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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Laguna Peach: Tow Truck Dispute Calls Into Question Admissibility Of Prior Crimes By Jason Wahler

I remember flipping through the channels one day and landing upon the TV show "Laguna Beach" and concluding that it was pretty much the worst television show I had ever seen (maybe topped only by the short lived "Poochinski").  And while one of its "stars," Jason Wahler (who apparently also appears on that show's spinoff, "The Hills") isn't the worst person out there, his pending court case reveals that he has a pretty checkered history, albeit one that I don't think that jurors will be able to hear about. 

Tow truck driver Dario Stevenson claims that in 2006, Wahler was traveling in a car with friends when their vehicle was blocked by his tow truck, which was trying to move an illegally parked vehicle.  Stevenson claims he was "roughed up" by Wahler while trying to impound the other car and that the vehicle in which Wahler was a passenger almost "clipped" the tow truck as well as traffic officer Jonathon Wallace.  In addition, both Wallace and Stevenson -- who are African-American -- have claimed Wahler used the N-word during the incident.  Consequently, Stevenson has sued Wahler in civil court for compensatory and punitive damages for the verbal and physical altercation.

And he'd like to introduce evidence of Wahler's checkered history to prove his case.  Some of these acts include:

     -Wahler being arrested in April 2007 on charges of assault and criminal trespassing after a (hopefully non-"Borat"-esque) tussle in a Marriott hotel lobby, and

     -a 2006 conviction for resisting arrest and bribery following a bust in New York.

According to Wahler's attorney, "[Wahler] was arrested in New York and in Seattle as a result of incidents not remotely related to this lawsuit...Such evidence should not be allowed to reach the jury inasmuch as it would only constitute evidence of character which is inadmissible."  Meanwhile, the plaintiff's lawyers counter that the 21-year-old's history of arrests is perfectly admissible because it shows a consistent pattern where "he does not respect authority."

In this dispute, I definitely side with Wahler's attorney.  California Evidence Code Section 1101(a) states that "[e]xcept as provided in this section and in Sections 1102, 1103, 1108, and 1109, evidence of a person's character or a trait of his or her character (whether in the form of an opinion, evidence of reputation, or evidence of specific instances of his or her conduct) is inadmissible when offered to prove his or her conduct on a specified occasion."  In other words, Wahler's prior bad acts could not be used be jurors to conclude. "Once a violent criminal, always a violent criminal."

On the other hand, according to California Code of Evidence 1001(b), "[n]othing in this section prohibits the admission of evidence that a person committed a crime, civil wrong, or other act when relevant to prove some fact (such as motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, [common] plan [or scheme], knowledge, identity, absence of mistake or accident, or whether a defendant in a prosecution for an unlawful sexual act or attempted unlawful sexual act did not reasonably and in good faith believe that the victim consented) other than his or her disposition to commit such an act." 

In essence, it appears that the plaintiff's attorney is trying to argue that Wahler's past acts show that he has a common plan or scheme of disrespecting authority, making those acts admissible under California Code of Evidence 1001(b).  The clear problem with this argument is that there is no similarity between the two past acts and the tow truck dispute.  Now, if all three incidents involved disputes with two truck drivers, or if all three involved hotel lobby fights, or if all three involved resisting arrest and/or bribery, the plaintiff's attorney might have a point.  But from my perspective, the evidence of Wahler's prior bad acts is classic propensity character evidence, which is inadmissible under the rules of evidence.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2008/08/laguna-beach-ch.html

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