A police officer in New Jersey is accused of witness tampering and official misconduct. The State claims the officer tried to contact a state trooper and convince him not to appear in court on DUI charges against his cousin.
The prosecutor seeks to introduce as a “prior bad act” an incident where the officer tried to intervene on a DUI charge against his uncle. The State’s key witness is a former municipal prosecutor who claims he was in a private meeting with the arresting officers when defendant tried to get his “attention” in the matter. The arresting officers indicated the arrestee was defendant’s uncle. The prosecutor allegedly exclaimed, “You should know better than this, ” and then later had the case transferred to another court. The officer’s lawyer argued to the court, “My guy said nothing. It’s unfair to conclude he was there to interject himself badly. That’s speculation.” He further argued that his client could have entered the room to talk about two other cases in which he was involved at the time. The officer was never charged with any misconduct.
That fact was argued to the the judge. Because he was never charged, the attorney argued, to allow a jury to hear about it would be “‘very prejudicial . . . You’re asking me to try two cases in front of the jury at the same time.'”
The court questioned the prosecutor extensively as to why he was never charged, but the prosecutor contended the State could not prove the incident beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the standard, the prosecutor argued, for prior bad acts was a “‘lower standard.'” The standard is clear and convincing evidence, and court inquired how was the evidence clear and convincing when the municipal prosecutor stated the officer did not say anything to him. The prosecutor, however, maintained that the officer made several calls to the processing room and “‘showed interest'” when his uncle was being booked. The judge indicated there was nothing in police department’s policy that prohibited an officer to inquire about the status of a family member.
The State has an uphill battle. It appears they have at least a preponderance of the evidence that the officer did anything to influence the municipal prosecutor but may fall short of the required clear and convincing evidence. Just showing up in a room without saying anything shifts the focus on the arresting officer’s statement to the municipal prosecutor that the arrestee was his uncle and the municipal prosecutor’s assumption that simply by his very presence he was there to influence him not to prosecute his uncle. This may not be enough to get over the hurdle.
New Jersey Rule of Evidence 404(b) provides, in material part, that:
evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the disposition of a person in order to show that such person acted in conformity therewith. Such evidence may be admitted for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity or absence of mistake or accident when such matters are relevant to a material issue in dispute.
The rule is substantially similar to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b). N.J.R.E. 404(b) exists primarily “to guard a defendant’s right to a fair trial by avoiding the danger that a jury might convict the accused because the jurors perceive him to be a bad person.” New Jersey Div. of Youth and Family Services v. I.H.C., 415 N.J.Super. 551, 571 (App. Div. 2010).
The federal advisory committee notes state: “No mechanical solution is offered,” and deciding whether to admit evidence of other crimes depends on “whether the danger of undue prejudice outweighs the probative value of the evidence in view of the availability of other means of proof and other factors appropriate for making decisions of this kind under Rule 403.”
Under State v. Cofield, the prosecution must satisfy a four-prong test before evidence of a prior bad act can be admitted:
1. The evidence of the other crime must be admissible as relevant to a material issue;
2. It must be similar in kind and reasonably close in time to the offense charged;
3. The evidence of the other crime must be clear and convincing; and
4. The probative value of the evidence must not be outweighed by its apparent prejudice.
127 N.J. 328 (1992).
In State v. Collier, the appellate division upheld the trial court’s decision to permit testimony about a prior incident involving animal cruelty in order to show the defendant had a motive to rob and shoot the victim, because the defendant knew the victim told the police that defendant was involved in the animal cruelty incident. 316 N.J.Super. 181, 196 (App. Div. 1998). The fact that both acts were dissimilar is not dispositive as to admissibility. Id. at 194.
In the present case, the State has to show that there was some motive by the defendant to contact the state trooper to stop him from testifying based on his prior act of entering a room when his uncle’s DUI was being discussed by the arresting officers and the municipal prosecutor. That appears to show more a pattern of behavior than motive as required by the rule. And whether or not it amounts to clear and convincing evidence of motive remains to be seen.