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One Court of Justice Blog

June 12, 2017

MOAA: Was evidence of defendant’s prior firearms convictions permissible because it bore on wife’s credibility and was not a collateral issue?

The Michigan Supreme Court granted a mini-oral argument to hear whether a defendant’s rights were violated through the use of character evidence and evidence of prior crimes. In People v. Wilder, No. 154814, the court will hear: 1) whether defendant’s prior firearms-related convictions were offered solely as character evidence, 2) whether defendant’s prior convictions were relevant to his guilt or innocence and 3) whether any part of the trial deprived defendant of a just outcome.
 
This case concerns both a felon-in-possession conviction and a felony-firearm conviction. The defendant was involved in an investigation that ultimately led two officers to discover a semi-automatic handgun in the trunk of a vehicle. Prior to the discovery, both officers witnessed the defendant take a key from a woman, open the trunk of the vehicle, and place a gun inside. At trial, the evidence revealed that the defendant had a prior felony conviction and was not supposed to have a firearm at the time of his arrest. Three witnesses who were present at the time of the arrest testified that they did not see the defendant carrying a gun that day. Similarly, the defendant’s wife confirmed that she had not seen her husband with a gun on the day of the incident. She further testified that she was unaware of her husband owning or carrying any guns. However, during cross-examination, she admitted that she knew the defendant had been convicted of felony-firearm in the past.
 
The defendant appealed on numerous grounds, but the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. The appellate court agreed that MRE 404(b) does not allow evidence of other crimes when offered solely as character evidence. However, in this case, the court held that the cross-examination was permissible because the firearms-related convictions were also relevant to the defendant’s wife’s credibility, which is a permissible use of evidence of prior crimes. Additionally, the court reasoned that the defendant’s ownership and habit of carrying guns, along his wife’s knowledge of these facts, was not a collateral issue. The court reasoned that the issue was “relevant and closely bore on defendant’s guilt or innocence.” The appellate court also held that the trial judge did not demonstrate impropriety or pierce the judicial veil of impartiality, and that the defendants was not deprived of effective legal representation or a fair trial.   
 

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