485 U.S. 681 (1988).

Defendant was charged with sale of stolen video tapes. In his defense, Defendant argued that he received the tapes from someone else and he was not aware that the tapes were stolen.

At trial, the District Court allowed the Government to present evidence of Defendant’s prior “similar acts” under Federal Rules of Evidence, Rule, Rule 404.  Specifically, the prosecution presented a witness who testified that he had bought stolen TV sets from Defendant.  Also, an undercover agent testified that Defendant had agreed to sell stolen merchandise to him.  Although Defendant was not charged and convicted of those previous crimes, the District Court concluded that the evidence had clear relevance to Defendant’s knowledge that the tapes were stolen as he had purchased the prior alleged stolen merchandise from same suspicious sources as the tapes.

The jury convicted Defendant on the count of possession of stolen video tapes.

On appeal, Defendant argued that the District Court had abused its discretion by admitting evidence of the prior acts under Rule 404.  Specifically, Defendant argued that before the evidence of his prior alleged acts could be used, the Government was required to prove by preponderance of the evidence that the other crimes did in fact take place.  Defendant argued that the Government was required to prove that the merchandise in the previous acts was stolen.

The issued presented the the United States Supreme Court was whether the District Court was required to make a preliminary finding that the Government had proved the other acts by a preponderance of the evidence before permitting the Government to present the evidence of prior similar acts to the jury.

The Court answered in the negative.

The Court reasoned that Rule 404(b) protects against the introduction of extrinsic act evidence when that evidence is offered solely to prove character. The text contains no intimation, however, that any preliminary showing is necessary before such evidence may be introduced for a proper purpose.  The Rule allows admission of evidence which is relevant subject to limitations.

In the case at hand, the evidence that Defendant was selling the televisions was relevant under the Government’s theory only if the jury could reasonably find that the televisions were stolen.  Here there were facts form which the jury could have made such conclusion.  Also, there are safeguards which deal with Defendant’s concern that unduly prejudicial evidence may be introduced under Rule 404(b).  Rule 404(b) provides that evidence be offered for a proper purpose.  Rule 402 provides the relevancy requirement.  Rule 403 requires the trial court to determine whether the probative value of the similar acts evidence is substantially outweighed by its potential for unfair prejudice.  Federal Rule 105 provides that trial court shall, upon request, instruct the jury that the similar acts evidence is to be considered only for the proper purpose for which it was admitted.

REFERENCE DESK:

Federal Rules of Evidence, Rule 404: Character Evidence; Other Crimes, Wrongs, or Acts

(a) Character Evidence.

(1) Prohibited Uses. Evidence of a person’s character or character trait is not admissible to prove that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character or trait.

(2) Exceptions for a Defendant or Victim in a Criminal Case. The following exceptions apply in a criminal case:

(A) a defendant may offer evidence of the defendant’s pertinent trait, and if the evidence is admitted, the prosecutor may offer evidence to rebut it;

(B) subject to the limitations in Rule 412, a defendant may offer evidence of an alleged victim’s pertinent trait, and if the evidence is admitted, the prosecutor may:

(i) offer evidence to rebut it; and

(ii) offer evidence of the defendant’s same trait; and

(C) in a homicide case, the prosecutor may offer evidence of the alleged victim’s trait of peacefulness to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor.

(3) Exceptions for a Witness. Evidence of a witness’s character may be admitted under Rules 607, 608, and 609.

(b) Other Crimes, Wrongs, or Acts.

(1) Prohibited Uses. Evidence of any other crime, wrong, or act is not admissible to prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character.

(2) Permitted Uses. This evidence may be admissible for another purpose, such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.

(3) Notice in a Criminal Case. In a criminal case, the prosecutor must:

(A) provide reasonable notice of any such evidence that the prosecutor intends to offer at trial, so that the defendant has a fair opportunity to meet it;

(B) articulate in the notice the permitted purpose for which the prosecutor intends to offer the evidence and the reasoning that supports the purpose; and

(C) do so in writing before trial — or in any form during trial if the court, for good cause, excuses lack of pretrial notice.

United States v. Gilan, 967 F.2d 776 (2d Cir. 1992):

In Huddleston v. United States, 485 U.S. 681, 108 S.Ct. 1496, 99 L.Ed.2d 771 (1998), the Supreme Court outlined the test for admission of other acts evidence under Rule 404(b). First, the evidence must be introduced for a proper purpose, such as proof of knowledge or identity.  Second, the offered evidence must be relevant to an issue in the case pursuant to Rule 402, as enforced through Rule 104(b).  Third, the evidence must satisfy the probative-prejudice balancing test of Rule 403. Fourth, if the evidence of other acts is admitted, the district court must, if requested, provide a limiting instruction for the jury.   The Court held that the standard of proof under Rule 404(b) was whether the jury could “reasonably conclude that the act occurred and that the defendant was the actor.”   The standard applied by the district court is preponderance of the evidence. See United States v. Ramirez, 894 F.2d 565, 569 (2d Cir. 1990) (similar act evidence not relevant unless court determines that a jury “could reasonably find by a preponderance of the evidence that the act occurred and that the defendant committed the act”).

United States v. Scott, 677 F.3d 72 (2d Cir. 2012):

Under Huddleston, “[t]o determine whether a district court properly admitted other act evidence, the reviewing court considers whether (1) it was offered for a proper purpose; (2) it was relevant to a material issue in dispute; (3) its probative value is substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect; and (4) the trial court gave an appropriate limiting instruction to the jury if so requested by the defendant.”

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