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United States v. Ellis

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

March 18, 2016

United States of America, Plaintiff - Appellee
Albert Terrell Ellis, Defendant - Appellant

         Submitted December 18, 2015

Page 571

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 572

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - St. Paul.

         For United States of America, Plaintiff - Appellee: James Sanderson Alexander, Thomas Calhoun-Lopez, Assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, District of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.

         Albert Terrell Ellis, Defendant - Appellant, Pro se, Welch, WV.

         For Albert Terrell Ellis, Defendant - Appellant: Kurt Byron Glaser, SMITH & GLASER, Minneapolis, MN.

         Before WOLLMAN, BRIGHT, and LOKEN, Circuit Judges. BRIGHT, Circuit Judge, concurring in part and dissenting in part.


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          WOLLMAN, Circuit Judge.

         Albert Terrell Ellis was convicted by a jury of possessing a firearm as a felon, 18 U.S.C. § § 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2), 924(e); possessing heroin with intent to distribute, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C); and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug-trafficking crime, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A). He argues on appeal that the government's evidence was insufficient to support the jury's guilty verdicts and that the district court[1] abused its discretion by admitting evidence of his prior felony drug-trafficking conviction. We affirm.

         Ellis first argues that the government's evidence against him was insufficient to support his convictions. We review the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction de novo, considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the government and accepting all reasonable inferences that may be drawn therefrom in favor of the verdict. United States v. Maloney, 466 F.3d 663, 666 (8th Cir. 2006). Our review of the evidence presented at trial is " highly deferential." United States v. Kirk, 528 F.3d 1102, 1111 (8th Cir. 2008). " If evidence consistent with guilt exists, we will not reverse simply because the facts and circumstances may also be consistent with some innocent explanation." United States v. Griffith, 786 F.3d 1098, 1102 (8th Cir. 2015) (" Even where the evidence 'rationally supports two conflicting hypotheses, [we] will not disturb the conviction.'" (citation omitted)). Moreover, " it is the responsibility of the jury--not the court--to decide what conclusions should be drawn from evidence admitted at trial." Cavazos v. Smith, 132 S.Ct. 2, 4, 181 L.Ed.2d 311 (2011) (per curiam). Thus, we will reverse a conviction only if no reasonable jury could have found the defendant guilty. See Maloney, 466 F.3d at 666.

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          In October 2012, Ellis drove his mother's GMC Envoy from his home in Chicago, Illinois, to Duluth, Minnesota, where he planned to stay for several days with his sometime girlfriend, Arajay Guinn, who had recently moved into a duplex apartment rented by Jacqueline Clancey. Clancey's boyfriend, Mathew Johnson, would also periodically stay at the apartment. Clancey knew Ellis only as " Medicine Man," because he supplied heroin to her, Guinn, and Johnson. According to Clancey, Ellis kept a " stack of cash" in the apartment, but he would " leave the apartment" to retrieve the heroin that he supplied to her " every day." Ellis told Clancey that he had a firearm " somewhere in the house." He did not tell her precisely where he kept it, however, and she never saw him with a firearm. At some point after Ellis's stay began, Clancey was in the duplex's common basement area searching for heroin when she discovered a firearm wrapped in a brown plastic grocery bag in a closet. Because she was concerned and " didn't know why [the firearm] was there," she removed it from the closet and placed it in a small storage space beneath a wooden trapdoor in the basement floor.

         On October 10, 2012, Clancey and Guinn engaged in a violent physical altercation at the apartment over heroin and money. Sometime during the altercation, Ellis, who was not present when the argument began, arrived at the apartment and separated the two women. Clancey then telephoned her mother, crying and claiming that she was frightened, that she felt unsafe, that " something bad [was] happening," and that her mother should telephone the Duluth police. Clancey's mother called 911 and asked the dispatcher to send an officer to Clancey's home to check on her welfare. Clancey told Ellis and Guinn that the police were on the way, and she demanded that Guinn move out of the apartment immediately. Ellis warned Clancey not to " tell anybody or else he's coming back," whereupon he and Guinn began to remove Guinn's belongings from the residence.

         Duluth Police Officer Daniel Rendulich responded to the 911 call, arriving at the apartment to find Ellis in the front yard, loading Guinn's belongings into a Ford Expedition that Ellis had borrowed from a friend. Ellis told Rendulich that Clancey and Guinn had been fighting and that he was helping Guinn move out of the apartment. When Duluth Police Officer Matt McShane arrived, the officers went inside the apartment to speak with Clancey. McShane soon saw Guinn outside the apartment, and, having heard that she " had drugs on her person," went outside and asked to look inside her bag, in which he found evidence of heroin use, including syringes and a spoon coated with burned residue.

         In the meantime, Rendulich was inside the apartment speaking with Clancey, who " appeared nervous and upset," " leaned in close" to speak with him, and " look[ed] constantly over [his] shoulder at the door . . . as if she was concerned about somebody coming in or interrupting what she was saying." Clancey told Rendulich that she had discovered a firearm in her basement that she believed belonged to Ellis, and she offered to show Rendulich where she had hidden it. Clancey led Rendulich to the wooden trapdoor in the basement floor, but the firearm was no longer there. Rendulich, concerned that there was a firearm on the scene that had not been accounted for, advised McShane by radio to conduct a pat down of Ellis to ensure that he was not armed. The pat down revealed that Ellis was not armed but was carrying a " quantity of cash" in his pocket that was " bundled into a few separate packages or packets," which, according to McShane, was typical " of individuals who sell controlled

Page 575

substances." McShane returned the cash to Ellis, and Ellis and Guinn drove away in the Expedition a short time later.

         Meanwhile, after Clancey and Rendulich failed to find the firearm where Clancey had hidden it beneath the trapdoor, Clancey led Rendulich to the basement closet where she had originally discovered the firearm. Inside the closet was a plastic grocery bag that held two boxes of ammunition, but no firearm. Clancey then told the officers that Ellis had retrieved the heroin he supplied her and the others from his vehicle, and that she suspected that the firearm, as well as Ellis's drug stash, would be in that vehicle. She then pointed the officers to Ellis's Envoy, which was parked on the street in front of the duplex, resting on a jack and missing a rear tire. A day or two earlier, Ellis had asked Johnson to fix a flat tire on the Envoy, but Johnson had been unable to remove the spare tire from its rack under the vehicle, leading Ellis to use the Expedition to take the flat tire to a repair shop on the morning of October 10, from where he planned to pick up the repaired tire later that afternoon. After Clancey identified Ellis's Envoy, Rendulich ran its license plates and determined that the vehicle was ...

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