Convictions in Pilot Flying J Conspiracy Overturned for Inadmissible Evidence

The convictions of former Pilot Flying J President Mark Hazelwood and two employees were overturned for inadmissible evidence. They were convicted in wire and mail fraud over an alleged scheme to defraud trucking companies out of rebates and discounts.

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the convictions Wednesday because of secret recordings of Hazelwood making racist remarks that were played during the trial. The court said the “audio recordings in this case jumped the rails of rules.” According to court documents, the release of the recordings was in violation of the Rules of Evidence making them inadmissible in court because of the risk of unfair prejudice.

The Court’s Summary Opinion:

In this wire fraud and mail fraud conspiracy case against employees of a multibillion-dollar gas company, Pilot Flying J (Pilot), the district court allowed the government to play audio recordings in which one of the defendants, Pilot President Mark Hazelwood, is heard using deeply offensive racist and misogynistic language. The district court admitted the recordings on the theory that if the defendant was reckless enough to use language that could risk public outrage against the company, he was a “bad businessman,” and as a bad businessman, he was also reckless enough to commit fraud. This is vintage bad character evidence—and precisely the type of reasoning the Federal Rules of Evidence forbid.

 

The use of the audio recordings in this case jumped the rails of those rules. First, none of the Rules of Evidence support the recordings’ admissibility. Second, and more importantly, even if somehow otherwise admissible, the recordings are a textbook violation of Rule 403, because the risk of unfair prejudice eviscerates any purported probative value. For these reasons, we reverse the convictions of all three defendants.

Due to the tapes being played and the violation of textbook violation Rule 402, the three defendants, Scott Wombold, Heather Jones and Mark Hazelwood’s convictions were reversed.

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