Revised January 7, 1999
IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
JOYCE ELAINE POLASEK,
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas
December 11, 1998
Before KING, GARWOOD and HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judges.
KING, Circuit Judge:
Defendant-appellant Joyce Elaine Polasek appeals her
conviction and sentence for conspiracy, making false statements
relating to mileage registered on odometers, mail fraud, and
utterance and possession of counterfeited and forged securities.
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Joyce Elaine Polasek operated a service in Houston, Texas that
transferred motor vehicle title and registration documents from
automobile dealers to car purchasers. An indictment filed on
December 16, 1996 in the Southern District of Texas charged her
with altering the mileage on titles and related documents for
vehicles sold at Montgomery Motors Express, a Houston used car
dealership. Specifically, Count One of the indictment accused
Polasek of conspiracy to violate the laws of the United States,
Counts Two through Twelve of false odometer certification, Counts
Thirteen through Nineteen of mail fraud, and Counts Twenty through
Twenty-four of making, uttering, and possessing forged securities.
Polasek pleaded not guilty to all twenty-four counts.
At trial, a number of individuals formerly associated with
Montgomery Motors Express testified that they had seen Polasek
altering titles or heard her bragging that she had done so. John
Richard Hubert, who had owned the dealership during Polasek's
tenure there, stated that he rolled back odometers on the cars he
sold and that he hired Polasek, an independent contractor, to alter
the paperwork associated with such vehicles.1 He also claimed that
he witnessed Polasek scraping off mileage numbers on titles.
Similarly, Scott Vaughan, a car buyer for Montgomery Motors, told
the jury that he saw Polasek altering a title reflecting mileage in
excess of 100,000 miles by changing the first digit to the letter
"A." Vaughan recounted that Polasek even asked him how the
alteration looked. He described Polasek's title work as "sloppy"
Hubert pleaded guilty to odometer fraud before Polasek's
trial. He was sentenced to thirty-six months in prison, three
years of supervised release, and a $15,000.00 fine.
[End Page 2]
and "ridiculous," observing that some of the titles appeared as
though they had been altered five or ten times. Gregory Hall, a
title clerk for Montgomery Motors in the late 1980s and early
1990s, testified that he saw Polasek alter a title by scratching it
with a pick. Once, while delivering a title to the courthouse as
a favor to Polasek, he noticed that the old odometer numbers had
been "carved" out of the paper; when the courthouse clerk
subsequently rejected the title, Polasek became angry and insisted
on seeing the clerk's supervisor. William David Bolton, a closer
for the dealership, testified that Polasek had told him that she
had found a better way to alter titles using stencils and
typewriter correction tape and described how she demonstrated her
new technique. According to Bolton, Polasek kept a number of
title-altering instruments, including colored pens and pencils,
erasers, and a tool resembling a dental pick, in a special pouch.
He also claimed to have once seen her scratching at the odometer
reading on a title with the pick. Finally, Lisa Walling testified
that she worked for Polasek at Montgomery Motors for a short while
and that some of Polasek's titles looked as though numbers in the
odometer box had been changed or erased. Walling also told the
jury that she had seen Polasek alter a title by erasing something
from the odometer box and that, on other occasions, she had
observed Polasek using a light to trace a signature from one
document to another. Walling testified further that Polasek had
numerous titles sent to Walling's address rather than directly to
[End Page 3]
the car buyers.
In addition to this eyewitness testimony, the government
offered evidence of bad acts outside the scope of the indictment.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Special Agent Robert
Eppes testified that early in 1990, in the course of a Nebraska
odometer fraud investigation that turned up documents bearing her
signature, he warned Polasek against submitting titles with false
odometer statements and obtaining duplicate vehicle titles, which
are often used for the purpose of odometer fraud. In addition, the
prosecution showed that Polasek had been convicted in the United
States District Court for the District of Nebraska for conspiracy
to transport in interstate commerce false motor vehicle titles. It
also introduced a portion of her petition to enter a guilty plea in
that case, including her statement that "I helped Janzen and Brown
get certified copies of automobile titles so they could turn the
cars back on the odometers." After the admission of this evidence,
the district court instructed the jury that it could consider the
evidence of acts outside the scope of the indictment only for
Polasek took the stand in her own defense. She admitted to
the Nebraska conviction and acknowledged that her signature
appeared on various government exhibits but insisted that she
neither altered titles at Montgomery Motors nor knew of any
odometer tampering during most of the time that she worked there.
