State v. Dixon, ___ N.C. App. ___, 821 S.E.2d 232 (Oct. 2, 2018)

In this case involving convictions of felony murder, discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle, and possession of marijuana with intent to sell, the trial court did not err by admitting certain photographs at trial. Two of the photographs (“Gun Photos”) were of firearms; the photos were found on the defendant’s cell phone. A third photograph (“Mustang Photo”) also was recovered from the defendant’s phone; it showed the defendant and another man leaning against the hood of a Silver Mustang with a black racing stripe on the street where the victim was shot. Both men were displaying the hand sign for the number “4” with their left hands, while the man on the right displayed a closed right hand with his middle finger extended.

     The defendant argued that the photos should have been excluded under Evidence Rule 404 because possession of a firearm and flashing gang signs show bad character and bad acts. The court found itself unable to conclude that possession of a firearm is indicative of bad acts or character given that gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment and that the defendant’s own brief fails to identify any basis for such a conclusion. The court failed to see how the hand signals in the Mustang Photo indicate gang affiliation. Nothing in the record suggests that either gesture indicates gang affiliation, and the trial court instructed the prosecutor not to ask any questions about signs or gang affiliation based on the picture. Thus, neither photograph falls within the scope of Rule 404.

     The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the photographs were inadmissible under Rules 401 and 402. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that no evidence connected the gun at issue to the weapon used in the crime. There was an evidentiary connection between the photos, the crime, and the accused; specifically, the photos were obtained from the defendant’s phone, showed that he had access to firearms and to the vehicle in question, and depict him at almost the precise location where the shooting occurred. One of the gun photos shows the defendant in possession of a firearm resembling the one used in the shooting. The evidence was relevant and the trial court did not err by admitting the photographs.

     The trial court did not abuse its discretion in conducting the Rule 403 balancing test with respect to the photographs. The defendant’s brief assumes that the photographs are irrelevant but because the court concluded to the contrary it rejected this argument as well.