Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
State v. Richard, 300 Kan. 715, 333 P.3d 179 (2014).
This case addresses the following issue:
When can past convictions be used as evidence against a party?
Section 60-455 outlines when past convictions or “civil wrongs” may be admitted into evidence at the trial of another matter. Id. at 720. Kansas law is cautious about admitting such evidence, because it poses a great risk of misuse or undue influence for the jury. Id. However, when the requirements of Section 60-455 are met, the evidence must be admitted. Id. In this case, evidence of a prior incidents in which Defendant had shoot his handgun in his backyard were properly presented to the jury. Id. at 720-21.
Defendant was charged with felony murder and firing a weapon into an occupied building. Id. at 719. Defendant was known to fire his handgun in his backyard, having done so on at least six prior occasions. Id. at 720. The police had questioned Defendant on some of these occasions, and Defendant had repeatedly stated he was just “blowing off steam” by shooting the gun. Id. On the night at issue, the victim had been sitting in his home when Defendant fired four rounds from his backyard. Id. at 716. All four rounds hit the victim’s home and one round struck the victim in the head, instantly killing him. Id. Ultimately, Defendant admitted that he had fired shoots at the victim’s home in an effort to scare him, but never meant to hit anyone. Id. The State charged Defendant with a felony—firing at an occupied structure—and because that felony resulted in a death, Defendant was also charged with “felony” murder. Id. at 718.
Whether or not instances of prior crimes or civil wrongs are admissible is a three-part test. Id. at 721. First, the fact the prior wrongs seeks to prove must be material, meaning it “has some real bearing on the decision in the case.” Id. Second, the material fact must also be disputed. Id. Finally, the evidence of prior acts must be more helpful to the offering party than it is unfairly prejudicial to the opposing party. Id. If all three of these factors are met, the evidence may be admitted; however, the jury must be instructed that the evidence may only be used for a limited purpose, relevant to the material fact at issue. Id.
Looking at this case, the court found that admitting the evidence of prior instances of shooting was proper. Id. at 723. These prior instances showed the Defendant knew firing a weapon from his backyard was not a good thing to do. Id. He had been questioned by the police about similar instances on at least four occasions, and neighbors had made complaints directly to Defendant on at least two other occasions. Id. This knowledge went towards proving the malicious intent required for Defendant’s charged crimes. Id. Additionally, the evidence went towards a disputed fact and was not unfairly prejudicial to Defendant. Id. This was partially due to the fact that Defendant had brought up one such shooting on his own, in an effort to support his own story of shooting in the air, not at the structure. Id. at 725. Relying on these facts, the court found the admission of these instances was proper and upheld Defendant’s conviction. Id.