USA vs. Tommy Webster

Tommy Lee Webster, Jr. was charged in the South Bend Division in the Northern District of Indiana in an indictment that alleged: possession with intent to distribute cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1); possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c); manufacture of marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1); possession with intent to deliver cocaine2 No. 13-1927 base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(A)(1); and possession of a firearm as a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). A jury convicted him on all counts, and Judge Miller sentenced him to 168 months’ imprisonment followed by three years of supervised release.

Webster appealed and challenged his convictions on two grounds. First, he asserted that the district court erred in allowing the admission into evidence of forensic laboratory reports as well as a recording of the conversation involving Webster in the squad car. In addition, he contends that the evidence was insufficient to support the convictions.

Judge Rovner, writing for the Court, held that there could be no harm to Webster because the failure to present the testimony of the analyst who prepared the report had no impact on his defense, which did not challenge the existence of the drugs but contested only his connection to them. Nothing in the report addressed his connection to the drugs. Only the nature of the substances was presented in the testimony regarding the lab report, and that was not a contested issue at trial. Accordingly, the error in the admission of the forensic report evidence did not require reversal.

As to the conversations in the squad car, the Court held that in order to succeed on that claim, Webster had to establish he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the conversation that took place in the caged portion of the squad car. A reasonable expectation of privacy exists when a defendant (1) manifests a subjective expectation of privacy and (2) society recognizes that expectation to be reasonable.

The Court assumed Webster manifested a subjective expectation of privacy, which was evidenced by his silencing of the conversation when the officer was in the patrol car, as would be expected from someone seeking to keep a conversation private.

As to the second prong, the objective portion of the test, Webster failed. The question is whether the expectation is one that society accepts as reasonable. The 7th Circuit joined 6 other Circuits and held that there is no objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in a conversation that occurs in a squad car.

As to the sufficiency of evidence, the Court denied Webster’s claimed error. The Webster case can be found here.

Case decided January 5th, 2015.

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