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United States v. Hardin

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

May 11, 2018

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Keith R. Hardin Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: November 15, 2017

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Kansas City

          Before COLLOTON and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges, and HOLMES, [1] District Judge.

          GRUENDER, Circuit Judge.

         Keith Hardin was convicted by a jury of being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The district court later determined that he qualified for an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA") on account of his prior Missouri felony convictions. See id. § 924(e)(1). Hardin now appeals his conviction, arguing that the district court improperly excluded evidence concerning the firearm's operability and erred in denying his motion for judgment of acquittal. He also challenges his sentence, claiming that at least some of his prior convictions do not qualify as violent felonies under the ACCA. We affirm Hardin's conviction, but in light of intervening circuit precedent, we vacate his sentence and remand for resentencing.

         I.

         In the early morning hours of January 15, 2016, two officers with the Kansas City Police Department ("KCPD") observed Hardin walking in the street. The officers decided to stop him because he was violating a city ordinance that required pedestrians to use sidewalks where possible. After a brief exchange, the officers asked Hardin for identification, which he provided. They then discovered that he was the subject of an arrest warrant. When the officers told Hardin they were placing him under arrest, he informed them, "I have a .380 on my left hip." The officers seized a firearm loaded with six rounds of live ammunition. Subsequent forensic analysis identified the firearm as a .380 Cobra handgun. However, the weapon was determined to be inoperable "due to a broken trigger and numerous missing parts."

         Hardin was later indicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Before trial, the Government filed a motion in limine requesting the exclusion of evidence concerning the gun's operability. The Government argued that, because the .380 Cobra met the federal definition of a firearm as a weapon "designed to . . . expel a projectile by the action of an explosive, " see id. § 921(a)(3), the gun's inability to fire was irrelevant and "would likely confuse and mislead the jury." The district court granted this motion. However, citing our decision in United States v. Counce, it also noted that the operability of a weapon could be relevant to its design. See 445 F.3d 1016, 1018 (8th Cir. 2016) (per curiam). Therefore, the court left open the possibility of admitting operability evidence if Hardin first presented an appropriate basis for doing so outside the presence of the jury.

         At the conclusion of the Government's case and again at the close of evidence, Hardin moved for acquittal. The district court denied both motions after concluding that Hardin had admitted to all three elements of the felon-in-possession offense: (1) a previous felony conviction and (2) knowing possession of a firearm (3) that was in or affecting interstate commerce. See United States v. Garcia-Hernandez, 803 F.3d 994, 996 (8th Cir. 2015). Prior to trial, Hardin stipulated to the first and third elements. As for the second element, Hardin's trial counsel conceded multiple times that the gun was originally designed to expel a projectile, although she insisted that it "was so damaged that it no longer fit . . . the original design of the manufacturer." She also admitted in her opening statement that Hardin had possessed "what he thought was okay to carry, a firearm." On this basis, the court found that the second element had been conceded. Therefore, the court allowed the case to proceed to the jury, which found Hardin guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

         Hardin's presentence investigation report ("PSR") concluded that he was subject to an enhanced sentence as an armed career criminal because he had at least three prior convictions for violent felonies. See 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). While the PSR did not specify which of Hardin's convictions qualified as predicate offenses, it detailed his criminal history, which included Missouri convictions for first-degree robbery, second-degree burglary, forcible sodomy, and armed criminal action. The resulting guidelines range was 188 to 235 months' imprisonment. Hardin's only objection to the PSR was that it incorrectly classified him as an armed career criminal. At the sentencing hearing, the district court overruled this objection, adopted the PSR's guidelines-range calculation, and sentenced him to 235 months. Hardin now appeals both his conviction and his sentence.

         II.

         We begin with Hardin's two challenges to his conviction, both of which relate to whether the .380 Cobra qualified as a firearm for purposes of the federal felon-in-possession statute. "To obtain a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), the government must prove that an object satisfies the federal definition of a firearm." Counce, 445 F.3d at 1018. This definition includes "any weapon . . . which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive." 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3). Citing the disrepair of his gun, Hardin argues that he should have been allowed to offer operability evidence as part of his defense and that he should have been acquitted because the Government failed prove that the gun qualified as a firearm under the federal definition.

         A.

         Hardin first argues that the district court improperly excluded evidence concerning the operability of the .380 Cobra. Specifically, the court precluded him from: (1) eliciting testimony from the KCPD forensic specialist who determined that the gun "did not function due to a broken trigger and numerous missing internal parts"; (2) cross-examining officers regarding the condition of the gun; and (3) testifying as to his own belief that he could carry the weapon despite his status as a felon because it was inoperable. Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, a district court "may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of . . . unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, ...


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