Monday, December 31, 2007
Californication: Court Finds Section 1108 of California's Evidence Code Doesn't Violate Due Process In New Year's Eve Case
In Renella v. Adams, 2007 WL 963969 (N.D. Cal. 2007), the District Court for the Northern District of California faced an issue of first impression: whether Section 1108 of the California Evidence Code is constitutional. Naish Nick Renella was convicted of four counts of sexual abuse. See id. at *1. One of these convictions was based upon, inter alia, Renella allegedly touching the chest and genitalia area of a sleeping twelve year-old boy at a New Year's Eve party at the Hyatt House Hotel. See id.
Some of the evidence used to convict Renella at trial consisted of uncharged prior sex acts that were admitted under Section 1108, which states that "[i]n a criminal action in which the defendant is accused of a sexual offense, evidence of the defendant's commission of another sexual offense or offenses is not made inadmissible by Section 1101, if the evidence is not inadmissible pursuant to Section 352." Section 1108 is thus similar to Federal Rule of Evidence 414.
Section 1101 of California's Evidence Code is similar to Federal Rule of Evidence 404 and states the general rule that character evidence is inadmissible to prove that an individual has a propensity to act in a certain manner and that he acted in conformity with that propensity at the time of the alleged crime. Like Federal Rule of Evidence 403, Section 352 of California's Evidence Code indicates that although evidence is relevant, a court may exclude it if its probative value is substantially outweighed by dangers such as the danger of unfair prejudice.
After Renella's convictions, he brought a pro se habeas corpus case, claiming that the court's admission of uncharged prior sex acts under Section 1108 violated his right to due process. See id. The court noted that no court in a published opinion had ever addressed the constitutionality of Section 1108, but it noted that many courts, including the Ninth Circuit, have found that the similar Federal Rule of Evidence 414 does not violate defendants' rights to due process. See id. (citing United States v. LeMay, 260 F.3d 1018, 1027 (9th Cir. 2001). These courts have done so because even when courts find that evidence is admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 414, they still must determine whether it passes Rule 403's balancing test. Because Section 1108 explicitly tells courts to exclude evidence that fails the balancing test of Section 352 of California's Evidence Code, the court found that Section 1108 is similarly not violative of due process. Although I agree with Professor Rosanna Cavallaro's concerns about how courts apply Rule 403 in sex crimes cases, it seems to me that the court acted properly in treating Section 1108 in the same manner that courts treat Federal Rule of Evidence 414.