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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Of A Constitutional Character?: Eastern District Of Michigan Denies Constitutional Challenge To Admission Of "Other Bad Acts" Evidence

In its recent opinion in Fields v Howes, 2009 WL 304751 (E.D. Mich. 2009), the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan denied Randall Lee Fields' petition for a writ of habeas corpus, finding that "[t]here is no clearly established Supreme Court precedent which holds that a state violates due process by permitting propensity evidence in the form of other bad acts evidence." And I would imagine that any court would reach the same conclusion, whether presented as part of a habeas petition or as part of a direct appeal.

In Howes, Randall Lee Fields filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus, challenging his convictions for two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct based upon the following facts adduced at trial:

The victim testified that he met defendant when he was approximately twelve years old through defendant's nephew whom the victim met on a school bus. Defendant lived across the street from the victim. The victim also met James Philo, another adult, at defendant's house. After the victim started “hanging out” with defendant, Philo moved into defendant's house and the three of them spent time together watching television and sometimes pornographic films. The victim described one instance when, after consuming alcohol and smoking marijuana, the defendant and Philo went into the bedroom where defendant performed oral sex on the victim. Philo also placed his mouth on the victim's penis. The victim testified that defendant performed oral sex on him on two separate occasions. Deputy Batterson testified that while defendant was in custody on an unrelated domestic abuse matter, he was questioned about his relations with the victim. Defendant provided a statement that corroborated the victim's testimony but added that on one occasion he engaged in oral sex with Philo and the victim in a motel in Toledo, Ohio and that he masturbated the victim on two other occasions.

In his petition, Howes claimed, inter alia, that the trial court erred in admitting "other act" evidence regarding uncharged sexual relations he had with the victim and in admitting testimony that Philo also engaged in sexual acts with the victim. On Howes' direct appeal to the Court of Appeals of Michigan, he had previously argued that this "other act" evidence was inadmissible under Michigan Rule of Evidence 404(b), but that court rejected that argument, concluding that:

The prosecution did not offer this evidence as Rule 404(b) evidence, but rather, as part of the whole story surrounding the criminal acts for which defendant was charged. The evidence was admissible as part of the res gestae of the offenses, independent of MRE 404(b)...." Evidence of other criminal acts is admissible when so blended or connected with the crime of which [the] defendant is accused that proof of one incidentally involves the other or explains the circumstances of the crime...." Here, defendant fostered a relationship between himself and the victim as well as between Philo and the victim. The three spent time together on several occasions watching television and pornographic films. On occasion, defendant offered the victim alcohol and marijuana. It was under these circumstances and on more than one occasion that defendant had sexual relations with the victim and/or Philo had sexual relations with the victim in defendant's presence. These acts were so blended with the crimes defendant was charged with that they incidentally explained the circumstances of those crimes. Therefore, the trial court did not err in admitting this evidence. People v. Fields, 2004 WL 979732 (Mich.App. 2004).

In his petition for writ of habeas corpus, Howes did not reallege this evidentiary argument but instead argued that Michigan violated his right to due process by allowing for the admission of propensity evidence in the form of other bad acts evidence. And, the Eastern District of Michigan rejected that argument, finding that “[t]here is no clearly established Supreme Court precedent which holds that a state violates due process by permitting propensity evidence in the form of other bad acts evidence.”

But what would have happened if Howes raised this argument on his direct appeal to the Court of Appeals of Michigan? Well, the trial court had to admit the other bad acts evidence at issue as res gestae because it does not have a state counterpart to Federal Rule of Evidence 414, which permits the admission of the defendant's other acts of child molestation in his prosecution for child molestation.  And as I recently noted with regard to that Rule, it has withstood multiple constitutional challenges."  I thus don't think that any court under any circumstance would have agreed with Fields.

-CM

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