Character Evidence, Prior Bad Acts, and the Justice System

Information presented, or more accurately, allowed into the trial as evidence, must be relevant.  In other words, it must prove or disprove a material fact that is pertinent to the case at hand.  However, not all relevant evidence is allowed.  Take for instance, so-called “character” evidence.  Character evidence often includes a person’s “prior bad acts” which tend to have probative value but are generally not allowed because of their highly prejudicial quality.

In the civil context, really, the only time character evidence would be relevant if it falls under an exception in Florida Statute s. 90.404(2)(a) that provides:

“Similar fact evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is admissible when relevant to prove a material fact in issue, including, but not limited to, proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident, but it is inadmissible when the evidence is relevant solely to prove bad character or propensity.”

This exception refers to what is known as “prior acts” or “prior bad acts” evidence. But, when would prior bad acts come into play in a civil case? Specifically, when would introducing evidence of prior wrongs or bad acts by a party be admissible in a civil case to prove “proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identify, or absence of mistake?” And, even if an argument could be made for the relevancy of character evidence, wouldn’t the probative value of this evidence be outweighed by the evidence’s unfair prejudice?

The exception rule seems broad on the surface but is actually quite difficult to prove.

However, in criminal cases, the exception is covered by what is known as the “Williams Rule”.  In this instance, evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts of the accused is admissible if it is relevant to some issue in the case, other than propensity to commit the crime. These purposes include proof of: (1) motive; (2) opportunity; (3) intent; (4) preparation; (5) plan; (6) knowledge; (7) identity; or (8) absence of mistake. William’s Rule evidence may also be offered to rebut an entrapment defense (where the accused person asserts that he or she lacked predisposition to commit the crime) or an alibi defense (where the accused asserts, for example, that he or she was out of town at the time the charged offense was committed, and it can be shown that the accused committed another crime in this area around the time the charged offense was committed, evidence of the uncharged crime may be admissible).

Because the standards are different in criminal cases, the exception is broadened in a criminal scenario.  The stakes are also higher in a criminal case ie. loss of freedom and incarceration.  Such rules as the Williams Rule and the prior bad acts exception is present to promote and preserve justice.  It doesn’t always work out that way but that is the goal.


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