A federal appeals court recently issued a ruling on using evidence of previous illegal or criminal behavior to imply that a defendant has a predisposition towards a life of crime. In State v. Smith, 12-1516, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ordered a new trial for a man charged with threatening an FBI agent, after finding that the judge’s initial ruling was based on the evidence of prior crimes. This ruling will return the focus of a criminal trial to the charges at hand, New Jersey criminal attorneys say.
In 2010, Durrell Smith was arrested when he walked up to an unmarked police vehicle in Newark, armed with a handgun. He claimed to not know that the car’s occupants were police officers and an FBI agent conducting surveillance in the area. He also told the arresting officers that he carried a gun for his safety after a similar-looking car was involved in a recent shooting in that area.
At Smith’s trial, the prosecution presented testimony from another federal agent, who, two years prior to the case, had witnessed Smith conducting a drug deal on the same street corner. Although Smith and his criminal lawyers objected to the reference to his earlier crime, Trenton area U.S. District Judge Mary Little Cooper allowed the agent, Michael Brooks, to testify. She instructed the jury that the purpose of his testimony was not to prove that Smith had a criminal nature or propensity, and to treat the information as indicative of determining whether Smith had approached the car in an offensive, rather than defensive, manner.
The jury convicted Smith of threatening the agent and other charges, and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. On appeal, his New Jersey criminal lawyers said that Smith’s conviction was due in part to the incriminating testimony from the witness to his earlier crime. Although it is important to establish motive in any given crime, in Smith’s case, the FBI agent’s testimony did not provide sufficient proof, but served to demonstrate an earlier life of crime that may have tampered with the jury’s line of thinking.
According to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), evidence from prior crimes is allowed to prove motive or demonstrate why a person acted in such a way, but it is not to be used “to prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character.” Criminal history cannot be used to prove that a person committed the present-day crime.
Although the first trial judge allowed the testimony to stand in court, the U.S. appeals court shot down that decision. The judges said that in order to use that evidence to determine motive, the jury would have to assume from the agent’s testimony that Smith was a drug dealer in 2008, before he was arrested two years later, and make their conviction with that assumption. Because the two events involve different scenarios, the testimony can easily lead to prejudices and speculation, rather than a jury decision based on facts.
The criminal attorneys at New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, P.A. are keeping up with changing and redefined laws, and represent anyone whose rights have been violated during a criminal trial.