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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Robbery Wihout Motive: Missouri Court Of Appeals Finds That Drug Evidence Was Improperly Admitted In Christmas Eve Robbery Trial

The recent opinion of the Missouri Court of Appeals in State v. Allen, 2008 WL 5054693 (Mo.App. W. D. 2008), reveals that simply because character evidence is relevant to some permissible purpose does not mean that it is automatically admissible.

In Allen, Johnny L. Allen appealed his conviction following a jury trial for robbery in the first degree based upon his alleged robbery of a Movie Gallery in Sedalia, Missouri on Christmas Eve.  And some of the evidence used to convict Allen was evidence that when the police arrested him four days after the robbery and performed a search incident to an arrest, they discovered a crack cocaine pipe in his pocket and a bag containing 0.31 grams of crack cocaine in his hat.  Later, during closing arguments, the prosecutor stressed the importance of this drug evidence, informing the jurors that:

     "The defendant has a motive to commit robbery. A crack pipe with residue in his pocket when arrested, more crack in his ball cap. This evidence of motive is uncontradicted by any defense evidence. And I understand that many people have a desire to have more money. Most people who have student loans don't go out and commit robberies. Unfortunately, many people who have a crack habit do....This case is about whether this man walked in on Christmas Eve desperate enough to threaten the use of a gun just to get money to feed a crack cocaine habit. (emphasis added)."

After he was convicted, Allen appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court erred in admitting the evidence of the drugs and drug paraphernalia because the evidence was inadmissible evidence of other crimes."  And he had a point.  Missouri does not have codified rules of evidence, but its courts generally deem evidence of other crimes inadmissible as propensity character evidence

On the other hand, Missouri courts do deem such evidence admissible for permissible purposes, such as establishing (1) identity, (2) motive, (3) intent, (4) the absence of mistake or accident, or (5) a common scheme or plan.  And the prosecution claimed on appeal that evidence of the drugs and drug paraphernalia found on Allen was evidence that he had a drug habit, providing him with a motive for robbing the Movie Gallery.

But while the prosecution could thus point to a permissible purpose, its problem was that the appellate court noted that even when a court finds that such a permissible purpose exists, it  "should require that the admission of evidence of other crimes be subjected to rigid scrutiny because the evidence may raise a false presumption of guilt in the jurors' minds."  And the problem for the prosecution was that its drug evidence could not withstand this scrutiny. 

The court noted that:

     "[c]ourts have upheld admission of drug evidence to establish motive where the record explicitly included some explanation of motive. For example, where the defendant testified that he was an addict, it would arguably show he had a motive to traffic in drugs....Or, where the defendant told the detective he had been stealing to support a cocaine habit, the testimony was admissible to show defendant's motive for the burglary....Or, where the evidence of the defendant's prior drug use and the fact that he was pawning items to obtain money for drugs helped show a motive to commit the crimes."

The problem for the prosecution, though, was that:

     "In this case, mere possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia by the accused, four days after the crime occurred, cannot by itself establish motive. The record contains no evidence or testimony attributing any previous drug use or financial trouble to Mr. Allen. In fact, no evidence in the record exists to link the drug evidence with the crime charged. The State's unsubstantiated assertion that Mr. Allen committed the robbery 'to feed a crack cocaine habit' is not evidence. If the State sought to prove motive for the robbery, then the burden was upon the State to present evidence connecting the drug evidence to the robbery that had occurred four days earlier."

The appellate court thus found that the drug evidence was improperly admitted.  It then rejected the prosecution's argument that its admission was harmless error because  "there was very little evidence" about the drugs adduced at trial, and references to the drugs were "very low key."  Instead, the court pointed to the prosecutor's aforementioned statements during closing arguments and held that a new trial was warranted.  And based upon those closing statements, I agree.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2008/12/christmas-eve-s.html

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