Her testimony contradicted that of several government witnesses,
[End Page 4]
each of whom she accused of lying for various reasons. She blamed
a "little short fat" man for the altered titles, claiming that she
left Montgomery Motors upon discovering the alterations but
returned after receiving false assurances that odometers no longer
were being altered. No other witness was asked about or testified
to the existence of the short, fat man.
On cross-examination, Polasek admitted that she understood the
logistics of odometer tampering and knew that titles had to be
altered in such schemes. She acknowledged telling the Federal
Bureau of Investigation that she was aware of another dealership
that rolled back odometers but nevertheless did their title work.
She also admitted falsely listing Walling's address on titles. She
denied, however, that she had admitted to law enforcement personnel
that she had participated in odometer tampering for various other
dealers; when asked whether she was aware that other dealers for
whom she had worked had been convicted for odometer fraud, she
replied that she was not. Specifically, she acknowledged that she
had done work for Kenny Smith, but denied knowledge of his
conviction for odometer tampering; acknowledged that she had done
work for Dwayne Hutchins, but denied knowledge of his odometer
tampering conviction; acknowledged that she had worked for William
Witlow, but denied knowledge of whether he had altered odometers;
denied both doing any work for Travis Barnes and knowledge of any
convictions related to him; acknowledged doing title work for Danny
Coker, but denied knowledge that he had been convicted for odometer
[End Page 5]
tampering; and acknowledged that she had worked in Mississippi for
a company named S & S Auto, but denied knowledge of any convictions
for odometer tampering related to that establishment.
In rebuttal, the government recalled Special Agent Eppes.
Eppes testified that he had been investigating Lebanon, Missouri
car dealers, that Polasek had obtained some of the titles processed
by these dealers, and that this led him to speak with Polasek.
According to Eppes, Polasek admitted that her signature appeared on
one document, but when he told her it had been fraudulently
obtained, she retorted, "You can't prove that." Eppes testified
again, as he had on direct examination, that he warned Polasek to
stop handling altered documents and getting duplicate titles for
dealers involved in odometer fraud, but that he succeeded only in
angering her. The prosecutor then asked Eppes specific questions
about each of the car dealers with whom Polasek had been
Q Now, you heard Mr. Stearn ask the Defendant about a
number of people that the Defendant did business with?
Q Are you familiar with a man by the name of Coker?
Q Who is Mr. Coker?
A Dan Gallant Coker (phonetic spelling).
Q Did you, during the course of your investigation, find
paperwork handled by the Defendant?
MR. ROGERS: Your Honor, this is an extraneous matter, and
it's irrelevant to this case.
THE COURT: Overruled.
MR. ROGERS: Please note our exception.
THE WITNESS: Yes, I did.
BY MR. MARTINEZ:
Q What happened to Mr. Coker?
[End Page 6]
A Mr. Coker was convicted.
Q You mentioned a Mr. Witlow?
A Yes, I'm familiar with Mr. William Witlow.
Q Did you do an investigation of Mr. Witlow?
A Yes, I did.
Q And during the course of that investigation, did you find
paper handled by the Defendant?
A During the course of that investigation, I did.
Q What happened with Mr. Witlow?
A Mr. Witlow was convicted.
Q And again, what was he convicted for?
A Odometer fraud.
Q Would that be the same for Mr. Coker?
Q What about a man by the name of Travis Barnes, did you
A Yes, I did.
Q And during the course of your investigation, did you find
paperwork? When I say, "paperwork," I'm talking about
odometers that had been tampered with in that
A Yes, we did.
Q And did you--who handled some of the paper in that
A Ms. Polasek.
Q What happened to Travis Barnes? Was he prosecuted?
A Yes, he was.
Q And what was he convicted for?
A Odometer fraud.
Q Who is Dennison Barnes?
