the relevance analysis, the evidence must be sufficient to support a finding that the defendant actually committed the extrinsic act. Third, the probative value of the evidence must not be substantially outweighed by unfair prejudice.

Citing the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal’s decisions in United States v. Butler and United States v. Matthews, the court held that there are certain circumstances in which evidence of a previous drug possession conviction can be admitted for the purpose of establishing a defendant’s intent to distribute illegal drugs. However, according to the court, the prosecution failed to explain how a nearly 20-year-old marijuana possession conviction (nor the 11-year old paraphernalia conviction) made it more likely that Ricketts intended to buy cocaine for distribution purposes in the specific instance at issue in this case. “Other than the fact that all three offenses involve possession of drugs, the Government has not identified any similarities between them,” the court noted, adding “[t]he instant case is the only one in which the Defendant is alleged to have intended to distribute the drugs.”

As a result of the evidence’s limited probative value, the court granted Rickett’s motion barring the prosecution from entering evidence related to the prior convictions.

Drug trafficking is a serious felony that can result in very severe, irreparable consequences. If you have been charged with drug trafficking, the South Florida criminal defense attorneys at Anidjar & Levine can help assess your situation, protect your rights, negotiate with the prosecution on your behalf and reach the best possible outcome for your case. We serve clients throughout south Florida, including Hialeah, Boca Raton, and Pompano Beach. To schedule a free, confidential consultation, call 800-747-3733 or submit the “Contact Us” form on our website.