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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

For A Limited Time: Opinion Reveals That Mississippi Courts Once Required Sua Sponte Limiting Instructions After Objection To Character Evidence

Like its federal counterpartMississippi Rule of Evidence 105 provides that

When evidence which is admissible as to one party or for one purpose but not admissible as to another party or for another purpose is admitted, the court, upon request, shall restrict the evidence to its proper scope and instruct the jury accordingly.  

As the language of the Rule makes clear, a court only needs to issue a limiting instruction "upon request." As the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Mississippi in Lindsey v. State, 2010 WL 615649 (Miss.App. 2010), makes clear, such a request was not always required.

In Lindsey, a jury found Henry Lindsey guilty of possession of contraband in a private correctional facility. During its cross-examination of Lindsey, the following exchange took place:

Q: Why are you [at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Center]?

A: Armed robbery.

Q: Armed robbery. How long have you been there?

A: Since 2006.

Q: And Mr. Dotson was coming around to serve paperwork on you. You said it was an RVR. What does that mean?

A: A rule violation report.

Q: So you were in trouble when he came to serve you some papers, weren't you?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: It had something else to do with something else you have been in trouble for besides that shank?

By Mr. Smith: Your Honor, I would object to this line [of questioning] as irrelevant. He's here about whether or not he had a shank in his cell and not anything else.

By Mr. Thames: He opened the door.

By the Court: It's just like in a trial of a case, you cannot mention that a person has committed another crime. He has testified it was a RVR [sic], rule violation report, which is the same principle as not being allowed to introduce evidence of subsequent crime. So your objection is sustained.

After this exchange, defense counsel did not ask for a limiting instruction informing jurors to ignore any testimony related to other acts of misconduct by Lindsey. Nonetheless, after he was convicted, Lindsey appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the court should have issued such an instruction sua sponte

The Court of Appeals of Mississippi noted that Lindsey relied upon Smith v. State, 656 So.2d 95 (Miss. 1995), in which the Supreme Court of Mississippi found that a trial court has a sua sponte duty to give a limiting instruction after defense counsel objects to character evidence being admitted. The court pointed out, however, that Smith was overruled by Brown v. State, 890 So.2d 901 (Miss. 2004), in which the Mississippi Supremes "abandon[ed] Smith's requirement that a judge issue a sua sponte limiting instruction and return[ed] to the clear language of Rule 105." 

So, why do I think that Rule 105 requires a request by counsel? Well, I think that it is not clear whether limiting instructions are a good thing. If a defendant is on trial for a safecracking, evidence of his prior safecracking[s] could be admissible to prove knowledge or modus operandi but would not be admissible to prove propensity/conformity, i.e., "once a safecracker, always a safecracker." But, assuming that the evidence is admissible, is it better for defense counsel to ask for a limiting instruction informing the jury that it is not to use the evidence as it bears upon the defendant's propensity to crack safes, or does this merely highlight this potential use? That's really a decision for defense counsel (and the defendant) to make, which is why (I think) a request is required.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/02/limiting-instructionlindsey-v-state----so3d------2010-wl-615649missapp2010.html

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