EvidenceProf Blog

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

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Domestic Abuse Exception Allows Prior Bad Acts Evidence Into Minnesota Court

Minnesota Rule of Evidence 404(b) restricts the admission of evidence concerning a party's prior bad acts.  The rule is similar to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b).  In State v. Barnslater, --- N.W.2d ----, 2010 WL 3220020 (Minn. App. Aug. 17, 2010), the Minnesota Court of Appeals illustrated the importance of an exception to Rule 404 that applies to evidence of prior domestic abuse.

William Barnslater, convicted of "engaging in a pattern of harassing conduct" and of violating an order of protection concerning his former romantic partner (whose name is abbreviated in the opinion as "J.B."), argued on appeal that the trial court wrongly allowed the victim to testify about Barnslater's prior abuse of her and of her adult daughter.  In one incident described at trial, "Barnslater pushed J.B. to the floor, grabbed J.B.‘s daughter by the throat, and held J.B.‘s daughter so that her feet dangled above the floor. Based on this episode, Barnslater was convicted of fifth-degree domestic assault."  Barnslater, at 2-3 [pin cites refer to PDF of opinion].

Minn. Rule of Evid. 404(b) provides:

Evidence of another crime, wrong, or act is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident. In a criminal prosecution, such evidence shall not be admitted unless (1) the prosecutor gives notice of its intent to admit the evidence consistent with the rules of criminal procedure; (2) the prosecutor clearly indicates what the evidence will be offered to prove; (3) the other crime, wrong, or act and the participation in it by a relevant person are proven by clear and convincing evidence; (4) the evidence is relevant to the prosecutor’s case; and (5) the probative value of the evidence is not outweighed by its potential for unfair prejudice to the defendant. ...

If the prior crime, wrong, or act was "similar conduct by the accused against the victim of domestic abuse, or against other family or household members," then the evidence is more easily admissible. Pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 634.20,

Evidence of similar conduct by the accused against the victim of domestic abuse, or against other family or household members, is admissible unless the probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issue, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence. “Similar conduct” includes, but is not limited to, evidence of domestic abuse, violation of an order for protection ...; violation of a harassment restraining order ...; or [offenses involving stalking, harassment, and obscene telephone calls] ....

In State v. McCoy, 682 N.W.2d 153, 161 (Minn. 2004), the Supreme Court of Minnesota held that evidence admitted under Section 634.20 is admissible "without [the trial court] first determining that the evidence was clear and convincing."

Here, Barnslater was charged with engaging in a pattern of harassing conduct after he repeatedly bothered the victim, including calling her and her friends and even burgling her house.  Barnslater, at 3-4.  Because his prior conduct involved similar acts against J.B. and her daughter, the appeals court stated, "W]e need not address Barnslater's arguments that the notice and other requirements of Minn. R. Evid. 404(b) were not met."  Id. at 11 n.3.

The court explained that the availability of Section 634.20 depends on "whether the accused‘s underlying conduct constitutes domestic abuse ..., not on whether the particular offense ... charged" was a domestic abuse crime.  Id. at 8.  Accordingly, because the prosecution charged Barnslater with crimes against J.B., evidence of his prior domestic abuse of J.B. and her daughter was admissible regardless of what specific crime was charged in this case.

Note that the Federal Rules of Evidence contains rules similar to Section 634.20 concerning evidence of similar crimes in sexual assault cases and evidence of similar crimes in child molestation cases.  For a student comment advocating the adoption of rules similar to Minnesota's, see Sarah J. Lee, The Search for the Truth: Admitting Evidence of Prior Abuse in Cases of Domestic Violence, 20 U. Haw. L. Rev. 221, 240 (1998); see also Douglas E. Beloof & Joel Shapiro, Let the Truth Be Told: Proposed Hearsay Exceptions to Admit Domestic Violence Victims' Out of Court Statements as Substantive Evidence, 11 Colum. J. Gender & L. 1 (2002).

  - Ben Trachtenberg


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If the person made up a story of domestic abuse and the DA speaks to the victim and the victim let her know that its not true.but the DA uses the victim mother and father as witness that was not there and knows nothing about her personal life.but still want too convicts him. How is that abuse if it was not proven because there were no evidence .

Posted by: kassia Diomande | Mar 17, 2012 12:28:04 PM

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