US v. Aaron Matthew Reed
UNPUBLISHED PER CURIAM OPINION filed. Originating case number: 3:16-cr-00007-GMG-RWT-1 Copies to all parties and the district court/agency. . [17-4075]
Pg: 1 of 9
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Plaintiff - Appellee,
AARON MATTHEW REED,
Defendant - Appellant.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia,
at Martinsburg. Gina M. Groh, Chief District Judge. (3:16-cr-00007-GMG-RWT-1)
Submitted: August 31, 2017
Decided: September 7, 2017
Before DUNCAN, AGEE, and WYNN, Circuit Judges.
Affirmed by unpublished per curiam opinion.
Nicholas J. Compton, Kristen M. Leddy, Federal Public Defender’s Office, Martinsburg,
West Virginia, for Appellant. Betsy Steinfeld Jividen, Acting United States Attorney,
Anna Z. Krasinski, Assistant United States Attorney, Martinsburg, West Virginia, for
Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit.
Pg: 2 of 9
Aaron Matthew Reed appeals his conviction and 18-month sentence imposed
following a jury trial for possessing the precursors used in methamphetamine production,
in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(a)(6), (d)(2) (2012). On appeal, Reed challenges the
district court’s denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal and two of its evidentiary
rulings. He also challenges the substantive reasonableness of his sentence. Finding no
error, we affirm.
Reed first argues that the evidence was insufficient to establish the Government’s
theory of constructive possession. We review de novo the district court’s denial of a
motion for judgment of acquittal under Fed. R. Crim. P. 29. United States v. Reed, 780
F.3d 260, 269 (4th Cir. 2015).
We will “sustain the verdict if there is substantial
evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the Government, to support it.” United
States v. Engle, 676 F.3d 405, 419 (4th Cir. 2012). “[S]ubstantial evidence is evidence
that a reasonable finder of fact could accept as adequate and sufficient to support a
conclusion of a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” United States v. Cornell,
780 F.3d 616, 630 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). In making this
determination, we will not resolve conflicts in the evidence or evaluate witness
credibility. United States v. Dinkins, 691 F.3d 358, 387 (4th Cir. 2012).
“A defendant challenging the sufficiency of the evidence bears a heavy burden.”
Cornell, 780 F.3d at 630 (internal quotation marks omitted). We must sustain the verdict
“if any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime charged
Pg: 3 of 9
beyond a reasonable doubt.” United States v. Penniegraft, 641 F.3d 566, 571 (4th Cir.
“Reversal for insufficient evidence is reserved for the rare case where the
prosecution’s failure is clear.” United States v. Ashley, 606 F.3d 135, 138 (4th Cir. 2010)
(internal quotation marks omitted).
A person has constructive possession over contraband if he has “knowledge of the
presence of the contraband” and “ownership, dominion, or control over the contraband or
the premises or vehicle in which the contraband was concealed.”
United States v.
Herder, 594 F.3d 352, 358 (4th Cir. 2010). Constructive possession may be proven by
direct or circumstantial evidence, considering the totality of the circumstances
surrounding the defendant’s alleged possession of the item. Id.
Here, the Government adduced ample circumstantial evidence from which a jury
methamphetamine manufacturing precursors. Notably, the presence of these materials in
a bedroom identified by multiple witnesses as Reed’s bedroom, in a toolbox he was
known to use for storage of materials for manufacturing methamphetamine, and within a
safe containing his valuable personal items, gave rise to a reasonable inference that he
was aware of and exercised ownership, dominion, and control over these items.
Reed points to testimony that the bedroom, toolbox, and safe were accessible to
other family members and that he had moved out of the house several weeks before the
search in which the items were discovered. He also observes and that another family
member who struggled with drug addiction had used the basement bedroom shortly
before the search and purchased pseudoephedrine found within the safe. While the jury
Pg: 4 of 9
could have credited this contrary evidence, we conclude that it did not preclude a
reasonable juror from finding that Reed exercised dominion and control over the
bedroom and the precursors of methamphetamine manufacture found there.
although Reed challenges the credibility of two of the Government’s witnesses, we must
resolve such credibility determinations in the Government’s favor at this juncture. See
Dinkins, 691 F.3d at 387; Engle, 676 F.3d at 409. In short, we find substantial evidence
to support Reed’s constructive possession of methamphetamine manufacturing
Reed next challenges the district court’s ruling permitting Sergeant Kessel to
testify as an expert in methamphetamine manufacturing. “We review a district court’s
decision to qualify an expert witness, [and] the admission of such testimony, for abuse of
discretion.” United States v. Garcia, 752 F.3d 382, 390 (4th Cir. 2014).
