Connected Crimes

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The court of appeals decided State v. Howard earlier this week. The opinion addresses several issues, but I want to focus on what is sometimes called the connected crimes doctrine, which allows the state to introduce evidence of uncharged crimes closely related to a charged offense notwithstanding Rule 404(b)’s limitations on evidence of uncharged bad acts.

The defendant in Howard was charged with, and convicted of, robbing a woman at gunpoint as she entered her hotel room in Archdale. The crime took place at 12:50 a.m. The defendant took her laptop computer, her camcorder, and her wallet. At trial, the state also introduced evidence showing that the defendant broke into Daddy Rabbit’s gun store in Lexington at 4:30 a.m. on the same day, taking a laptop computer and a rifle. A citizen saw the defendant commit the break-in, followed him as he drove away, and called the police. Based on the information provided by the citizen, the police apprehended the defendant shortly thereafter, in possession of the items taken in both incidents.

Although the defendant was not charged with the Daddy Rabbit’s break-in, he did not object to the admission of the Daddy Rabbit’s evidence at trial, so the court of appeals reviewed for plain error. It found none, quoting State v. Agee, 326 N.C. 542 (1990), as follows:

[A]dmission of evidence of a criminal defendant’s prior bad acts, received to establish the circumstances of the crime on trial by describing its immediate context, has been approved in many other jurisdictions following adoption of the Rules of Evidence. This exception is known variously as the “same transaction” rule, the “complete story” exception, and the “course of conduct” exception. Such evidence is admissible if it forms part of the history of the event or serves to enhance the natural development of the facts. We similarly hold that the “chain of circumstances” rationale established in our pre-Rules cases survives the adoption of the Rules of Evidence.

Similar support for the admissibility of connected crimes comes from State v. White, 340 N.C. 264 (1995) (holding that evidence is admissible if it “establishes the chain of circumstances or context of the charged crime . . . enhance[s] the natural development of the facts[,] or is necessary to complete the story of the charged crime for the jury”). See also Kenneth S. Broun, Brandis & Broun on North Carolina Evidence § 95 (7th ed. 2011) (“Where two offenses are so closely connected that neither can be adequately proved without proving the other, evidence of both is admissible on a trial for committing either one.”).

Brandis & Broun calls this the connected crimes doctrine, and I like that terminology, though Agee makes clear that there are other names for the same rule. Whether the doctrine is an exception to Rule 404(b) or whether showing the context and circumstances of the crime is a proper purpose under Rule 404(b) is of only academic import.

Sometimes the connected crimes doctrine comes up when two offenses take place almost simultaneously. For example, when a defendant uses drugs, then commits a crime while intoxicated, it is certainly proper for the state to introduce evidence of the drug use even if the defendant isn’t charged with a drug offense. Sometimes, as in Howard, there is a greater gap in time between the uncharged crime and the charged offense. In such a case, the applicability of the doctrine may be more debatable. For example, one might argue that the Daddy Rabbit’s break-in was not closely connected to the robbery because it was a different type of crime, and took place four hours later and eleven miles away. But Howard is a good example of an uncharged crime that is admissible because it is factually intertwined with the defendant’s detection and arrest, even if not closely connected with the charged crime itself. Explaining how, why, and when the defendant was arrested was important given the incriminating evidence found during the arrest, and explaining that necessitated referring to the events at Daddy Rabbit’s.

But enough about connected crimes. One other interesting thing about Howard is that the jury deliberated for only seven minutes before convicting the defendant. I’ve never heard of a faster jury verdict. Have you?

3 comments on “Connected Crimes

  1. The only other quicker jury deliberation I’ve heard of was a long, long time ago in Texas’ Judge Roy Bean’s (“The Hanging Judge”) Court where the jury didn’t even leave the courtroom, if you can call it that. I read the courtroom was actually the saloon and the townsfolk were anxious to return to drinking as soon as possible. I’m just saying…

  2. Hard to top that. I did get an email from a reader who reported that the jury in one of his cases came back after just three minutes of deliberations.

  3. I find that line of cases interesting, since it seems that North Carolina’s liberal 404(b) rule on admission (admissible for any other purpose other than propensity) would pretty much encompass this doctrine. Can anyone think of a situation where this doctrine would allow admissibility and 404(b) would not?

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