In Spinner, the court reversed Richard Spinner’s conviction for possession of a semiautomatic assault weapon. The prosecution needed to prove that an AR-15 has “a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon.” But the prosecution’s expert witness testified that the AR-15 had a “pistol grip that extends beyond the bottom of the receiver,” a term of art that was never explained to the jury. Moreover, evidence of mens rea was “very thin,” as it was unclear that Spinner had ever seen or handled the weapon. Although Spinner was in the home where the weapon was found, he had moved out two months prior to his arrest, and there were no fingerprints connecting him to the weapon. And while the bedroom containing the weapon contained documents bearing Spinner’s name, it also contained documents bearing the names of other family members.
The court also reversed Spinner’s conviction for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. The court found the lower court erred in permitting the prosecutor to question a defense witness about a letter she had written to Spinner while he was incarcerated, chastising him for allowing people to “[use] your mother and her home to do this s***…” This evidence, which the prosecutor used in her closing argument, was inadmissible under Rule 404(b), as the government failed to show a not-for-character purpose—the court rejected the government’s argument that the letter was used to impeach the witness, nor was it convinced that it went to Spinner’s “intent” or “absence of mistake,” as “do[ing] this s***” did not necessarily refer to drug dealing.
Garland dissented. As to the weapons offense, Garland wrote that the jury could figure out that the pistol grip extended below the action even without knowing what an action was, since the pistol grip extended below every other part of the gun. And there was strong circumstantial evidence that Spinner knew of the gun, given evidence that Spinner was involved in a well-armed drug operation based in the home, and the fact that Spinner’s personal documents were found in the room where the gun was located. As to the drug offense, Garland believed that if the letter created only a weak inference of prior drug dealing, it was harmless error to introduce it; on the other hand, if a reasonable jury could have read the letter as referring to prior drug dealing, it wasn’t error in the first place. Ultimately, Garland concluded that any prejudice resulting from the cross-examination did not affect Spinner’s substantial rights.