The Federal Rules of Evidence permit a witness “who is qualified as an expert by
knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” to “testify in the form of an opinion
or otherwise,” so long as the expert’s “specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to
understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue”; his “testimony is based on
sufficient facts or data” and “reliable principles and methods”; and he “reliably applie[s]
the principles and methods to the facts of the case.” Fed. R. Evid. 702. To ensure that
evidence is sufficiently reliable to warrant admission under the Rule, a district court must
“consider the proposed expert’s full range of experience and training” to determine
“whether the expert has sufficient specialized knowledge to assist the jurors in deciding
Pg: 5 of 9
the particular issues in the case.” Belk, Inc. v. Meyer Corp., U.S., 679 F.3d 146, 162 (4th
Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). A trial court is afforded “considerable
leeway in deciding in a particular case how to go about determining whether particular
expert testimony is reliable.” Garcia, 752 F.3d at 391 (internal quotation marks omitted).
At trial, Kessel described the “shake and bake” method of methamphetamine
manufacturing. He also described how various seized items could have been used to
manufacture methamphetamine. At the close of his testimony, he offered his opinion that
the seized items were consistent with the manufacture of methamphetamine.
Reed does not take issue with the content of Kessel’s testimony, but instead claims
that his expert qualification lent an undue and prejudicial significance to his testimony
and allowed him to invade the province of the jury in proffering his final opinion. We are
unpersuaded. Kessel’s testimony was both helpful and relevant to the jury in deciding
whether the seized items could be used to manufacture methamphetamine, as most
laymen are unfamiliar with the process for manufacturing methamphetamine. See United
States v. Safari, 849 F.2d 891, 895 (4th Cir. 1988). Kessel’s description of the process
and components of methamphetamine manufacture is the same type of expert testimony
that we have routinely upheld. See, e.g., United States v. Hopkins, 310 F.3d 145, 151
(4th Cir. 2002) (describing items as indicia of defendant’s drug distribution); United
States v. Gastiaburo, 16 F.3d 582, 588-89 (4th Cir. 1994) (identifying “tools of the trade”
in drug distribution).
Kessel’s opinion relied upon his specialized knowledge and
training. And contrary to Reed’s assertion, Kessel did not offer an impermissible opinion
as to an ultimate issue for the jury. See Fed. R. Evid. 704.
Pg: 6 of 9
Reed also argues that Kessel’s testimony failed to sufficiently explain his
methodology and the basis for his opinions. Although expert testimony may be based
solely on an expert’s experience, a district court must “require an experiential witness to
explain how [his] experience leads to the conclusion reached, why [his] experience is a
sufficient basis for the opinion, and how [his] experience is reliably applied to the facts.”
United States v. Wilson, 484 F.3d 267, 274 (4th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks
omitted). We conclude Kessel’s testimony regarding his training and methods was
adequate to support its admission.
Reed also contends that the district court erroneously admitted Fed. R. Evid.
404(b) evidence through two witnesses who described Reed’s prior use and manufacture
of methamphetamine. We review the district court’s Rule 404(b) ruling for abuse of
discretion. United States v. Faulls, 821 F.3d 502, 508 (4th Cir. 2016). We review
unpreserved challenges to Rule 404(b) evidence for plain error. United States v. Moore,
441 F.3d 254, 262 (4th Cir. 2006).
Rule 404(b) is “an inclusive rule, admitting all evidence of other crimes or acts
except that which tends to prove only criminal disposition.” United States v. Wilson, 624
F.3d 640, 651 (4th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). The rule “allows
admission of evidence of the defendant’s past wrongs or acts, as long as the evidence is
not offered to prove the defendant’s predisposition toward criminal behavior.” United
States v. Sterling, 860 F.3d 233, 246 (4th Cir. 2017). Under our four-pronged inquiry,
evidence is admissible under Rule 404(b) if it is: (1) relevant to an issue other than the
Pg: 7 of 9
character of the defendant; (2) necessary to prove an element of the charged offense; (3)
reliable; and (4) admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 403. United States v. Queen, 132 F.3d
991, 995 (4th Cir. 1997).
