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New York Court of Appeals: Admission of Prior Bad Acts Evidence to Prove Propensity to Commit Crime Harmful Error

by David M. Reutter

The Court of Appeals of New York held a trial court erred in admitting evidence of prior bad acts evidence. It further concluded the error was not harmless and reversed, ordering a new trial.

Sebastian Telfair was arrested in June 2017 after a traffic stop, during which the officer saw a lit marijuana cigarette on the center console. An inventory search uncovered marijuana, cash, three handguns, and ammunition. The guns were registered to Telfair in Florida. A jury convicted Telfair of one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree in connection with the gun recovered from the truck’s center console and acquitted of all other charges. The Appellate Division affirmed. It concluded the trial court properly exercised its discretion in admitting the evidence under People v. Molineux, 61 N.E. 286 (N.Y. 1901). Judge Barros dissented and granted the Telfair’s application for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals and for a stay of execution of the judgment. That Court extended the stay pending determination of his appeal.

On appeal, “Telfair argued that the Superior Court deprived him of his right to a fair trial in admitting evidence of alleged prior bad acts under Molineux and by allowing the prosecutor to make propensity arguments during summation,” the Court summarized.

Under Molineux,“the general rule is that evidence of a defendant’s prior uncharged crimes or bad acts is inadmissible in a criminal trial.” In applying that rule, courts have recognized the “natural and inevitable tendency of the tribunal—whether judge or jury—is to give excessive weight to the vicious record of crime thus exhibited, and either to allow it to bear too strongly on the present charge, or to take the proof of it as justifying a condemnation irrespective of guilt of the present charge” People v. Zackowitz, 172 N.E. 466 (N.Y. 1930). “Excluding such evidence avoids the risk of infecting jury deliberations with forbidden propensity inferences,” the Molineux Court explained. It also recognized exceptions for “motive, intent, absence of mistakes or accident, common scheme or plan, or identity of the defendant.”

A Molineux ruling requires the court to address a pure question of law: “whether the People have ‘identif[ied] some issue, other than mere criminal propensity, to which the evidence is relevant.’” People v. Hudy, 535 N.E.2d 250 (N.Y. 1988). “If the evidence is relevant to some issue other than propensity, [courts] consider whether the probative value of the evidence ‘outweighs its potential for prejudice.’” People v. Ely, 503 N.E.2d 88 (N.Y. 1986).

“The key question at trial was knowledge: whether Telfair knew that the guns were in his truck. That focus was clear at a pretrial hearing, in defense counsel’s opening statement and on summation, and in an exchange with the court following the jury’s question on the significance of the Molineux evidence,” the Court stated.

During the trial, the People admitted the testimony of a police officer and an assistant district attorney to admit “Molineux evidence regarding the two prior incidents in which the defendant previously possessed guns outside of Florida.”

“The threshold question” on appeal was “whether the prior incident evidence was relevant to an issue other than propensity.” That question was answered in the negative: “Evidence of the 2006 and 2007 incidents was not relevant to whether Telfair knew that the guns in question were in his vehicle in 2017. The warning theory has no application here; that Telfair unknowingly possessed other guns in two completely different circumstances about 10 years prior could not have put him on notice that there might have been guns in his truck this time,” the Court determined.

The theory of warning applies, for instance, in a case where forgery evidence “at or near the same time the defendant had passed, or had in his possession, similar forged instruments” would be relevant to prove intent. “Not so here,” the Court stated. “The 2006 and 2007 incidents were neither very similar nor close in time to the 2017 incident. Just the opposite: they involved different guns, different sets of circumstances, different excuses, and occurred more than 10 years earlier.” The Court continued: “Whether labelled as knowledge or mistake, the evidence regarding the 2006 and 2007 incidents did not increase the possibility that Telfair knew there were guns in his car in June 2017.”

The Court found no support for the position in Judge Rivera’s dissent that Molineux evidence is regularly being used to prosecute gun charges. Even if that is the case, the Court had “no doubt that the People will be able to conform their tactics to our holding today in order to avoid reversal of firearm possession convictions on appeal.”

Finding the trial court erred in admitting the Molineux evidence, the Court concluded that the error was not harmless. “There was circumstantial evidence from which the jury could have inferred that Telfair knowingly possessed the guns in this case, but not overwhelming proof of guilt, and we cannot conclude there was no significant probability the jury would have acquitted Telfair had the evidence of the 2006 and 2007 incidents been excluded.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the Appellate Division’s and ordered a new trial. See: People v. Telfair, 2023 N.Y. LEXIS 1898 (2023).   

Related legal case

People v. Telfair



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