ER 404(B) and “Lustful Disposition”

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In State v. Gonzales, the WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court did not commit error in admitting evidence that, after the charged conduct, the victim observed the defendant masturbating while holding the victim’s bra.

BACKGROUND FACTS

When J.G. was six years old, she and her younger brother moved in with their grandfather, defendant Eddy Gonzales and his wife. This sexual abuse ended when J.G. was ten or eleven years old. But after the molestation stopped, J.G. once encountered Gonzales masturbating in his room while holding her bra.

When J.G. was eleven years old, she moved out of the house. She informed family members of the molestation. They, in turn, contacted police; who later arrested Mr. Gonzales.

Gonzales was charged with first degree rape of a child and first degree child molestation. The State later added a second count of first degree child rape and charged him with tampering with a witness.

At trial, the Court admitted testimony that he masturbated while holding J.G.’s bra.

The jury acquitted Gonzales of one count of first degree child rape, but found him guilty of the remaining charges. Among other issues not discussed here, Gonzales appealed on the issue of whether the trial court wrongfully admitted that evidence. He argued this uncharged misconduct goes to propensity and should be excluded under ER 404(b). He argues the trial court wrongfully admitted this testimony to show his “lustful disposition” toward J.G., particularly because it occurred after the charged conduct.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals described the rules of evidence which allow or disallow the evidence from getting to the jury. In short, (ER) 404(b) provides that evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for “other purposes.”

Consequently, the Court reasoned that Washington courts have consistently held one such other purpose is evidence of collateral sexual misconduct when it shows the defendant’s lustful disposition toward the victim. This is because a lustful disposition makes it more likely that the defendant committed the crime charged. Evidence of uncharged sexual misconduct occurring before or after the charged acts is admissible. In an ER 404(b) analysis, the trial court must balance and weigh probative value against the potential for unfair prejudice.

Second, the Court of Appeals applied the law to its reasoning. It said that here, the trial court admitted J.G.’s testimony that she saw Gonzales masturbating while holding her bra. The trial court reasoned that Gonzales’s behavior was sexual conduct that showed lustful disposition toward J.G. The trial court also found that the probative value of the evidence was not outweighed by unfair prejudice.

“The trial court did not abuse its discretion,” said the Court of Appeals. “Gonzales’s action shows a sexual desire for J.G. Thus, it goes toward an ‘other purpose’ as provided under ER 404(b).”

Third, the Court of Appeals rejected Gonzales’s arguments that any uncharged sexual misconduct is unfairly prejudicial in a sex abuse prosecution. It reasoned that the admitted evidence was not unfairly prejudicial because his act was not more inflammatory than the charged crime, and J.G. was only indirectly victimized by it.

Finally, the Court of Appeals rejected Gonzales’s arguments that the admitted testimony had diminished probative value because the incident occurred after the alleged abuse. The Court of Appeals reasoned that an act occurring after the charged abuse is relevant to lustful disposition. It was not an abuse of discretion to conclude that the probative value of this testimony was not outweighed by unfair prejudice.

With that, the Court of appeals affirm the admission of the “lustful disposition” testimony under ER 404(b) and upheld Mr. Gonzalez’s conviction.

My opinion?

It’s tricky to predict whether judges will admit or deny evidence when the evidence is offered for “other purposes” under ER 404(b). Judges have lots of discretion an how and where the rule applies. Still, judges must follow the doctrine of stare decisis and make rulings which are consistent existing case law when rendering decisions.

Fortunately, I’m quite familiar with the case law on this subject. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member faces charges and the State wants to offer evidence of the offender’s behavior which falls outside the scope of the immediate facts that are alleged. Perhaps a well-argued pretrial motion to suppress evidence could change the complexion of the case and result in reducing or dismissing the charges.