United States v. Copelin
996 F.2d 379 (1993)

  • An undercover police officer named Moore wrote down the serial numbers of some money and used them to buy some cocaine.  After making the purchase, she called for backup who arrested Copelin a few minutes later.  He was in possession of the pre-recorded money.
    • The police also found a bottle of cocaine lying on the ground next to Copelin.
  • Copelin was arrested and charged with selling drugs.
    • Copelin argued that he was gambling with a guy named Bailey at the time, and it was Bailey who sold the drugs, but then immediately lost the money to Copelin.
  • At trial, Copelin testified that he had never even seen cocaine, except on television.  In response, the prosecution introduced evidence to show that Copelin had tested positive for using cocaine three times while he was awaiting trial.
    • “The defendant tested positive for cocaine on three separate occasions and I believe that provides a reasonable basis to assume that he has seen cocaine.”
    • Copelin objected on the grounds that the evidence was inadmissible.
  • The Trial Judge allowed the prosecutor to talk about the positive drug tests while cross-examining Copelin.
    • Copelin testified denied using cocaine and claimed that he had no idea why the tests were positive.
    • Copelin did not request a limiting instruction at this time.
  • The Trial Court found Copelin guilty of selling drugs.  He appealed.
  • The Appellate Court partially reversed and remanded for a new trial.
    • The Appellate Court found that under FRE 404(b), evidence of prior bad acts is not admissible to show a defendant’s propensity to commit the crime at issue, but it is admissible for other purposes.
      • See FRE 404(b).
    • The Appellate Court found that, although not explicitly stated in FRE 404(b), an attempt to impeach through contradiction a defendant acting as a witness is indisputably a legitimate reason to introduce evidence of other crimes or wrongs.
      • Unless of course the probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, as per FRE 403.
    • Copelin also argued that whether he had actually seen cocaine or not was a collateral issue to the crime he was accused of, and there is a prohibition against impeaching witnesses on collateral issues.  However, the Court found that that rule only applies to extrinsic evidence, not contradictory statements made by the witness himself.
      • Extrinsic evidence is testimony by other witnesses or physical evidence.
    • The Appellate Court did agree with Copelin that the Trial Judge should have issued a limiting instruction at trial, even though Copelin didn’t request one.  Therefore the case needed to be remanded for a new trial.
      • This concept was later overruled in Unites States v. Rhodes (62 F.3d 1449 (1995) which found that FRE 105 says that limiting instruction should only be granted upon request because there are tactical reasons that a defendant might not want one.