A Dennison Barnes is the son of Travis Barnes.
Q Was he also investigated?
A Yes, he was.
Q Was he also convicted?
A Yes, he was.
Q For what?
A Odometer fraud.
Q Again, did you see paperwork by the Defendant in that
A I would like to reiterate on all of those that you
mentioned that there were interviews done with them in
which they told me that and documents were seen handled
by Ms. Polasek.
MR. ROGERS: Judge, I object. That is hearsay.
THE COURT: Sustained.
BY MR. MARTINEZ:
Q The question is did you see documents that were handled
by the Defendant?
A Not by Mr. Dennison Barnes, no.
[End Page 7]
Q Are there any other persons whom you have investigated
that have been convicted for odometer tampering where you
saw paperwork, odometer paperwork, titles, that were
handled by the Defendant?
Q Can you please tell the jury those folks.
MR. ROGERS: Your Honor, that's irrelevant. We would object
to all that as just extraneous offense matters.
THE COURT: Overruled.
MR. ROGERS: It doesn't prove that she had anything to do
with altering anything or had knowledge of it.
THE COURT: Overruled.
MR. ROGERS: Note our exception.
THE WITNESS: Yes, I have.
BY MR. MARTINEZ:
Q Can you tell the jury who those people were or what
dealerships they owned or were involved with?
A Mr. Ken Smith operating as KNS Auto Sales, Auto Mart, and
Quality Auto Sales, Lebanon, Missouri.
Q Who else?
A Mr. Larry Scott Bennett. His conviction was not--it was
related to our odometer case but his charge was not
Q What was he convicted for?
A I don't know the exact statute. It was a Texas state
statute for shooting into a building with the intent to
MR. ROGERS: Your Honor, this is all totally irrelevant.
THE COURT: Sustained. The jury is instructed to disregard
the last answer.
Q The question is--
MR. ROGERS: Your Honor, in light of the harmful nature of all
this, I would move for a mistrial.
THE COURT: Your motion is denied.
MR. ROGERS: Please note our exception.
BY MR. MARTINEZ:
Q The question, Mr. Eppes, is the investigations related
only to the work you do, that is, odometer-related fraud,
was that last case that you spoke of related--that
individual that you investigated related to odometer
A That investigation and that person was related to the
odometer fraud, yes.
Q Is there anybody else that the Defendant did odometer
work for that were prosecuted and convicted?
A Yes. Mr. Dwayne Hutchins.
Q Who is Mr. Dwayne Hutchins?
A Doing business as H & H Auto Sales, Dallas, Texas.
Q And what was he investigated for?
[End Page 8]
A Odometer fraud.
Q Was he convicted?
Q Was that federal or state?
Q And again, did you, during the course of that
investigation, find paperwork, title documents, that were
tampered with and handled by the Defendant?
On cross-examination, Eppes admitted that, except for her Nebraska
conviction, Polasek had not been charged or convicted in connection
with any of the investigations about which he had testified.
During the government's rebuttal closing argument, the
prosecutor emphasized the fact that many of Polasek's former
business associates had been convicted of odometer fraud:
Defense counsel would have you believe that it's
irrelevant that the Defendant associated with a number of
people that have been convicted. I submit to you that that is
a lot to be said about intent and motive and knowledge. A
person who is working in the industry for that long, there is
no coincidence whatsoever, whatsoever, that these folks got
convicted; and that would show that she had some intent or
She knew these folks for many years. How could she not
know in the case of Montgomery Motors where she said, "I
didn't know anything was going on there. When I found out, I
was out of there"? That doesn't make any sense. She had been
in the industry how long? She did it for a number of years.
For a number of people to get convicted?
Polasek did not object to this line of argument.
The jury convicted Polasek of conspiracy to violate the laws
of the United States, false odometer certification, mail fraud, and
making, uttering, and possessing forged securities, in violation of
18 U.S.C. § 371, 49 U.S.C. § 32703, 18 U.S.C. § 1341, and 18 U.S.C.
§ 531, respectively. The district court sentenced Polasek to
[End Page 9]
concurrent terms of imprisonment of 108 months on the securities
counts, sixty months on the conspiracy and mail fraud counts, and
thirty-six months on the false odometer certification counts. In
addition, the court imposed a three-year term of supervised
release. Polasek appeals both her conviction and her sentence.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
We review a district court's evidentiary rulings under an
abuse-of-discretion standard so long as the party challenging the
ruling makes a timely objection to the admission of the evidence.
