United States v. Cunningham
103 F.3d 553

  • At a hospital, someone stole the controlled drug Demerol from the drug locker.  Suspicion fell on Cunningham, a nurse who admitted once being a Demerol addict.
    • Cunningham had once pleaded guilty to stealing Demerol from a hospital, and had her nurse’s license temporarily revoked.
    • Cunningham also consented to a drug test, which came up positive for Demerol.
  • Cunningham was arrested on suspicion of stealing Demerol.
  • At trial, the prosecution attempted to introduce evidence of Cunningham’s prior conviction.
    • Cunningham objected on the grounds that the evidence was inadmissible.
    • The prosecution argued that it was admissible under FRE 404(b) as a prior crime.
  • The Trial Judge allowed the evidence of Cunningham’s suspension to be admitted, but not the evidence of her criminal conviction.
  • The Trial Court found Cunningham guilty of stealing drugs.  She appealed.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed.
    • The Appellate Court found that under FRE 404(b) evidence of a person’s prior conduct for the purpose of showing a propensity to act in accordance with the character indicated by that conduct is not admissible.
    • However, evidence of prior conduct may be introduced for other purposes, such as to show the defendant’s motive for committing a crime.
      • In this case, the fact that Cunningham was a Demerol addict gave her a motive to steal Demerol.  Thus it is admissible under FRE 404(b).
        • Unless the judge decides that the evidence is too unduly prejudicial (see FRE 403).  But that’s the Trial Judge’s discretion.
      • Conversely, her conviction for stealing Demerol shows her propensity to steal, but does not by itself give Cunningham a motive to steal again.  Thus it is inadmissible under FRE 404(b).
    • The Appellate Court noted that sometimes motive overlaps propensity, and that a piece of evidence could show both.  In such cases, the Trial Judge must exercise caution to ensure that the evidence is being used to show motive, and is not being used to show propensity.
      • If so, it should be excluded under FRE 403.