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When Can Evidence of Other Criminal Activity be Used Against You?

The general rule in criminal cases is that evidence of other bad things a defendant may have done cannot be used against him if he is on trial for a separate crime. For example, if you are on trial for assault, prosecutors cannot offer a witness to testify that you pickpocketed his cell phone just to prove that you have a bad character and are therefore more likely to have committed other crimes. But sometimes, there are exceptions to this rule.

Consider the current case against comedian Bill Cosby. After numerous allegations of rape against Cosby surfaced, prosecutors in Pennsylvania filed charges against him of three counts of second-degree aggravated indecent assault. The charges, as the American Bar Journal reports, stem from a 2004 incident in which Cosby allegedly raped a Temple University employee whom he was mentoring. Prosecutors claim that Cosby gave the woman pills and alcohol that paralyzed her and rendered her unable to give consent to any sexual activity. Cosby has pleaded not guilty.

Another ABAJournal.com article notes that the case against Cosby will be difficult to prove, given the length of time that has elapsed since the alleged incident, and the fact that Cosby and his accuser are apparently the only witnesses. Prosecutors, however, would like the court to admit testimony from other women who claim that Cosby raped them in a similar manner, by giving them drugs and alcohol first. Cosby has been neither charged nor convicted in any of these other alleged crimes. So if the rule is that no evidence of other bad actions can be admitted, what are these prosecutors thinking of?

In fact, there is an exception to the general rule, as there so often is. Prosecutors in Pennsylvania hope to exploit this exception by using testimony to show a pattern of behavior, to support the theory that Cosby followed the same pattern in their case. The Pennsylvania rule they are relying on has a counterpart in Florida.

Section 90.404 of the Florida Evidence Code permits similar fact evidence of other alleged crimes or bad acts (also called collateral crimes evidence) to be admitted as evidence when it is relevant to prove a material fact in issue, such as:

  • motive;
  • intent;
  • opportunity;
  • preparation;
  • plan;
  • knowledge;
  • intent; or
  • absence of mistake or accident.

Florida courts refer to this exception as the Williams rule, from the 1959 Florida Supreme Court case of Williams v. Florida. Under the Williams rule, prosecutors may introduce evidence of collateral crimes (whether or not the defendant has been charged or convicted of these alleged crimes) if it is relevant not to proving the defendant’s bad character or criminal nature, but to prove a material fact such as those listed above. In Cosby’s case, prosecutors will likely argue that testimony about other alleged incidents could tend to prove motive, intent, and planning to commit the crime with which he is charged, and the court might therefore permit it.

Consult an Orlando criminal defense attorney

If you have been arrested or are facing any type of criminal charges, your best ally is a skilled, dedicated criminal defense attorney. The lawyers of The Baez Law FIrm have years of experience representing clients in criminal matters in Orlando, Tampa, Miami and beyond. They will work with you to develop the best strategy to defend you and protect your rights. Contact The Baez Law Firm for a consultation right away.

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