See United States v. Westmoreland, 841 F.2d 572
, 578 (5th Cir.
1988). Otherwise, we apply the plain error standard. See United
States v. Burton, 126 F.3d 666
, 671 (5th Cir. 1997).
We must therefore determine whether Polasek adequately
objected to Eppes's testimony about the convictions of her former
business associates. Federal Rule of Evidence 103(a)(1) prohibits
predicating error on a ruling admitting evidence unless "a timely
objection or motion to strike appears of record, stating the
specific ground of objection, if the specific ground was not
apparent from the context." FED. R. EVID. 103(a)(1). A loosely
formulated and imprecise objection will not preserve error. See
United States v. Waldrip, 981 F.2d 799
, 804 (5th Cir. 1993).
Rather, a trial court judge must be fully apprised of the grounds
of an objection. See United States v. Jimenez Lopez, 873 F.2d 769
773 (5th Cir. 1989). [End Page 10]
Polasek's objection that "[i]t doesn't prove that she had
anything to do with altering anything or had knowledge of it" put
the court on notice that the fact that Polasek had done title work
for individuals later convicted of odometer fraud was, essentially,
a suggestion that she was guilty by association. Polasek was
contending that her relationship with individuals later convicted
of fraud did not, without more, show any bad acts or guilty
knowledge on her part. As a result, it could only constitute guilt
by association evidence, which is prohibited because "[t]hat one is
married to, associated with, or in the company of a criminal does
not support the inference that that person is a criminal or shares
the criminal's guilty knowledge." United States v. Forrest, 620 F.2d 446
, 451 (5th Cir. 1980). Polasek's situation differs
markedly from those cases in which we have held that a generic
objection does not put the court on notice that the defendant is
objecting on specific grounds. See United States v. Berry, 977 F.2d 915
, 918 (5th Cir. 1992); United States v. Martinez, 962 F.2d 1161
, 1166 (5th Cir. 1992). Polasek did not simply assert that she
objected to Eppes's testimony; she articulated reasons that go to
the very heart of our ban on guilt by association evidence. Nor is
this case analogous to those situations in which a party objects on
one ground at trial and attempts to rely on a different ground on
appeal. See United States v. Musa, 45 F.3d 922
, 924 & n.5 (5th
Cir. 1995); United States v. Heath, 970 F.2d 1397
, 1407 (5th Cir.
1992). Polasek protested at trial that Eppes's testimony showed
[End Page 11]
only her association with persons later convicted of odometer
fraud, and she makes the same claim now. While perhaps not as
eloquent as she could have been, Polasek pointed out that the
evidence of her associates' convictions showed nothing about her
guilt of the crime charged or of any other bad act that might have
been admissible under Rule 404(b), and thus constituted no more or
less than proof that some of her friends were convicts.
Accordingly, we find that she made a timely objection and review
the district court's admission of the evidence of her associates'
convictions for abuse of discretion.
It is well established in this circuit that the government may
not attempt to prove a defendant's guilt by showing that she
associates with "unsavory characters." United States v.
Singleterry, 646 F.2d 1014
, 1018 (5th Cir. Unit A June 1981)
(finding plain error where the prosecutor asked the defendant
whether he associated with felons). Accordingly, we found error in
United States v. Parada-Talamantes, 32 F.3d 168
, 170 (5th Cir.
1994), where the government showed that the defendant's brother had
sold the co-defendant a van with secret compartments for smuggling
marijuana, and in United States v. Romo, 669 F.2d 285
, 288-89 (5th
Cir. 1982), where the prosecution introduced evidence that a
defendant on trial for drug offenses associated with drug dealers.
