Relevancy: “Context,” “Circumstances,” and “Chain of Events” Evidence

In an earlier post, I wrote about relevancy and guilt of another. In this post, I consider another relevancy issue: context, circumstances, and chain of events evidence. Consider this problem: At the defendant’s murder trial, the State seeks to admit evidence that the defendant was doing drugs before the murder. To keep the facts clean, assume that voluntary intoxication is not a defense. The defense lawyer wants to keep evidence of the defendant’s drug use out because it paints the defendant as a bad person. Defense counsel makes a Rule 401 objection, arguing that the drug use is irrelevant. The State responds, arguing that the evidence is relevant because a tip about the defendant’s drug use caused the officers to do a knock and talk that resulted in the defendant’s confession to the murder. How should the judge rule?

The objection is likely to be overruled. Evidence is relevant if it establishes the context or circumstances of an event or if it explains a chain of events. This rule sometimes is called the “same transaction” rule, the “complete story” rule, or the “course of conduct” rule. State v. Sexton, 153 N.C. App. 641 (2002). Chain of circumstances evidence “is admissible if it forms part of the history of the event or serves to enhance the natural development of the facts.” Id. Significantly, such evidence is relevant even if it incidentally establishes commission of a prior bad act (in my example, drug use). Id. When the chain of events evidence reveals a bad act, the courts typically find Rule 404(b) to be no bar to admission, on grounds that the evidence is being admitted for the proper purpose of completing the story of the crime by providing immediate context, and not for propensity. See, e.g., State v. Agee, 326 N.C. 542 (1990); Sexton, 153 N.C. App. 641. As should be apparent, this rule opens the door for all kinds of evidence. [Editor’s note: there’s also no hearsay problem with the officer testifying about the report he received regarding the defendant’s drug use, a topic I discussed here.]

If you are looking for cases on point, consider these: State v. Barden, 356 N.C. 316 (2002) (testimony of the murder victim’s supervisor was relevant to explain the circumstances of the crime); Agee, 326 N.C. 542 (evidence of the defendant’s possession of marijuana was admissible in a trial for possession of LSD because it gave rise to a chain of events or circumstances; “[d]iscovery of the marijuana on defendant[] . . . led . . . to the search of the defendant’s vehicle and the subsequent detection of the LSD”); State v. Miller, __ N.C. App. __, 676 S.E.2d 546 (May 19, 2009) (questions posed to the defendant by law enforcement officers relaying statements made by third parties were relevant; the questions gave context to the defendant’s responses and explained his subsequent conduct of changing his story); Sexton, 153 N.C. App. 641 (in an arson trial, evidence that the defendant was inhaling intoxicants shortly before the fire was relevant to establish the chain of events or circumstances leading to the fire; the fact that it incidentally involved the defendant’s alleged illegal use of drugs did not make it irrelevant); State v. Robertson, 149 N.C. App. 563 (2002) (in a trial for rape and kidnapping, the victim’s testimony that the defendant told her that he was an ecstasy dealer was relevant to establish context for the charged crimes, which incidentally involved illegal drugs). Related cases hold that evidence is relevant if it explains the course of a law enforcement investigation. See, e.g., State v. Patterson, 185 N.C. App. 67 (2007) (in a trial for possession of stolen property pursuant to a breaking and entering and possession of implements of housebreaking, a detective’s testimony regarding businesses that had reported break-ins was relevant because it explained the chain of events in the police investigation).

In this situation, the defense lawyer’s best strategy is probably a Rule 403 objection, asserting that even with a limiting instruction the jury will be confused as to the role of the evidence. See State v. Smith, 359 N.C. 199 (2005) (evidence properly excluded where the trial court concluded that the jury would have difficulty following a limiting instruction and understanding that the statements were not offered for their truth). As a fallback, the defense should request a limiting instruction, which must be given if requested. See N.C. R. Evid. 105.

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