State Can Use 911 Calls of Uncharged Crimes to Bolster Police Cred at Trial, High Court Rules
Evidence on uncharged crimes is inadmissible when it only serves to show a defendant's poor character or criminal history. One exception is when the uncharged crime can provide necessary "background information" or "complete the narrative." In those cases, judges allow prosecutors to present the evidence as context that has not been proven as fact.
In recent years, the Court of Appeals has ruled both ways on the application of this exception. In a 2002 decision, the judges approved a police officer's testimony that a livery cab driver had "reported an encounter with the defendant involving a gun" shortly before the defendant was arrested for gun possession.
In a 2004 decision, the court reversed a defendant's conviction for drug possession with intent to sell because two officers testified that they saw the defendant drive away in a stolen car, even though prosecutors failed to indict him on that alleged theft.
In her dissent, Judge Jenny Rivera argued that the 911 evidence's main purpose was to justify police aggression, a precedent that falls outside the intent of the exception rules.
"The majority ignores the fact that the exception for background and narrative is a narrow one, and is not intended as a backdoor to allow the prosecution to bolster the credibility of the People's witnesses," Rivera wrote, joined in dissent by Judges Jonathan Lippman and Robert Smith.
Meanwhile, Rivera continued, the recording degraded the credibility of the defendant. The judge's instructions to the jury--that the 911 call was to explain police actions and not "the truth of what that person is saying"--were not sufficiently limiting.
"There can be no doubt that this evidence pointed the finger at the defendant for the alleged robbery," Rivera stated. "The narrative was a creative representation of the danger of a gun-toting robber on the streets. ... Those instructions served to continuously remind the jury of defendant's possible involvement in an armed robbery."
In a separate dissent, Smith added that the 911 call was not relevant because no facts about the robbery could be backed by any evidence.
"I find it impossible to believe that any jury, on the facts of this case, could limit its consideration of the tape to the non-hearsay purpose for which it was purportedly offered," he wrote.
Next: the text of the court's decision.