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Florida Court Prohibits Evidence of Previous Domestic Violence in Rape Case Against Boyfriend – Harden v. State

It is a basic premise of Florida criminal law that a defendant can only be tried on the crimes for which he or she is charged. But what about using a defendant’s previous crimes or other “bad acts” in order to prove that he or she also committed the crime now charged? As Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal explains in Harden v. State, it depends.

Appellant Larry Harden was accused of beating and raping his then-girlfriend, K.W. after an argument in which Harden accused K.W. of having a relationship with another man. Prior to trial, the state prosecutor assigned to the case indicated that he intended to call K.W. as a witness and to ask her, among other things, about a previous domestic violence incident allegedly perpetrated by Harden six months prior to the incident at issue in the case. Despite Harden’s objection, the trial court ruled that the evidence was admissible as probative of his motive and intent. Following trial, Harden was convicted of sexual battery, false imprisonment and domestic battery.

On appeal, the Fourth District found that the trial court abused its discretion in permitting K.W. to testify about the alleged prior domestic violence incident. The general rule that any evidence that is relevant to proving a fact at issue in a case is admissible comes with some important exceptions, the court explained. Under Section 90.403, Florida Statutes (2011), for example, evidence “is inadmissible if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of issues, misleading the jury or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.”

Citing Section 90.404(2)(a), the court further explained that fact evidence about a defendant having committed a similar crime as the one with which he or she is currently charged is admissible when relevant to prove a material fact in issue: proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, etc. The evidence is not admissible, however, where it is relevant solely to prove bad character or propensity.” This, according to the court, holds true even if the “prior bad act” is based on different factual circumstances than the acts at question in the present case.

In this case, “the earlier incident of domestic violence did nothing more than demonstrate appellant’s propensity for violence against his girlfriend,” the court ruled. According to the court, the primary issue at trial was whether K.W. consented to having sex with Harden on the night that she claims he raped her. Thus, Harden’s motive and intent were not in question. To the extent that the evidence was relevant in explaining why K.W. was slow to report the incident to the police, the court found that its value was outweighed by the potential unfair prejudice it could create: leading the jury to believe that because Harden allegedly committed domestic violence against K.W. in the past, he was likely to have committed the rape.

As a result, the court reversed Harden’s conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

In Florida, domestic violence means any assault, battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of a person by a family or household member. The South Florida criminal defense attorneys at Anidjar & Levine are experienced at handling a variety of criminal matters, including those involving domestic violence. We are committed to helping you achieve the best results possible.

By Anidjar & Levine, P.A.

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