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Appellate Division reversed… cont

This rebuttal evidence of prior crimes was received over the defendant’s objection and after an extended colloquy at which the People first urged that it was admissible on the issue of credibility. The defendant contended, however, that the People were bound by the defendant’s answers on cross-examination and could not introduce collateral evidence to impeach him. The People then urged that the defendant had sought to controvert his intent to sell–a material fact in the prosecution–by his bizarre testimony and that the evidence of uncharged crimes was admissible on rebuttal to disprove it. The court admitted the rebuttal evidence solely to impeach defendant’s credibility and he was convicted of criminal sale, possession with intent to sell, and drug possession.

The Appellate Division held that the only possible basis for admission of the evidence was to impeach the defendant’s credibility. The defendant’s denial that he ever sold drugs would not permit the prosecution to cross-examine the defendant about specific instances of alleged prior drug sales and to introduce, through extrinsic evidence, such prior sales. Two Judges dissents such holding and they contended that the evidence are not collateral evidence and are used only to impeach credibility, and it should have been received as evidence of guilt because the defendant had not merely denied guilt but had tried to prove a material fact in exoneration of the charge, that he had never sold drugs and did not intend to sell those in his possession in this instance. Before the court, the People contend the evidence of prior crimes was admissible as evidence of guilt and under the circumstances, properly received on rebuttal. The court reversed and reinstated the judgment of conviction.

The court recently reaffirmed the well-established rules that evidence is relevant if it has any tendency in reason to prove any material fact and that all relevant evidence is admissible at trial unless admission violates some exclusionary rule. Evidence of similar uncharged crimes has probative value, but as a general rule it is excluded for policy reasons because it may induce the jury to base a finding of guilt on collateral matters or to convict a defendant because of his past. Therefore, the rule is stated that if the only purpose of the evidence is to show bad character or propensity towards crime, it is not admissible. Evidence of prior uncharged crimes may be received, however, if it helps to establish some element of the crime under consideration or is relevant because of some recognized exception to the general rule. Even when admissible for such purposes, however, the evidence may not be received unless its probative value exceeds the potential for prejudice resulting to the defendant.

Whether evidence of prior crimes may be admitted under the Molineux rule is a question of law, not discretion. If the evidence of prior crimes is probative of a legally relevant and material issue before the court, and for that reason not automatically barred under the general rule, admissibility turns on the discretionary balancing of the probative value and the need for the evidence against the potential for delay, surprise and prejudice.

Evidence of prior criminal acts to prove intent will often be unnecessary, and therefore should be precluded even though marginally relevant, where intent may be easily inferred from the commission of the act itself. It may be admitted to prove intent, however, when proof of the act falls short of demonstrating that the defendant acted with a particular state of mind and where proof of a prior act is relevant to that issue. In such a case the general rule gives way to the exception under which guilty knowledge of a defendant may be proved by evidence of his complicity in similar offenses under such circumstances as to support the inference that the act charged was not innocently or inadvertently committed. An example of the latter case is where the act itself is equivocal and, unless accompanied by some guilty knowledge, the transaction would not be criminal. In such a case, evidence that defendant did the act may allow no ready inference of defendant’s guilty state of mind. Thus, as a matter of necessity, evidence of prior uncharged sex crimes is more likely to be admissible to create an inference of guilty knowledge in such cases. Accordingly, the evidence of prior uncharged crimes was admissible to establish intent in these prosecutions.

People who commit crime to satisfy their drug addiction deserve to be persecuted

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