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Not All of Your Bad Acts Can be Used Against You

A recent decision by the First District Court of Appeal makes it clear the prosecutor generally cannot use other bad acts you may have committed to prove you did the act for which you are currently being prosecuted.

In Stephen Trahan v. State, while parked in his driveway the victim’s truck was broken into, ransacked and his backpack stolen. A few days later, the victim happened to see Mr. Trahan  walking through his neighborhood with what appeared to be his stolen backpack. He confronted Trahan and demanded he hand over the backpack. The police were summoned, and a subsequent  investigation ultimately resulted in Trahan’s arrest on burglary charges.

As the case progressed, the victim’s ownership of the backpack became the dispositive factual issue.  If proven, it would be the link between Trahan and the vehicle burglary. During the trial, the State introduced evidence that when Trahan was arrested, a checkbook belonging to a third party with no connection to the burglary was found inside the backpack. Trahan’s lawyer objected to the admission of this evidence.  The trial court nonetheless admitted it, and Trahan was found guilty.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s ruling admitting the evidence and ordered a new trial be held this time excluding evidence about the checkbook in the backpack.  Initially, the court noted evidence of other crimes or conduct is inadmissible where its only purpose is to show bad character or propensity to commit bad acts, citing Williams v. State, 110 So. 2d 654, 663 (Fla. 1959) and §90.404(2)(a), Fla. Stat. (2017) (codifying Williams rule). The court further noted, however, under Williams evidence of other crimes or bad acts may be admitted but only if relevant to prove a material issue such as motive, opportunity intent or identity.

The court then noted that although during the trial the prosecutor and State witnesses carefully avoided making the overt assertion that Trahan had had stolen the checkbook, the practical effect of the evidence concerning the checkbook lead the jury to that conclusion.  The court observed the Williams rule is not limited to the exclusion of explicit crimes. Rather, the rule more broadly precludes evidence of other crimes, wrongs or misdeeds.

The court then observed when the jury was told Trahan, an accused thief, also had a checkbook belonging to somebody else, the natural implication was that he stole it, and was therefore prone to theft. The court stated the law was settled that gratuitous evidence of collateral conduct which may bear adversely on a defendant’s character should be excluded. And, the court further noted it had consistently held evidence of possession of even potentially incriminating items, not relevant to the charged crime, was inadmissible. By way of example, the court pointed to its opinions in  Slocum v. State, 219 So. 3d 1014, 1015 (Fla. 1st DCA 2017) (error to allow evidence regarding cash found in defendant’s bedroom in cocaine possession trial where it was irrelevant to any issue); McCuin v. State, 198 So. 3d 1066, 1068 (Fla. 1st DCA 2016) (car burglar’s possession of wallet belonging to unrelated party was inadmissible collateral crime evidence); Jackson v. State, 570 So. 2d 1388, 1389 (Fla. 1st DCA 1990) (evidence of cash found with defendant charged with possession of cocaine caused improper speculation he was engaged in other bad acts or criminal conduct); and Richardson v. State, 528 So. 2d 981, 982 (Fla. 1st DCA 1988) (evidence of matchbox containing cocaine residue found on defendant, but unrelated to charged crimes of possession and sale of cocaine was improperly admitted).

The court then concluded as in each of these cases, the natural inference to be drawn from Trahan’s unexplained possession of somebody else’s checkbook is that he had engaged in other illicit activity and was therefore probably guilty of the charged crime. If Trahan’s possession of another’s  checkbook was probative of any material issue, then the evidence would have been relevant and properly admitted. Evidence tending to prove or disprove a material fact is relevant and is admissible. §§ 90.401, 90.402 Fla. Stat.

Here, however, that Trahan possessed a complete stranger’s checkbook was of no probative value to the jury trying to discern ownership of the backpack. The checkbook had no inherent connection to Trahan or his burglary victim. Furthermore, the rightful owner of the checkbook had no interest in or claim to the backpack, or any connection whatsoever to the charged crime. Likewise, the checkbook was not a personalized accessory or identifying feature of the backpack’s owner.

Contrary to the State’s contention, that a checkbook not owned by Trahan was in the victim’s backpack does not make it more or less likely that either Trahan or the victim was the backpack’s legitimate owner. It is just as likely as not that a thief might legitimately own or acquire a backpack, and then use it to carry stolen items. Even if it could be said the presence of the third-party’s checkbook somehow made Trahan owning the backpack less likely, any ostensible probative value of that evidence would be slight and easily outweighed by the substantial risk of inferences based on propensity and undue prejudice or confusion.

If the prosecutor in your case is considering evidence of something else you might have done other than committing the crime you’re charged with, that evidence may be determined to be inadmissible.  If inadmissible,  a jury would never learn of those other matters and would be much less likely unfairly to convict you.  In that case, it’s in your best interest to consult with a Jacksonville criminal attorney experienced with the rules of evidence, especially the Williams rule, so that irrelevant and unduly prejudicial evidence is not used against you.  Call me for a free consultation to discuss how I can help you have the best chance of avoiding jail or prison time due to the improper introduction of evidence against you in your case in Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Orange Park, Fleming Island, Green Cove Springs, Middleburg, Keystone Heights, Fernandina Beach, Yulee, Callahan, Hilliard, Macclenny, or surrounding areas.