In United States v. Labarbera, 581 F.2d 107
, 109 (5th Cir. 1978),
[End Page 12]
we held improper the cross-examination of a defendant, charged with
a gun law violation, concerning the arrest of his son for a similar
offense. And in United States v. Vigo, 435 F.2d 1347
, 1350-51 (5th
Cir. 1970), we held the admission of evidence that the defendant's
husband had been convicted of selling and possessing heroin to be
We have not yet explicitly determined what statute or rule
of evidence guilt by association evidence violates. Many of our sister circuits, however, have concluded that such evidence is
irrelevant under Federal Rules of Evidence 401 and 402 or unduly
prejudicial under Rule 403. See United States v. Johnson, 934 F.2d 936
, 942-43 (8th Cir. 1991) (analyzing the defendant's guilt by
association argument under Rules 401 and 403); United States v. St.
Michael's Credit Union, 880 F.2d 579
, 600-02 (1st Cir. 1989)
(applying Rules 401, 402, and 403 in evaluating the defendant's
challenge to testimony about her father's alleged gambling
activity); United States v. Cunningham, 804 F.2d 58
, 61-62 (6th
Cir. 1986) (finding evidence that defendants' relative had been
convicted of the same crime for which they were on trial, which
presented a "clear danger of guilt by association," was irrelevant
under Rule 401); United States v. Peters, 791 F.2d 1270
(7th Cir. 1986) (stating that the defendant challenged guilt by
association evidence as unduly prejudicial under Rule 403 and
analyzing the allegedly erroneous admission of that evidence under
this rule); United States v. Khan, 787 F.2d 28
, 34 (2d Cir. 1986)
(recounting that the "defendant contends that the trial judge should have excluded the evidence under [Rule] 403 on the ground
that its probative value was substantially outweighed by the danger
of unfair prejudice, because it â€˜subliminally appeal[ed] to guilt
by association and potentially to prejudice against foreigners'"
but ultimately concluding that the district court did not abuse its
discretion in overruling the Rule 403 objection) (quoting
defendant-appellant's brief); United States v. Hernandez, 780 F.2d 113
, 118 (D.C. Cir. 1986) (holding that the challenged evidence
violated Rule 403 because it was only a "slightly refined version
of guilt by association," not legitimately admissible proof).
Rule 401 defines relevant evidence as "evidence having any
tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence
to the determination of the action more probable or less probable
than it would be without the evidence." FED. R. EVID. 401. Rule
402 prohibits the admission of irrelevant evidence. See FED. R.
EVID. 402. Rule 403 provides that relevant evidence nonetheless may
[End Page 13]
Similarly, Eppes's statements that Polasek had done title work for
persons later convicted of odometer fraud showed only that she
associated with criminals. It was therefore inadmissible guilt by
The government attempts to justify Eppes's testimony as proper
extrinsic offense evidence. Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b)
Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to
prove the character of a person in order to show action in
conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for
other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent,
preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence
of mistake or accident . . . .
FED. R. EVID. 404(b). That Polasek's former business associates had
been convicted of odometer fraud, the government claims, was
evidence that Polasek herself had altered titles or otherwise
facilitated odometer tampering through manipulating paperwork. be excluded "if its probative value is substantially outweighed by
the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or
misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of
time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence." FED. R.
EVID. 403. Accordingly, there are two arguments against guilt by
association evidence: first, that it is not relevant as that term
is defined in Rule 401 and hence is inadmissible under Rule 402,
and second, that even if it is relevant, it is unduly prejudicial
and excludible under Rule 403. Polasek's associates' convictions
are simply irrelevant to her case. The government never
demonstrated that Polasek participated in or even knew of the schemes for which the associates were convicted. Even assuming
that the evidence was relevant for some purpose, its prejudicial
effect substantially outweighed its probative value: It altogether
failed to prove any wrongdoing on Polasek's part but insidiously
linked her with criminals in such a way that the jury might have
concluded, as the government argued in its closing argument, that
it was no coincidence that many of her associates had been
convicted of the crime for which she was on trial.
[End Page 14]
Although Polasek was not charged with these incidents, such other
crimes were admissible to show knowledge and intent in order to
rebut Polasek's contention that she neither knew how to further
odometer fraud nor had the intent to do so at Montgomery Motors.
