Brief Bank # B-791
NOTE: The text of the footnotes appear at the end of the document.
THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA
PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA
PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA,
Plaintiff and Respondent, Crim. No. 000000
(Kern County Superior Court
Defendant and Appellant.
APPELLANT’S OPENING BRIEF
The Trial Court Erred in Permitting The Prosecutor To Question Mr. Doe About His Debts.
In cross-examining Mr. Doe, the Prosecutor asked if he had any debts. (RT 1338.) A hearing was held outside the presence of the jury as to the admissibility of evidence concerning the fact that Mr. Doe had over ten thousand dollars worth of debts in Oklahoma resulting from a business failure. Defense counsel argued that the evidence had little, if any, probative value as to motive and that whatever probative value there might have been was far outweighed by the likelihood of prejudice. (RT 1339; see Evidence Code section 352.) The Court indicated it thought the evidence was relevant to show motive and that failing in business and being in debt was not something that would be prejudicial. (RT 1340.) The Court ruled the evidence would be admissible as long as the prosecutor did not infer that Mr. Doe had absconded from his debtors.
Back in the presence of the jury, the prosecutor then brought out the following facts: When Mr. Doe arrived in Bakersfield, he owed eighteen hundred dollars to a finance company in Oklahoma and over ten thousand dollars to a bank in Oklahoma. (RT 1342-1343.) He was supposed to pay seventy nine dollars per month to the finance company and approximately two hundred sixty dollars per month to the bank. (RT 1343-1344.) Mr. Doe was concerned about these obligations. (RT 1346.) The Does were attempting to make at least partial payments on these debts. (RT 1345.) On redirect examination Mr. Doe explained,
“They’re obligations just like they were bills, I felt that it was my obligation to pay them, if I was without money my bills didn’t get paid and if I had money my bills got paid and there is nothing else that I can do , I didn’t — I wasn’t obsessed with my bills or worried to death about them because there is nothing you can do if you have no money.” (RT 1438, ls. 21-26.)
This evidence was highly prejudicial in that it reflected poorly on Mr. Doe’s character. While some jurors might realize that business failures are not uncommon, nonetheless, the inference that Mr. Doe absconded from large debts was unavoidable. The potential was great for jurors to conclude that Mr. Doeis character was not good. Indeed, such a danger was especially high in this case because one of the jurors was the manager of a finance company! (RT I: 239, 1. 24 re: Juror B; CT 150.)
The probative value of the evidence was very low. As shown above, in the section of this brief dealing with sufficiency of the evidence, there was very little evidence that a robbery had even occurred. Even assuming one had occurred, Mr. Doe’s debts gave him no special motive to commit a robbery. It is absurd to contend that a normally law-abiding citizen would commit a forty dollar robbery, brutally killing a woman and a child, in order to make a token payment against thirteen thousand dollars worth of debts.
There was no evidence that Mr. Doe had any reason to expect to find any large sums of money in the Roe house; to the contrary, he knew that the Roes were hardly any better off financially than he was. (ACT 760, 1. 9.) There was no evidence that Mr. Doe was under any imminent threat if he failed to make some prompt payment toward his debts. There was no evidence to contradict Mr. Doe’s testimony that he was not overly obsessed about his debts. It simply strains credulity that his debts would in any way cause him to commit this atrocious crime for forty dollars, rather than simply declare bankruptcy. Thus, there was no real probative value whatsoever in this evidence.
Reported cases in California have not dealt with this issue in any significant detail. About the only thing this Court has said on the subject is that, “Generally, evidence of the wealth or poverty of a defendant is not admissible; but the sudden possession of money immediately after the commission of a larceny, by one who before that had been impecunious, is clearly admissible as a circumstance in the case.” (People v. Kelly (1901) 132 Cal.430, 431-432.) Thus, when a suspect possesses money after an offense that is inconsistent with his financial condition before the offense, such evidence is Permissible. Here, however, the possession of forty dollars after the offense was not at all inconsistent with Mr. Doe’s financial condition before the offense. Even if it could be argued that there was such an inconsistency, the relevant fact would be the amount of money Mr. Doe possessed in Bakersfield before the offense; his out of state debts would still be irrelevant.
