Posts tagged with "undue prejudice"

Defendant’s Conviction for Misconduct with a Motor Vehicle Upheld; Sufficient Evidence to Establish Requisite Mental State

In a criminal law matter decided this month, the Appellate Court of Connecticut affirmed a defendant’s conviction for misconduct with a motor vehicle, finding sufficient evidence to convict and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting potentially prejudicial evidence.

This case arose from an incident that occurred on the night of December 2, 2007. Despite snow and freezing rain that day, the defendant drove with his friends to an unplowed parking lot after dinner and performed a “donut” around a light pole. Afterward, he traveled along a road where passing was not permitted, the speed limit was 45mph, and there was only one travel lane in each direction. The defendant attempted to pass a slow-moving vehicle but lost control of the vehicle. The car veered off the road and two passengers were ejected, one sustaining head injuries that led to his death.

The defendant was charged with second-degree manslaughter, third-degree assault, and reckless driving. As an alternative to the manslaughter charge, the court charged the jury with lesser included offenses, including misconduct with a motor vehicle. Defense counsel filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude testimony regarding the donut. He argued that the evidence was not relevant, involved uncharged misconduct, and the potential for prejudice far outweighed its probative value. The State countered that because the donut was performed shortly before the accident, it was probative and relevant to mental state, and served as evidence that the defendant was aware of the poor driving conditions. The trial court denied the motion, stating, “[W]hat happened a matter of minutes before the actual incident is part and parcel of the incident itself.”

The defendant was found guilty of reckless driving and misconduct with a motor vehicle, in violation of Connecticut General Statutes (CGS) §§ 14-222(a) and 53a-57(a). He appealed his conviction, arguing that the State provided insufficient evidence of the requisite mental state for misconduct with a motor vehicle, and the court improperly allowed evidence of the donut into the record.

A criminal defendant is guilty of misconduct with a motor vehicle if the State proves that he caused the death of another person through criminally negligent operation of his motor vehicle.

A person acts with “criminal negligence” with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation… (CGS § 53a-3 (14))

A defendant does not have to be speeding in his vehicle to violate CGS § 53a-57(a). Relevant evidence makes a material fact more or less probable than it would be without such evidence. Even if relevant, evidence may be excluded where its probative value is outweighed by the danger of undue prejudice. However, mere prejudice is not enough, because “[a]ll adverse evidence is damaging to one’s case.”

In this case, the Appellate Court was not persuaded by the defendant’s arguments. It found that there was ample evidence that the defendant operated his vehicle in a criminally negligent behavior, and that he was not speeding at the time was not dispositive. Furthermore, the Court agreed that the evidence was relevant, and the probative value outweighed the danger of undue prejudice. Its admission as evidence was not an abuse of discretion by the trial court. Therefore, the judgment was affirmed.

When faced with a charge of reckless driving or misconduct with a motor vehicle, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Appellate Court Considers Whether Evidence of Previously-Set Fire Was Improperly Admitted in Arson Trial

In “Double Jeopardy Not Implicated in Case Where Man Purposefully Burned Down His Home to Collect Nearly $400,000 in Insurance Payments,” the Appellate Court of Connecticut rejected a defendant’s claims that his constitutional protections against double jeopardy were violated when he was convicted of both larceny in the first degree and insurance fraud. The Court considered other matters on his appeal, including whether or not the court improperly admitted testimony.

In her sworn statement, the defendant’s daughter informed police that the defendant had purposefully set her car on fire during the summer of 2001. She explained that she did not want to have to continue making her car payments, so the defendant “told [her] that he was going to start a fire in the car and make it look like an electrical fire so that she could collect the insurance and pay off the automobile loan.” His effort was a success: police determined the damage was accidental, the car was deemed a total loss, and the insurance company, as expected, paid her claim.

Prior to the defendant’s trial for arson, insurance fraud, and larceny, he filed a motion seeking to exclude any evidence related to car fire. He argued that he did not receive any of the proceeds, was never charged for a crime, and the evidence was more prejudicial than probative. The State countered that this evidence of misconduct was admissible because it was relevant in establishing intent as to whether the house fire was accidental and showed a common scheme. The court denied the motion but issued a jury instruction that the purpose of the evidence was to establish “a method or plan or scheme… in the commission of criminal acts or the existence of intent or the absence of accident.”

Generally, evidence of a defendant’s prior bad acts is inadmissible to prove guilt on a present charge. However, “evidence of crimes so connected as to tend directly to prove the commission of the charged crime is admissible.” Such evidence will be admitted only if it is relevant to a statutory exception, such as proving intent, and the probative value outweighs the prejudicial effect. In this case, the Appellate Court agreed with the defendant that the daughter’s statement was inadmissible to show a common scheme or plan because the car fire occurred more than a year before the house fire. However, the Court sided with the State and found the evidence was admissible “to prove the closely related issues of intent… lack of accident or mistake.” As the Court elaborated:

The evidence that the defendant started a fire in the automobile in order that his daughter might recover insurance proceeds tended to prove that he knew how to start a fire that appeared to be accidental in nature and that he intentionally set the fire to his residence to recover insurance proceeds.

Whether or not the house fire was accidental in nature became an issue in the case, so the evidence regarding the car fire made “utterly limpid his subsequent intent to burn down his house… to recover the insurance proceeds.” After determining the evidence would not “shock the sensibilities” of the jury, resulting in undue prejudice to the defendant, the Appellate Court affirmed judgment as to this aspect of the defendant’s appeal.

When faced with a charge of arson, fraud, or larceny, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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