Therefore, the government insists, the proof of Polasek's
associates' convictions was qualitatively different from that in
Singleterry, Parada-Talamantes, Romo, and Vigo, in which the
prosecution merely showed that the defendant knew or was related to
criminals. We disagree. At trial, the government failed to
demonstrate that Polasek in fact falsified titles or committed any
other crimes in connection with the convicted associates.3 The
prosecutor asked only whether Agent Eppes had found any paperwork
done by Polasek among the papers of her convicted associates;
We acknowledge that at the end of his rebuttal examination
of Agent Eppes, the prosecutor asked whether Eppes had, during his
investigation of Dwayne Hutchins, found titles "tampered with and
handled by" Polasek, to which Eppes replied, "Yes." At all other
times, however, the prosecutor asked only whether Polasek had
"handled" paperwork for the convicted individuals. Even if the
last question was proper 404(b) evidence that Polasek had altered
titles for Hutchins, the others clearly asked only whether Polasek
had worked for persons convicted of odometer fraud. We also note
that at one point during Eppes's rebuttal testimony, the prosecutor
asked whether Eppes found "paperwork" in connection with his
investigation of Travis Barnes, and added: "When I say
â€˜paperwork,' I'm talking about odometers that had been tampered
with in that investigation." Eppes answered that some of the
"paper" had been "handled" by Polasek. We recognize that this
testimony conceivably could be understood as stating that Polasek
altered documents for Barnes. We find this interpretation something of a stretch, however, especially since the prosecutor
never explicitly asked whether Polasek altered documents and almost
invariably phrased his questions as whether she had "handled"
paperwork for the convicted car dealers.
[End Page 15]
indeed, he did not even inquire whether the paperwork she had
handled had been altered. While evidence that Polasek previously
had committed odometer fraud might have been admissible to show
knowledge and intent, the proof adduced by the government at trial
simply did not demonstrate wrongdoing on Polasek's part. Rather,
it established only that she had done title work for persons who
had later been convicted of odometer fraud. Thus, this case does
not differ from those Polasek cites.
The government also argues that even if introducing the
convictions of Polasek's associates was error, it is not reversible
error because the evidence against Polasek was overwhelming. See
United States v. Escamilla, 666 F.2d 126
, 128 (5th Cir. 1982).
This is essentially an argument that the admission of Polasek's
associates' convictions constituted harmless error. Even if the
district court erred in its evidentiary rulings, such error can be
excused if it was harmless. See United States v. Lowery, 135 F.3d 957
, 959 (5th Cir. 1998). A nonconstitutional trial error is
harmless unless it "had substantial and injurious effect or
influence in determining the jury's verdict." Id. (quoting
Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750
, 776 (1946)) (internal
quotation marks omitted); see United States v. Sanchez-Sotelo, 8 F.3d 202
, 210 (5th Cir. 1993) (stating that in order to reverse a
conviction on the basis of an evidentiary error, the appellate
court must find a "significant possibility that the testimony had
a substantial impact on the jury") (quoting United States v. Cain,
[End Page 16]
587 F.2d 678
, 682 (5th Cir. 1979)) (internal quotation marks
In support of its contention that the evidence of Polasek's
guilt was overwhelming and that her associates' convictions could
have had no effect on the jury's verdict, the government points out
that five witnesses testified either that they saw Polasek alter
titles, that Polasek bragged about falsifying titles, or both. The
prosecution further contends that the cases in which guilt by
association evidence was found to be reversible error involved
circumstantial or weak evidence against the defendant. We do not
agree that the guilt by association evidence in this case was
First, the cases in which the prosecution's proof was found to
be "overwhelming" involved situations where the defendant's guilt
was established by undercover government agents or informers acting
with the defendant. See Westmoreland, 841 F.2d at 580 (finding
"overwhelming" tape recordings of the defendant discussing a
kickback scheme with an undercover government agent and laughingly
accepting his money); United States v. Blalock, 564 F.2d 1180
(5th Cir. 1977) (finding evidence of guilt overwhelming where an
informer testified as to the defendant's active participation in a
drug smuggling scheme and government agents saw him and his co-
defendant pick up smuggled drugs); see also United States v.
