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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Heavy Metal Parking Lot: Case Reveals That Tennessee Has Stricter Limits On Rule 404(b) Evidence Than Do The Federal Rules

A lawsuit against a security guard reveals that Tennessee has very specific rules governing the admissibility of "other act" evidence pursuant to its version of Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b).  On May 16th, security guard Jeremy Holmes shot Adam Villegas, causing his death.  Villegas had been at patron at the Marathon Sports Bar, which closed at 3:00 A.M.  According to Holmes:

     Villegas left the bar and entered his car, but did not leave the parking lot.  Instead Villegas got into an argument with Holmes, prompting Holmes to order Villegas to leave the parking lot.  When Villegas didn't immediately comply, the pair argued and Holmes walked toward the rear of the car when Villegas reportedly started to move the car. Holmes reportedly ordered him to stop, and when Villegas failed to do so, Holmes shot him because he thought that Villegas planned on striking him with the car.

Others claim that Holmes acted without provocation, and Robert Meeks believes them.  The day before this incident, Meeks filed a lawsuit against Holmes, alleging similar behavior.  He claimed that on July 4, 2007 Holmes was on duty near a truck parking lot when he ordered Meeks to move his car.  According to Meeks, Holmes thereafter attacked him without warning.  He specifically claimed that Holmes handcuffed him and then threatened and assaulted him.

According to former prosecutor Jim Todd, evidence of the shooting will likely be inadmissible in Meeks' lawsuit because "[p]rior bad acts, which are what this would be labeled as, are not admissible to show that somebody is a bad person."  Indeed, this is correct as Tennessee Rule of Evidence 404(a) makes clear that "[e]vidence of a person's character or a trait of character is not admissible for the purpose of proving action in conformity with the character or trait on a particular occasion."

Of course, Todd also noted that there are exceptions to this rule, and he likely had Tennessee Rule of Evidence 404(b) in mind.  Now, Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) states in relevant part that:

     "Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts...may...be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident, provided that upon request by the accused, the prosecution in a criminal case shall provide reasonable notice in advance of trial, or during trial if the court excuses pretrial notice on good cause shown, of the general nature of any such evidence it intends to introduce at trial."

So, in other words, if Meeks wanted to introduce evidence of the shooting to prove that Holmes had a common plan or modus operandi of attacking parking lot patrons, he might be able to introduce that evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), although such an argument would appear to me to be a stretch (there are only 2 incidents and they don't seem to be that similar).  My review reveals that Tennessee Rule of Evidence 404(b) makes the admission of such evidence more difficult.  In relevant part, Tennessee Rule of Evidence 404(b) states that:

     "Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts...may...be admissible for other purposes. The conditions which must be satisfied before allowing such evidence are:

          (1) The court upon request must hold a hearing outside the jury’s presence;

          (2) The court must determine that a material issue exists other than conduct conforming with a character trait and must upon request state on the record the material issue, the ruling, and the reasons for admitting the evidence;

          (3) The court must find proof of the other crime, wrong, or act to be clear and convincing; and

          (4) The court must exclude the evidence if its probative value is outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice."

In other words, Tennessee Court place the hurdle much higher before evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts can be admissible based upon fear that jurors will misuse the evidence as propensity/conformity evidence.  Personally, I agree with the Tennessee's decision.  I have previously lamented how courts have overused Rule 404(b) to admit evidence that will more likely be used by juror as propensity/conformity evidence than as "other purpose" evidence, and I think that Tennessee's rule requires judges to exclude such evidence in these cases.

-CM   

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