EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Character Of The Matter: Supreme Court Of Iowa Finds Sexual Abuse Character Evidence Rule Violates Due Process

Similar to Federal Rule of Evidence 413, Iowa Code Section 701.11 provides in relevant part that

In a criminal prosecution in which a defendant has been charged with sexual abuse, evidence of the defendant's commission of another sexual abuse is admissible and may be considered for its bearing on any matter for which the evidence is relevant. This evidence, though relevant, may be excluded if the probative value of the evidence is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence. This evidence is not admissible unless the state presents clear proof of the commission of the prior act of sexual abuse.

The vast majority of courts that have considered Due Process challenges to Federal Rule of Evidence 413 and state counterparts have found that these rules withstand constitutional scrutiny. After its recent opinion in State v. Cox, 2010 WL 1727654 (Iowa 2010), we can now place the Supreme Court of Iowa in the minority column.

In Cox, Matthew Cox was convicted of one count of sex abuse in the second degree and one count of sex abuse in the third degree for sexually abusing his younger cousin. At trial, the court permitted the prosecution to present evidence of Cox's prior sexual abuse of two other cousins. After he was convicted, Cox appealed, claiming that the admission of prior bad acts solely to show a general propensity instead of to show a permissible purpose violated the due process clause of the Iowa Constitution.

Cox noted that, as under federal law, there is a character evidence dichotomy under Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.404(b):

Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show that the person acted in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, plan, knowledge, identity of absence of mistake or accident.

Of course, Iowa Code Section 701.11 provides that evidence of another sexual abuse committed by a criminal defendant is admissible on any matter for which the evidence is relevant, which collapses the above dichotomy and allows for the admission of evidence to prove, "Once a sexual abuser, always a sexual abuser." But does such a rule violate due process? As the Supreme Court of Iowa noted, federal courts pretty much have routinely determined that it does not. Similarly, most state courts have followed suit although the Iowa Supremes did note that the Supreme Court of Missouri went in the opposite direction, finding that "[e]vidence of prior criminal acts is never admissible for the purpose of demonstrating the defendant's propensity to commit the crime with which he is presently charged. There are no exceptions to this rule."

Iowa then decided to join Missouri. According to the Supreme Court of Iowa

Iowa courts... ground the rejection of propensity evidence on "fundamental" concerns of fairness and the presumption of innocence. The policy against admissibility of general propensity evidence stems from "'a fundamental sense that no one should be convicted of a crime based on his or her previous misdeeds.'"..."'A concomitant of the presumption of innocence is that a defendant must be tried for what he did, not for who he is.’ This concept is ‘fundamental to American jurisprudence.'"...

This court has also applied the reasoning that general propensity evidence is fundamentally unfair in the context of prior sexual abuse involving a different victim. In Cott, this court based its rejection of the "lewd disposition exception" on concerns of "unfairness."...

Unlike the other purposes for other-crimes evidence, the sex-crime exception flaunts the general prohibition of evidence whose only purpose is to invite the inference that a defendant who committed a previous crime is disposed toward committing crimes, and therefore is more likely to have committed the one at bar.

The Iowa Supremes thus reached the following conclusion:

Based on Iowa's history and the legal reasoning for prohibiting admission of propensity evidence out of fundamental conceptions of fairness, we hold the Iowa Constitution prohibits admission of prior bad acts evidence based solely on general propensity. Such evidence may, however, be admitted as proof for any legitimate issues for which prior bad acts are relevant and necessary, including those listed in rule 5.404( b ) and developed through Iowa case law.

Because the court found that Cox's prior acts of sexual abuse were admitted solely to prove "Once a sexual abuser, always a sexual abuser," it reversed and remanded for a new trial.



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