Echavarria-Olarte, 904 F.2d 1391
, 1399 (9th Cir. 1990) (refusing to
reverse where defendant neither challenged undercover agent's
[End Page 17]
testimony that he had participated in a drug smuggling conspiracy
with the defendant nor explained why, as he claimed in his defense,
he would want to pretend to be a smuggler). Although the
government introduced evidence that Polasek previously had been
convicted of odometer fraud and that Agent Eppes had warned her not
to submit falsified titles, the only direct evidence against
Polasek was the testimony of five Montgomery Motors co-workers.
One of these already had been convicted for his role in the
odometer fraud scheme, and some of the others admitted to
potentially felonious conduct in connection with their jobs at the
dealership. The defendant vigorously challenged their credibility
at trial. We do not wish to imply, of course, that guilt by
association evidence is always harmful where the only evidence
against the defendant is accomplice testimony, or that evidence of
guilt can never be overwhelming unless government agents or
informers testify that they observed the defendant committing a
crime. Rather, we simply note that the evidence against Polasek,
while strong, is perhaps not "overwhelming."
This case is also distinguishable from United States v. MMR
Corp., 907 F.2d 489
, 501-02 (5th Cir. 1990), where we found
evidence that the defendant corporation's business associates and
alleged co-conspirators had been charged with bid rigging harmless
where it was largely cumulative of properly admitted evidence that
they participated in a bid rigging conspiracy. In contrast, the
evidence of Polasek's associates' convictions was not cumulative of
[End Page 18]
any other evidence presented at trial. Moreover, in MMR, the
district court carefully prohibited any evidence of the disposition
of the charges in an effort to tailor the evidence to the object of
its offer, that the alleged co-conspirators had become "preferred
clients" of the government. Id. That was not the case here, where
the testimony included statements that Polasek's associates had
been convicted and was not tailored to any legitimate purpose.4
More important, we find that the guilt by association evidence
likely had substantial impact on the jury's verdict as a result of
the emphasis the government placed upon it. As a preliminary
matter, we note that we repeatedly have characterized guilt by
association evidence as "highly prejudicial," Parada-Talamantes, 32
F.3d at 170; Romo, 669 F.2d at 288; Labarbera, 581 F.2d at 109, and
"damaging," Vigo, 435 F.2d at 1351. We must evaluate the admission
of such evidence on a case-by-case basis, however. See United
States v. Howell, 664 F.2d 101
, 106 n.4 (5th Cir. Unit B Dec.
1981). One relevant consideration, of course, is the amount of
time spent on the guilt by association evidence. See Westmoreland,
841 F.2d at 579 (finding no prejudicial impact in part because
references to the defendant's guilty associates did not "permeate
One could argue, of course, that the evidence of Polasek's
associates' convictions was tailored to rebut her claim that she
did not know that certain car dealers for whom she had worked had
been convicted of odometer fraud. This argument lacks merit,
however. While Eppes's testimony shows that Polasek's associates
had in fact been convicted, it in no way demonstrates her knowledge
of that fact.
[End Page 19]
the record"). Although the challenged evidence in this case took
up only six transcript pages of a four-volume trial transcript, it
constituted most of Agent Eppes's rebuttal testimony, and the
government methodically elicited information about each target of
Eppes's investigation, whether he had found paperwork done by
Polasek, whether the target was prosecuted, whether he was
convicted, and what for. Furthermore, the prosecutor highlighted
the extraneous convictions during its closing rebuttal argument,
telling the jury that Polasek must have known about and
participated in the Montgomery Motors scheme because she had worked
for dealers convicted of odometer fraud in the past. This
insistence that the defendant's associates' convictions somehow
showed her guilt was thus the last thing the jury heard before
retiring to deliberate. Given the totality of the circumstances,
we find that this blatant appeal to guilt by association was not
harmless. We must therefore reverse Polasek's conviction. Because
we reverse on this issue, we need not reach Polasek's other
challenges to her conviction and sentence.
For the reasons given above, we REVERSE defendant-appellant's
[End Page 20]