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United States v. Johnson

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

November 5, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
LAROY DAMONT JOHNSON, Defendant-Appellant

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before KING, HIGGINSON, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.

          STUART KYLE DUNCAN, Circuit Judge:

         A jury convicted Laroy Johnson of illegally possessing drugs and guns. On appeal, Johnson raises several evidentiary issues, including whether incriminating jail phone recordings were improperly authenticated, whether two officers wrongly testified about why drug dealers typically use guns to ply their trade, and whether the prosecutor improperly argued that an officer had no reason to lie on the stand. We affirm.

         I.

         A.

         On April 26, 2016, Irving County narcotics officers broke down the door of Room G1086 at the Budget Suites Hotel to find Laroy Johnson sitting on a couch amidst a cornucopia of drug-dealing paraphernalia. The officers found 20 grams of heroin in the refrigerator (enough for 100-200 street-level "sells"); a heroin-dusted digital scale, a razor blade, and a baggie of Xanax on the table; six cell phones; $5, 000 cash (mostly in twenties); several gift cards in various places; and a loaded Glock handgun under the bedroom mattress. They arrested Johnson and a grand jury later indicted him for one count of possessing heroin with intent to distribute, one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and one count of possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking.

         B.

         While awaiting trial at the Irving County Jail, Johnson made several phone calls to loved ones that the government later introduced at trial. During those calls, Johnson stated that he had previously planned to take a gun to his grandmother's house and that his child's mother had likely informed the police that he was selling drugs at the hotel. He also talked to a woman who had planned to stop by his hotel room on the day he was arrested and told her that police would not have arrested her because "[e]verything in there is mine."

         To authenticate the recordings, the government presented two witnesses-James Ryan, a technician employed by Securus Technologies who maintained the jail's phone equipment, and Detective Tim Hilton, a police officer who identified Johnson on the calls. First, Ryan testified that he personally installed the jail's phone system, monitored it, and repaired it when necessary. Ryan also described the automated recording and storage process. The jail assigns inmates an individual pin number they must enter to make a call. When an inmate picks up the phone and enters his pin, the system automatically records his call and digitally stores the call on a secure data server in Atlanta. Specifically, Ryan explained:

[The call] goes through a series of servers that collects the voice, the called party information, and combines that information and then it records it at that data center and then the data center streams it out to the public switch telephone network like AT&T or Southwestern Bell, and then it hits the calling party phone.

Ryan further testified that the system produced accurate recordings because "the voice recording and data stream all with the call information is all recorded at the same time." Second, Detective Hilton searched for Johnson's phone recordings by name and date in the Securus database, burned them to a CD, listened to the calls, and identified Johnson as the speaker. Hilton testified that he could correctly identify Johnson because he had spoken with him in person and because in one of the calls Johnson was identified by name.

         At trial, Johnson objected to the admission of the phone recordings, arguing they had not been properly authenticated because the government had not shown the recording equipment was in "good working order and capable of producing an accurate recording" at the precise time the recordings were made. The judge overruled the objection, stating (outside the jury's hearing) that "between [Detective Hilton] and Mr. James Ryan, I think the proper predicate has been established . . . as to authenticity."

         C.

         Detective Hilton and another law enforcement officer, DEA Special Agent James Henderson, testified at trial that drug dealers routinely use guns as part of their operations. When the prosecutor asked Hilton why drug dealers have firearms, Johnson objected (unsuccessfully) on speculation and relevance grounds. Hilton then answered:

Well, the main reason is in the criminal world, drug rip offs are big business for them, so drug dealers know people know they have drugs and they know they have cash. On the other hand, customers need to know that the drug dealers are armed so they don't try and steal from them or try and come back and rob them, so it is something that is common. It is very typical.

Agent Henderson similarly testified:

In my experience, drug traffickers use firearms primarily for protection, protection of their products[, ] their drugs or their money, the revenue. And they also use it for intimidation in my ...

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