Attorney Mark Hayes recently handled an appeal that points out the complexity and importance of Rule 404 and “prior bad acts” evidence. Rule 404 often governs whether or not a defendant’s prior record can be held against him in a trial on new charges. Such evidence is only permitted for certain purposes, and that admitting such evidence for an improper purpose can serve as grounds for an appeal.
The North Carolina Rules of Evidence govern what information can and cannot be presented during trial. These rules, and specifically Rule 404, prohibit the introduction of information about the prior bad acts of a defendant to prove that the defendant has a propensity toward the conduct involved in those prior bad acts. For example, in a case involving an assault charge as a result of a bar fight, the prosecuting attorney cannot present information that the defendant had previously been in bar fights to serve as evidence that the defendant has a propensity toward bar fights, or violence in general.
If, for example, a criminal defendant charged with assault is claiming that he acted in self-defense, Rule 404 bars the prosecutor from presenting evidence of the defendant’s prior convictions for assault to establish that he has a violent character, or that he has a propensity for violence, and thus the defendant was the aggressor. However, if the defendant introduces certain evidence about his character or the character of the victim, this opens the door for the prosecutor to present evidence to rebut. For example, if the criminal defendant charged with assault presents evidence of his overall peaceful nature, the prosecutor may present evidence of his prior assault convictions to rebut the defense’s theory of peacefulness.
Additionally, Rule 404 carves out a number of exceptions for the prohibition on using prior bad acts evidence. For example, the prosecutor can use such evidence to establish a lack of mistake. For instance, a criminal defendant charged with marijuana possession may claim that he mistook the substance for oregano, and thus had no knowledge that he was committing a crime. However, Rule 404 would permit the prosecutor to present evidence of that defendant’s prior convictions for marijuana possession to establish that the defendant did not mistake the substance in his possession for oregano.
Rule 404, although complex to a lay individual, is a very familiar rule for experienced trial and appellate attorneys such as Durham’s Mark Hayes. Hayes’ experience allows him to fully grasp the various contours of the rule, when to present evidence on character or propensity, and when to challenge the evidence presented by the opposing party.