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Rule 404(b): The Requirement of Similarity

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Even when Rule 404(b) evidence is relevant to an issue other than propensity or disposition, admissibility is “constrained by the requirements of similarity and temporal proximity.” State v. Beckelheimer, __ N.C. __, 726 S.E.2d 156, 159 (2012) (quoting State v. Al-Bayyinah, 356 N.C. 150, 154 (2002)). In this, my fourth post on Rule 404(b) evidence, I’ll explore the requirement of similarity.

As a general rule, 404(b) evidence must be sufficiently similar to the act in question. The evidence is sufficiently similar if there are unusual facts present in both incidents. Beckelheimer, 726 S.E.2d at 159. However, the similarities need not “rise to the level of the unique and bizarre.” Id. (quotation omitted). Nor must the incidents be identical. Id. at 160. As the North Carolina Supreme Court has stated: “near identical circumstances are not required; rather, the incidents need only share some unusual facts that go to a purpose other than propensity.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted); see also State v. Khouri, __ N.C. App. __, 716 S.E.2d 1, 8 (2011) (in a child sex case, rejecting the defendant’s argument that the defendant’s sex acts with another child were different from those charged because one occurred in private and the other occurred in public).

By the same token, for most 404(b) purposes, some degree of similarity is required; when the requisite similarity is lacking, the evidence is inadmissible. See State v. Davis, __ N.C. App. __, 731 S.E.2d 236, 239-42 (2012) (in a child sex case in which the defendant was charged with assaulting his six-year-old son, the trial court committed reversible error by admitting evidence of the defendant’s writings in a composition book about forcible, non-consensual anal sex with an adult female acquaintance; the events described in the book were not sufficiently similar to the case at bar given that “the only overlapping fact was anal intercourse”; the actual force described in the book was “not analogous to the constructive force theory that applies with sexual conduct between a parent and child”; aside from anal intercourse, “the acts bore no resemblance to each other, involving different genders, radically different ages, different relationships between the parties, and different types of force”); State v. Flood, __ N.C. App. __, 726 S.E.2d 908, 913-14 (2012) (in a case involving a 2007 drug-related murder, the trial court committed reversible error by admitting evidence that the defendant was involved in a 1994 homicide in which he broke into an apartment, found his girlfriend in bed with the victim, and shot the victim to show identity; the acts where not sufficiently similar); State v. Gray, 210 N.C. App. 493, 510-13 (2011) (in a child sex case involving a five-year-old female victim and allegations of digital penetration, the trial court committed prejudicial error by admitting evidence that the defendant had anal intercourse with a four-year-old male 18 years earlier; although the incidents both involved very young children and occurred at a caretaker’s house where the defendant was a visitor, the nature of the assaults was very different).

When the prior acts are very old, the requirement of similarity may be heightened. See, e.g., State v. Webb, 197 N.C. App. 619, 623 (2009) (in a child sexual abuse case, evidence that the defendant abused two witnesses 21 and 31 years ago was improperly admitted requiring a new trial; in light the fact that the prior incidents were decades old, more was required in terms of similarity than that “the victims were young girls in the defendant’s care, the incidents happened in [the defendant’s] home, and [the defendant] told the [victims] not to report his behavior”).

By contrast, in certain circumstances, the requirement of similarity may not apply, such as when the 404(b) evidence establishes

  • identity by connecting the defendant to the weapon used in the current offense, State v. Dean, 196 N.C. App. 180, 191-92 (2009) (in a murder case, evidence of an assault committed by the defendant two days before the murder at issue was admissible to show identity when ballistics evidence established that the same weapon was used in both incidents; the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the incidents were dissimilar);
  • motive, State v. Haskins, 104 N.C. App. 675, 682-83 (1991); and
  • chain of events leading up to the incident in question, State v. Golden, __ N.C. App. __, 735 S.E.2d 425, 429-32 (2012) (in perpetrating a hoax by use of a false bomb case, the trial court did not err by admitting evidence of the defendant’s acts against his estranged wife where those incidents were part of the chain of events leading up to the crime and thus completed the story of the crime for the jury; the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the prior acts were not sufficiently similar to the act charged on grounds that similarity was “not pertinent to the purpose for which the evidence was admitted”).

Finally, “[a]lthough the decision to join offenses for trial often involves considerations similar to those reviewed when determining whether to admit evidence of a prior offense under Rule 404(b), the decision to join or not to join offenses does not determine admissibility of evidence under Rule 404(b).” State v. Locklear, 363 N.C. 438, 446 (2009).

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