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United States v. Arias

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 26, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellee
Ira Alan Arias Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: June 13, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Aberdeen

          Before COLLOTON, KELLY, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.


         Ira Alan Arias was convicted by a jury of three counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child. Arias raises three issues on appeal. First, he argues that the trial court erred in permitting two witnesses to offer Federal Rule of Evidence 413 testimony because their allegations were not substantially similar to the instant offense and were subject to exclusion under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 as unfairly prejudicial to him. Second, he argues that a mistrial was required when a government witness blurted a statement that violated an order in limine prohibiting references to Arias's incarceration. Third, he argues that the district court abused its discretion by permitting testimony by the victim that she had been diagnosed with additional mental health issues post-offense while failing to conduct an in camera review of mental health records related to the diagnosis. We affirm the district court on the first two issues, but remand to the district court for an in camera review of the mental health records to determine whether refusal to allow access to the records was harmless.

         I. Background

         Arias attended his sister's wedding on May 2, 2015. His minor niece, K.P., also attended the wedding. K.P. later alleged that Arias sexually assaulted her in the hotel room they were sharing for the wedding. In particular, K.P. alleged that Arias groped her genitals before forcibly raping her. K.P. reported that she also suffered scarring on her right arm from being pinned against a bed frame. There were no other witnesses to the assault.

         Following a voluntary dismissal without prejudice of a second superceding indictment, the grand jury indicted Arias on April 4, 2018, charging him with three counts of Aggravated Sexual Abuse of a Child, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1153, 2241(c), and 2246(2)(A), (B), and (C). The trial commenced on April 16, 2018.

         Prior to trial, the district court ruled on several motions. The first dispute centered around K.P.'s mental health records. Arias sought the production of K.P.'s mental health records from a facility in Tennessee where K.P. reportedly received treatment. Arias was aware of the records because K.P.'s grandmother stated that K.P. was receiving treatment at the facility. The court denied the request deeming it a "fishing expedition." Arias next moved for production of mental health records pre- dating the alleged offense date. The district court denied the second motion, again finding that the requests appeared to be a "fishing expedition" and that K.P.'s mental health records were protected by the psychotherapist-patient privilege. At no point during the relevant proceedings was the government in possession of the requested treatment records. The court did, however, rule that Arias would be allowed to question the victim regarding her diagnosis of bipolar disorder which pre-dated the alleged assault.

         The government gave notice of five witnesses it intended to call to testify under Federal Rule of Evidence 413. Arias moved to strike each of the witnesses, contending that the testimony was not sufficiently similar and that any probative value was substantially outweighed by its unfair prejudice. After reviewing the proposed testimony, the district court excluded three of the witnesses's testimony as too dissimilar from the current offense to "establish a pattern of behavior" under Rule 413. The district court permitted the proposed testimony from the remaining two witnesses. Each of those two witnesses was prepared to testify that, like K.P., she knew Arias and was sexually assaulted by him. Each witness would also testify: that Arias groped the witness's breasts; that he otherwise used force throughout the assault; that he used alcohol on the night of the assault; that the assault happened in the early morning hours; and that he committed the assault in a location where the witness was isolated. The district court held that this testimony was sufficiently similar to the instant offense to support admission. Finally, the district court entered an order in limine prohibiting the introduction of evidence regarding Arias's incarceration or recent release from incarceration.

         At trial the government sought to introduce the issue of K.P.'s mental health on direct examination. The government began by asking K.P. whether her parents' divorce had an effect on her health. K.P. responded that she was diagnosed with depression. The government then asked her: "Have you been diagnosed with anything else?" K.P. responded, "Yes. After this incident had happened, not the divorce." Arias's objection was overruled.

         The questioning continued. The government eventually asked the following question: "Since the assault, have you since been diagnosed with something else?" K.P. responded "Yes." Arias's objection was again overruled. The government followed up, asking "What?", to which K.P. responded, "Anxiety and PTSD."

         Arias asked for leave to make a motion outside of the presence of the jury and to strike the answer. In response, the court offered the following instruction:

The Court will instruct you that psychologically - psychological symptoms diagnosed post-incident, post-May of 2015, are extremely limited relevance to you all, if any. What the Court was expecting is something that had been diagnosed prior to May of 2015 as the answer. But the Court does think that the testimony as given can stand.

         During recess, Arias objected to the testimony and moved for a mistrial, arguing that it was "a due process violation and a confrontation clause violation" to allow testimony about K.P.'s mental health while denying access to the witness's mental health records. Arias noted that, without the records, he had no idea whether or not that diagnosis had ever been made. The court denied the motion and stated that it did not believe allowing the statement was "harmful in any significant way to the defendant."

         Arias renewed his objection the following day, reiterating the argument that a diagnosis of PTSD by a mental health professional bolstered the credibility of K.P.'s allegations and that fundamental fairness required that the mental health records be produced to allow for effective cross-examination of K.P. on that point.[1] The district court again denied the motion, explaining that allowing testimony ...

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