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Georgia Supreme Court Holds Probative Value of Appellant’s Prior DUI Conviction Outweighed by Danger of Unfair Prejudice

A defendant appealed his DUI conviction under the theory that evidence of his prior DUI conviction was wrongfully admitted at trial. In June, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled on the case for the second time. At the core of the issue was the mechanism lower courts use to decide the admissibility of extrinsic act evidence under Rules 404(b) and 403 of the Georgia Evidence Code. While these laws do not apply in Illinois, the case is still instructive for people charged with an Illinois DUI in terms of showing the importance of evidence admissibility issues.

Rule 404(b) provides that evidence of other crimes should not be admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may be admissible, however, for other reasons, such as opportunity, intent, motive, absence of mistake, or others. The prosecution must provide notice to the defense in advance of trial unless excused by the court.

Rule 403 provides that relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

The Georgia Supreme Court explained that extrinsic act evidence may be admitted when:  (1) the evidence is relevant to an issue in the case other than the defendant’s character; (2) the probative value is not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice; and (3) there is sufficient proof for a jury to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant committed the prior act.

In this case, the trial court admitted the defendant’s prior DUI for the confined purpose of demonstrating knowledge and intent, as Rule 404(b) permits. The trial court found that all three standards for admissibility outlined above had been met. The court of appeals, however, held that the trial court erred. It reasoned that the evidence in question was not relevant and was therefore inadmissible.

The state supreme court granted the state’s petition for certiorari and held–contrary to the court of appeals–that the prior DUI conviction was relevant extrinsic act evidence, as imagined by Rule 404(b). Specifically, it reasoned that the evidence was relevant to the issue of intent. Based on this finding, the state high court vacated the appellate court’s judgment and remanded the matter back to the appeals court. The appeals court was instructed to address the second prong of the admissibility test by determining whether the trial court properly applied the balancing test outlined by Rule 403.

On remand, the appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decision to admit the prior DUI conviction. The appeals court reasoned that the probative value of evidence of the prior conviction was not substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect.

Since it last heard the case, the Georgia Supreme Court explained, it has clarified what precisely is required when conducting a Rule 403 balancing test. In Hood v. State, for example, the court held in 2016 that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting 404(b) evidence in the form of testimony from two witnesses that they each purchased prescription pain pills from the defendant on numerous occasions because the testimony was relevant to the issue of the defendant’s intent. However, the court reasoned that there was virtually nothing on the probative value side of the Rule 403 balance, and there was something not insubstantial on the prejudice side (the notion that the appellant was a seasoned drug dealer). Thus, the court held the trial court abused its discretion by admitting the testimony about the appellant’s past drug deals.

And in Brannon v. State, the court held that evidence of the appellant’s prior participation in a robbery and subsequent shooting with his co-defendant was admissible to show the appellant had knowledge of and shared his co-defendant’s criminal intent in the present case. Since the evidence of the prior robberies was necessary to counter the appellant’s testimony at trial and the defenses on which he relied, the court held, the probative value of the 404(b) evidence was not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.

Based on recent precedent, the high court found that its prior holding in the defendant’s case did not adequately consider whether the trial court properly conducted the Rule 403 balancing test. Upon its review of the trial court’s 403 balancing, the high court held that the trial court erred when it determined the probative value of the defendant’s prior DUI was not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. The high court reasoned that the jury could infer intent from the defendant’s driving after admitting to consuming alcohol without considering the prior DUI, and the prior conviction evidence might cause unfair prejudice at trial.

The court nonetheless concluded, however, that the erroneous admission of the evidence was harmless, pursuant to Georgia Code § 40-6-391(a). The court reasoned that there was overwhelming direct evidence of the defendant’s guilt. Specifically, the defendant admitted to consuming alcohol that night, and his BAC was substantially higher than .08.

For these reasons, the judgment of the appellate court was affirmed.

If you have been charged with a DUI offense in Illinois, it is crucial to speak to an experienced Illinois DUI lawyer as soon as possible. Harvatin Law Offices, PC provides knowledgeable representation to people in Springfield and throughout Illinois. We have considerable experience defending individuals charged with DUI offenses and representing drivers with revoked licenses before the Illinois Secretary of State. To learn more, and to set up a free initial consultation, contact us online or call us at 217.525.0520.

More Blog Posts:

New Law Enables Texans to Seal DUI Records, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blog, August 1, 2017.

Hawaii Supreme Court Holds a DUI Suspect May Not Be Preemptively Refused the Opportunity to Communicate with Counsel, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blog, July 3, 2017.

Illinois Appeals Court Upholds Ruling for DUI Defendant Based on Officer’s Unconvincing Testimony, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blog, June 5, 2017.

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