Fifth Circuit Rules on Evidence Requirements in Counterfeit Money Case

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered a defendant’s claim that a district court erred in his trial, in which he was convicted of passing counterfeit money, by admitting the counterfeit bill into evidence. The appellate court reviewed the standards for authentication of evidence and the chain of custody of the bill. It concluded that the U.S. Attorney had met its burden of authenticating the bill and, after considering several other issues raised by the defendant, affirmed the district court’s verdict and sentence. United States v. Davis, 754 F.3d 278 (5th Cir. 2014).

The defendant was accused of attempting to pass forged $100 bills at a Taco Bell on March 9, 2012, and at a Dollar Tree on April 11, 2012. A grand jury indicted him on two counts of uttering counterfeit obligations or securities. 18 U.S.C. § 472. Federal law prohibits passing or attempting to pass counterfeited, forged, or altered currency with the intent to defraud. A single count can result in up to 20 years in prison.

The court conducted a bench trial and found him guilty of the second count, which involved Dollar Tree. It acquitted him of the count involving Taco Bell. The court sentenced the defendant to 34 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and a special assessment of $100. The sentence was based on a finding that the defendant had produced the counterfeit bills or had the means of producing counterfeit bills in his possession. Davis, 754 F.3d at 281, citing U.S. Sentencing Guidelines § 2B5.1(b)(2)(A).

The defendant raised five issues on appeal to the Fifth Circuit, one of which was that the district court erred by admitting the counterfeit bill allegedly passed at the Dollar Tree without requiring the government to make “a prima facie showing of authenticity.” Id. The court noted that the defendant did not object to admitting the bill into evidence before or during the trial, so appellate review was limited to “plain error.” This means “a clear or obvious forfeited error affecting [the defendant’s] substantial rights.” Id., citing Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129, 135 (2009).

Under federal evidence rules, the standard for authenticating evidence involves the seemingly circular requirement of proof “that the item is what the proponent claims it is.” Fed. R. Evid. 901(a). The Fifth Circuit noted that a former Dollar Tree employee identified the counterfeit bill as the one she received from the defendant on the date of the alleged offense. The evidence reportedly also established that this employee gave the bill to her assistant store manager, who gave it to the store manager. A police officer then took possession of the bill and logged it into the police department’s property control room. A federal agent testified that he received both counterfeit bills from an officer with the department, and that he signed for the transfer. The bills remained in the federal government’s custody from that point forward. This was sufficient to satisfy both the district and appellate courts that the bill admitted into evidence by the court was the same one allegedly passed by the defendant.

Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has fought for the constitutional rights of west Texas defendants in state and federal criminal cases for more than 20 years. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

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