“Evidence is relevant if it has any tendency to make the existence of any
determinative fact more probable than it would be absent the evidence.” Sterling, 860
F.3d at 247 (internal quotation marks omitted). “[T]he fact that a defendant may have
been involved in drug activity in the past does not in and of itself provide a sufficient
nexus to the charged conduct where the prior activity is not related in time, manner,
place, or pattern of conduct.” United States v. McBride, 676 F.3d 385, 397 (4th Cir. 2012)
(internal quotation marks omitted). “[E]vidence is necessary when it is probative of an
essential claim or an element in a manner not offered by other evidence available to the
government.” Sterling, 860 F.3d at 247 (internal quotation marks omitted).
We conclude that the evidence of Reed’s prior methamphetamine use and
manufacture satisfies the requirements of Queen. The challenged testimony was relevant
and necessary for multiple purposes, including demonstrating that Reed knew, intended,
or had reasonable cause to believe that the seized materials would be used to manufacture
methamphetamine. The evidence also provided an indicia of ownership of the seized
materials and a motive for Reed’s possession of those materials.
Contrary to Reed’s assertion, the testimony regarding past manufacture did not
lack relevance due to dissimilarity with the charged offense. And the limited temporal
gap separating the prior acts and the charged offense was not so significant as to
undermine the considerable relevance of this evidence.
Pg: 8 of 9
Although Reed argues that the testimony lacked any indicia of reliability because
the witnesses were felons and drug addicts, “[e]vidence is reliable for purposes of Rule
404(b) unless it is so preposterous that it could not be believed by a rational and properly
instructed jury.” United States v. Siegel, 536 F.3d 306, 319 (4th Cir. 2008) (internal
quotation marks omitted). Nor was the evidence unduly prejudicial. See id. (“[G]eneral
prejudice . . . is not enough to warrant exclusion of otherwise relevant, admissible
evidence.”). Further, any risk of unfair prejudice was reduced by the court’s repeated
limiting instruction. See United States v. Lespier, 725 F.3d 437, 448 (4th Cir. 2013)
(recognizing that limiting instruction can mitigate “any risk of unfair prejudice”). We
therefore discern no abuse of discretion in the admission of this evidence.
Finally, Reed argues that the court erred in sentencing him to 18 months’
imprisonment by placing undue emphasis on its determination that his prior, unscored
criminal convictions underrepresented his further misconduct. We review a sentence for
reasonableness, applying a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard.
Gall v. United
States, 552 U.S. 38, 41 (2007). We first review for significant procedural error, such as
improper calculation of the Guidelines range, insufficient consideration of the 18 U.S.C.
§ 3553(a) (2012) factors, and inadequate explanation of the sentence imposed. United
States v. Lymas, 781 F.3d 106, 112-13 (4th Cir. 2015).
If we find no procedural error, we also consider the substantive reasonableness of
the sentence under the totality of the circumstances. Gall, 552 U.S. at 51. We presume
that a within-Guidelines sentence is substantively reasonable. United States v. Louthian,
Pg: 9 of 9
756 F.3d 295, 306 (4th Cir. 2014). Reed bears the burden to rebut this presumption “by
showing that the sentence is unreasonable when measured against the 18 U.S.C.
§ 3553(a) factors.” Id.
Reed’s presentence report detailed his numerous prior convictions over a span of
several decades, the vast majority of which were of limited severity and received no
criminal history points. The district court acted well within its discretion in gleaning
from this history Reed’s pattern of violating the law. The court appropriately factored
this pattern into its nuanced sentencing calculus under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) and sentenced
Reed at the bottom of the Guidelines range. In view of the court’s analysis, we conclude
that Reed fails to rebut the presumption of substantive reasonableness accorded his
As we discern no error in Reed’s conviction or sentence, we affirm the district
We dispense with oral argument because the facts and legal
contentions are adequately presented in the materials before this court and argument
would not aid the decisional process.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?