Acquittal-Evidence Cannot Prove Defendant Committed Prior Crime

State v. J.M., Jr. (2014)

A New Jersey court has held that acquittal-evidence cannot be used to prove a defendant’s guilt for an earlier offense. It reversed the decision of a trial judge to admit evidence of the defendant’s past charge of sexual molestation for which he was acquitted.

In J.M., the defendant, a massage therapist, was charged with sexually assaulting a customer. In a pretrial hearing, the State sought to present evidence that the defendant sexually molested a different customer six years earlier in Florida. However, the defendant was later acquitted of this prior charge. The trial judge held that the evidence was admissible as proof of the defendant’s motive, intent, plan, or absence of mistake in relation to the charged crime. The defendant appealed the order, and the appellate court reversed.

Evidence of prior offenses or other crimes may be admitted when relevant, similar in nature, and close in time to the charged offense. This type of evidence must also be clear and convincing, and its prejudicial effect must not outweigh its probative value. Washington courts use a similar analysis when admitting evidence of prior crimes.

The appellate court first went through the relevance analysis. It reasoned that the prior charges were not evidence of motive or absence of mistake because it only suggested a propensity to commit sexual assault. Evidence is inadmissible if it is solely used for propensity purposes.

The prior charges were also not evidence of intent because there was no logical connection between the prior charges and the allegations in this case other than being a sex crime. As to whether the evidence showed a plan, the court again found no similarities in the facts of what allegedly occurred or between the alleged victims, other than they were both female customers. In Washington, evidence of a plan must be more than similar—it must have common features naturally explained by the existence of a plan.

On the other factors, the court found that there were little, if any similarities, between the alleged offenses, which occurred six years apart. In considering whether the evidence was clear and convincing, the appellate court found the trial judge wrongfully disregarded the acquittal by formulating his own opinion of the first alleged victim’s credibility. As such, the court found the prior offense evidence should have been excluded.

The court then went on to hold that acquittal-evidence is inadmissible to show a defendant’s guilt on an earlier occasion. It found here that the “defendant [was] again put to the task of defending against [the prior] allegations.” It reasoned that allowing this type of evidence would place juries against each other—for the jury in this case to find the evidence relevant would place it in direct opposition to the acquitting jury. The court went on to note “re-trying the [acquitted] case within the trial of this case is greatly disturbing.” As such, it reversed the decision of the trial judge to allow the acquittal-evidence as evidence of the prior offense.