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United States v. Christensen

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 10, 2016

United States of America, Plaintiff,
v.
Gary Steven Christensen, Defendant.

ORDER

DAVID G. CAMPBELL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

The government has filed a motion in limine to prevent social psychologist Dr. Michael J. Wood from presenting certain testimony. Doc. 48. The motion has been fully briefed (Docs. 57, 66), and the Court held oral argument on May 3, 2016. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the motion in part and deny it in part.

I. Background.

Defendant is charged with fourteen violations of federal income tax law based on his alleged failure to pay taxes from 2004 through 2010. Doc. 1. At trial, Defendant intends to argue that he holds a good faith belief that he is not subject to federal tax law, and that this belief negates the willfulness element of the charged offenses. See Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 202 (1991). The defense intends to call Dr. Michael J. Wood, a social psychologist who interviewed and evaluated Defendant in February and April 2016. Doc. 58 at 2. The defense expects Dr. Wood to testify that “[Defendant’s] actions over the past two decades are consistent with someone who sincerely believes in a conspiracy” (id.), namely, that U.S. citizens are not required to pay federal income tax, that the government has suppressed this information, and that individuals who seek to expose it are subject to persecution. Doc. 58-1 at 2.

Dr. Wood has written a letter describing the scope of the testimony he is prepared to provide. Id. at 2-4. Dr. Wood will testify to two general propositions: (1) that certain people exhibit a “general conspiracy mentality, ” which makes them susceptible to belief in a wide variety of conspiracy theories; and (2) that “[e]xposure to a particular conspiracy theory is known to be a significant risk factor for belief in it.” Id. at 2-3. This testimony will be used to buttress Defendant’s assertion that he has studied U.S. tax laws for years and has concluded that they do not apply to him. Dr. Wood is also prepared to testify to three specific propositions: (1) that Defendant possesses a “general conspiracy mentality”; (2) that Defendant exhibits “an extensive knowledge of the taxation-denial community”; and (3) that Defendant does not appear to be lying about his involvement in or agreement with the taxation-conspiracy subculture. Id. at 2-3. Defense counsel state that Dr. Wood will not testify that “Dr. Christensen genuinely believed he did not have to pay taxes” - presumably at the time he failed to pay them. Doc. 58 at 2.

The government stated at oral argument that it does not oppose Dr. Wood’s testimony regarding the two general propositions listed above.[1] The government objects to the remainder of Dr. Wood’s proposed testimony, arguing that it is not reliable or helpful within the meaning of Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Doc. 48 at 4-6. The government also argues that certain aspects of Dr. Wood’s testimony would violate Rule 704(b) and the hearsay rules.

II. Analysis.

To be admissible, expert testimony must help the trier of fact understand the evidence or determine a fact in issue, and must be the product of “reliable principles and methods.” Fed.R.Evid. 702. The proponent of expert testimony bears the burden of establishing that the testimony satisfies Rule 702. Cooper v. Brown, 510 F.3d 870, 942 (9th Cir. 2007).

A. Helpfulness.

1. Defendant’s Current Mental State.

The government argues that Dr. Wood’s testimony is based on Defendant’s current beliefs, that those beliefs may differ from beliefs Defendant held when he engaged in the conduct at issue in this case, and that Dr. Wood’s testimony therefore lacks foundation and would not be helpful to the jury. Doc. 66 at 4-5. The Court is not persuaded. In United States v. Cohen, 510 F.3d 1114 (9th Cir. 2007), the defendant was charged with willful violations of federal tax law. The defendant sought to admit expert testimony from a psychiatrist who examined him on two occasions shortly before trial. Id. at 1122. The psychiatrist was prepared to testify that the defendant suffered from narcissistic personality disorder which caused him to cling to his views about federal tax law despite overwhelming evidence that these views were incorrect. Id. at 1122-23. The district court excluded the testimony, finding that it was not helpful because it did not rule out the possibility that the defendant could have understood his legal duties. Id. at 1123. The Ninth Circuit reversed. Id. at 1124. The court explained that the testimony was helpful because it suggested that the defendant “had a tendency to cling doggedly to [his] beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contradictions, ” which bolstered his argument that he held a good faith belief that he was not subject to federal tax law. Id.

In United States v. Finley, 301 F.3d 1000 (9th Cir. 2002), the defendant was charged with making a false claim against the United States after he attempted to pay off his tax debt with a negotiable instrument that was clearly bogus. Id. at 1004. The defendant sought to admit expert testimony from a psychologist who examined him twice before trial. Id. at 1005. The psychologist was prepared to testify that the defendant had “an atypical belief system, ” which caused him to reject information that was contrary to his existing beliefs. Id. at 1005-06. The district court excluded the testimony under Rule 702, in part because the testimony did not exceed the common knowledge of the average lay person and in part because the jury should make its own determinations regarding the sincerity of the defendant’s beliefs. Id. at 1012. The Ninth Circuit reversed, explaining that the testimony was helpful because it “would have offered an explanation as to how an otherwise normal man could believe that these financial instruments were valid and reject all evidence to the contrary.” Id. at 1013. The court acknowledged certain facts that cast doubt on the credibility of the psychologist’s testimony - including the subjective nature of his conclusions and his reliance on the defendant’s statements - but found that these weaknesses were properly addressed by the government on cross-examination. Id. at 1014.

As these cases show, expert testimony about a defendant’s current mental state may be helpful to the extent it allows the jury to draw inferences about characteristics the defendant had at the time of the charged offense. Dr. Wood will opine that certain people exhibit a general conspiracy mentality which makes them susceptible to belief in a wide variety of conspiracy theories, that repeated exposure to a particular conspiracy theory is known to increase the odds of believing it, that Defendant possesses the characteristics of a general conspiracy mentality, and that Defendant has had extensive exposure to the views of the taxation-denial community. Like the opinions in Cohen and Finley, these opinions concern mental characteristics that help explain why Defendant would accept otherwise implausible views of the federal tax laws. The Court finds that this evidence could be helpful to the jury’s evaluation of the defense. The government certainly can ...


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