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RELATIONSHIP EVIDENCE - MN Bench Book - Trial Procedures & Practices for Judges
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RELATIONSHIP EVIDENCE

From MN Bench Book - Trial Procedures & Practices for Judges

Click on “TRIAL PROCEDURES & PRACTICES FOR JUDGES” above to return to main page


1. Evidence of the prior relationship between a defendant and the victim of the crime the defendant is charged with is admissible for a variety of purposes in criminal cases. Relationship evidence is admissible to demonstrate the history of the relationship between the accused and the victim and to place the offense in the appropriate context.The admissibility of Relationship evidence is analyzed pursuant to the balancing test; is the probative value of the relationship evidence substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. [1] The state is not required to prove relationship evidence to a clear and convincing level.[2]


2. The same behavior of the defendant could be classified as either prior "bad" conduct of the defendant evidence Spreigl, 634.20 Evidence of prior acts of domestic abuse or Relationship evidence. The judge presented with such evidence should do a careful analysis to determine which category the prior conduct of the defendant is in. Such a determination is necessary to determine the appropriate admissibility criteria and procedure.
a. If the evidence of prior bad acts of the defendant consists of prior acts of Domestic Abuse, as defined in Minnesota Statute 518B.01, against a person who is the victim of the charged crime and the person (victim) is or has been a “Family or household member” of the defendant as defined in Minnesota Statute 518B.01 Subdivision 2(b) the evidence could be offered pursuant to MSA 634.20, prior acts of Domestic Abuse.
c. If the defendant and victim are or have been “Family or household member” but the acts are not acts of domestic abuse, the acts may still be relevant and admissible as relationship evidence to show the animosity of the defendant or the motive of the defendant to harm the victim. Behavior such as antagonistic, hostile, aggressive, threatening, demeaning or negative physical or verbal behavior is in this category.
d. If the defendant and victim are not and have not been “Family or household members” but have or have had a relationship, evidence of the relationship and prior bad acts occurring during it are admissible as relationship evidence to demonstrate the history of the relationship between the accused and the victim and to place the offense in the appropriate context.
e. The admissibility of Relationship evidence is analyzed pursuant to the balancing test; is the probative value of the evidence substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. The balancing test is the same for 634.20 (Prior acts of domestic abuse and Relationship evidence. A trial judge should first determine which category the offered evidence falls within. Once that determination is made the appropriate balancing test and notice requirements can be analyzed.
f. If the defendant and the victim have not had or do not have a relationship, evidence of prior "bad" acts of the defendant may be admissible pursuant to the exception to the 404b rule of evidence, Spreigl.
3. Relationship evidence is admissible:
A. To prove course of conduct,[3]
B. To prove defendant's mental attitude toward victim,[4] and
C. To prove malice[5]
D. To prove motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, knowledge, plan, identity, or absence of mistake or accident[6]
E. To prove lack of consent in cases where consent may be a defense (burglary, trespass, criminal sexual[7] conduct)[8]
4. Relationship evidence, while similar to Spreigl type evidence (Evidence of prior bad acts) and evidence of prior acts of domestic abuse offered pursuant to Minnesota Statute 634.20 is different.
a. The balancing test for the admissibility of relationship evidence is the test in rule 403 of the rules of evidence, which states “evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially out weighted by the danger of unfair prejudice.” This is the same balancing test found in 634.20. The balancing test in Spreigl evidence is different. The test in that area weights the probative value of the evidence on disputed issues against its potential for unfair prejudice.[9] Thus it is easier to exclude Spreigl evidence than relationship or 634.20 evidence.
b. The State is not required to give notice of its intent to introduce relationship evidence.[10] The State is required to give notice of its intent to introduce Spreigl evidence.
c. The state is not required to provide notice of 634.20 evidence.[11] While the statute does not explicitly require giving prior notice of the intent to offer 634.20 evidence at least one court of appeals decision referenced, with implicit approval, the state giving such prior notice of the its intent to offer 634.20 evidence.[12] Giving such notice allows the trial judge to conduct a balancing test regarding the balancing test required in the statute.
d. The state is required to prove Spreigl evidence to a clear and convincing level.[13] The state is not required to prove relationship or 634.20 evidence to a clear and convincing level.[14]
5. Relationship evidence, while broader than evidence of prior acts of Domestic Abuse, is similar to evidence of prior acts of domestic abuse admissible pursuant to Minnesota Statute 634.20. That statute states:
Evidence of similar conduct by the accused against the victim of domestic abuse . . . is admissible unless the probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issue, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.
6. Similar conduct evidence offered pursuant to 634.20 is admissible to demonstrate the history of the relationship between the accused and the victim of domestic abuse and to place the offense in the appropriate context.[15] The trial judge should give a cautionary instruction prior to the admission of evidence offerred pursuant to 634.20 and as part of the end of trial instructions. [16]
7. Relationship evidence can be from a relationship that is not a domestic relationship. For instance, friends, associates or neighbors. Relationship evidence can be about behavior which is not an act of domestic abuse but which is still negative, antagonistic or aggressive.


8. Prior to the start of trial the trial, the judge should try to determine if relationship evidence, Spreigl evidence or evidence of prior acts of Domestic Abuse will be offered. The judge should get the parties to agree which category such evidence will be offered for. If the evidence is determined to be Spreigl or evidence of prior acts of domestic abuse the judge should determine if notice has been given and conduct the appropriate balancing test. Cautionary instructions are required and given when Spreigl or evidence of prior acts of domestic abuse are offered by the state.


9. While a cautionary instruction is not required when relationship evidence is offered, the better practice would be to give a cautionary instruction either before or after such evidence is offered. The defendant through his or her attorney should be asked if they want such an instruction.
10. A cautionary instruction could state:
This evidence is being offered for the limited purpose of illuminating the history of the relationship between the defendant and ______. It is being offered in order to prove up the crime charged in the context of the relationship between these two people. This evidence is not offered, nor should it be used to prove the character of the defendant.
The evidence is not offered, nor should it be used to prove that defendant acted in conformity with such character.
The defendant is not being tried for, and may not be convicted of, any of the behavior described in the relationship evidence.
11. Prior acts of domestic abuse of which a defendant has been acquitted are not admissible in a subsequent criminal prosecution. Such evidence is so unfairly prejudicial that it inherently violates the probative/prejudicial balancing test in Minn. Stat. 634.20.[17]



References:

  1. State v. Word, 755 N.W.2d 776, (Minn. App. 2008).
  2. Id.
  3. State v. Kanniainen, 367 N.W.2d 104, (Minn.App.1985).
  4. Id.
  5. Id.
  6. State v. Kutchara, 350 N.W.2d 924, 925, 926 (Minn.1984).
  7. State v. Kanniainen, 367 N.W.2d 104, (Minn.App.1985).
  8. State v. Burkey Minn.App.,1997 unpublished opinion.
  9. State v. Ness, 707 N.W.2d 686 (Minn. 2006)
  10. State v. Boyce, 170 N.W.2d 104, (Minn. 1969)
  11. State v. McCoy, 682 N.W.2d 153, (Minn.2004).
  12. State vs. Teng Houa Vang, A09-1810, unpublished opinion, (Minn. Ct. App 2010).
  13. State v. McCoy, 682 N.W.2d 153 (Minn.2004).
  14. Id.
  15. State v. Word, 755 N.W.2d 776, (Minn. App. 2008).
  16. State v. Meldrum, 724 N.W.2d 15(Minn. App. 2006
  17. State v. O'Meara, 755 N.W.2d 29 Minn.App.,2008