Washington Court Considers Admissibility of Prior Acts of Domestic Violence in Criminal Jury Trial

The Court of Appeals of Washington recently reviewed a jury verdict that found a defendant guilty of second-degree assault against a member of his household. On appeal in State v. Moreno-Valentin (Wash. Ct. App. Sept. 29, 2015), the defendant argued that the trial court erred by admitting evidence of his prior acts of domestic violence and permitting the jury to consider that evidence for improper purposes. The appeals court agreed, reversing the conviction and remanding the case for a new trial.

Generally, evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to show that the defendant acted 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. Before admitting such evidence, the trial court must find by a preponderance of the evidence that the acts occurred, identify the purpose for which the evidence is sought to be introduced, determine whether the evidence is relevant to prove an element of the crime charged, and weigh the probative value against the prejudicial effect. If a trial court admits the evidence, it must provide a limiting instruction to the jury explaining that the evidence is to be used only for the purpose identified, not to prove that the defendant acted in conformity.

In State v. Moreno-Valentin, the trial court allowed evidence of the defendant’s prior acts of domestic violence for the purpose of evaluating the victim’s credibility and to evaluate the dynamics of their relationship. The appeals court, however, found these to be improper purposes. The court noted that in some cases involving domestic violence, the defendant’s prior acts of domestic violence may be admissible to assist the jury in evaluating the victim’s credibility, but this is limited to cases in which the victim has recanted or provided conflicting statements about the defendant’s conduct. Such was not the case in State v. Moreno-Valentin.

The court was also troubled by the admission of the defendant’s prior acts for the purpose of establishing the dynamics of an alleged domestic violence relationship, holding that it is too broad a rationale to justify the admission of prior acts as evidence. The court explained that under certain circumstances, the jury may evaluate the dynamics of a domestic violence relationship when such an evaluation relates to a permissible purpose, but the dynamics of a domestic violence relationship do not themselves constitute a proper basis for admitting evidence.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals of Washington held that the trial court’s error in admitting the prior acts of domestic violence for improper purposes, in addition to its instruction to the jury that it could consider the prior acts as evidence for those improper purposes, warrants the reversal of the defendant’s conviction and a new trial.

You have the right to seek legal representation from a attorney if you have been arrested on charges related to domestic violence. At Blair & Kim, PLLC, our experienced criminal defense attorneys provide skilled, personalized representation for clients charged with Washington criminal offenses. To discuss your case with our legal team, contact our office at (206) 622-6562 or through our website.

More Blog Posts:

Modifying or Terminating a Protection Order in your Family Law Case, Seattle Attorneys Blog, published March 16, 2015

How Will My Criminal History Impact My Divorce? Seattle Attorneys Blog, published October 22, 2014

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