In People v. Gorgol (1953) 122 Cal.App.2d 281, 303, the Court noted, “Ordinarily the lack of money by a defendant is not admissible in a robbery charge, for the reason that the practical result of permitting proof of it would be to put a poor person under a relative disadvantage. “Gorgol, supra, cites Kelly, supra, and also 2 Wigmore, Evidence 3d.Ed. , Sec. 392, p. 341. The full language used by Wigmore was:
“The lack of money by A might be relevant enough to show the probability of A’s desiring to commit a crime in order to Obtain money. But the practical result of such a doctrine would be to put a poor person under so much unfair suspicion and at such a relative disadvantage that for reasons of fairness this argument has seldom been countenanced as evidence of the graver crimes, particularly of violence:” (Emphasis in original.)
Wigmore, supra, at p. 342 went on to add:
“Nevertheless in cases of merely peculative (such as larceny or embezzlement), and in civil cases where the issue is whether the defendant borrowed money or not, the fact that he was in need of it at the time is decidedly relevant to show a probable desire to obtain it and therefore a probable borrowing or purloining; and there is here not the same objection from the standpoint of possible Unfair Prejudice:” (Emphasis in original.)
Since the present case deals with the gravest of violent crimes, rather than a crime such as larceny or embezzlement, the danger of prejudice was exceptionally high.
In Gorgol, supra, at page 304, the Court found no error in admitting evidence of the defendant’s need for money to refute the defendant’s claim that he had no motive because he did not need money. In the present case, there had been no such claim, so there was no comparable need to refute a claim. Indeed, the present evidence fully established Mr. Doe’s “need for money” anyway, even without reference to his Oklahoma debts. (See, for example, RT 1202, ls. 11-16; RT 1657; RT 1662-1663; and RT 1690.)
The Court in Gorgol, supra, at page 304, also noted an exception appearing in People v. Richards (1946) 74 Cal.App.2d 279, 287-290. Richards, without reference to Kelly, supra, and without citation of any authority, held that evidence of an out-of-work defendant’s need to meet installment payments was admissible to show motive to commit a robbery. Richards seems inconsistent with this Court’s opinion in Kelly and with the discussion in Wigmore. Even if Richards has any validity, it is subject to the balancing provisions of Evidence Code section 352 which should have still resulted in inadmissibility here because of the weakness of the evidence that there had been a robbery and the very tenuous connection between Mr. Doe’s debts and his motivation to slaughter a woman and a child for forty dollars.
In sum, it must be kept in mind that nearly everybody could use more money than he or she possesses. If Courts routinely allow detailed inquiry into the financial habits of every person accused of a crime involving some sort of theft or other pecuniary gain, then defendants will be judged not by evidence showing guilt or innocence, but by whether the jury approves or disapproves of the way they handle their financial affairs. [Footnote 1] Clearly such evidence should be admitted very cautiously and only in cases where there is a clear and direct connection between the evidence and the motive to commit the particular crime. This case does not meet such a test.
If Mr. Doe had been on trial for embezzling thirteen thousand dollars, then the evidence of his debts would have had substantial relevance. As far as showing a motive to murder a mother and child for forty dollars (assuming forty dollars was stolen), Mr. Doe’s debts had no real relevance. The evidence of such debts could serve no purpose other than to offend jurors, especially the juror who was the manager of a finance company.
People v. Bush (1978) 84 Cal.App.3d 294, 306-307 contains an analogous discussion. There a woman was charged with murdering her husband and the Court held it was error to admit evidence of her knowledge of insurance on her husband’s life naming her as a beneficiary. Noting that routine use of such evidence would set a “deplorable precedent”, the Court agreed that “pursuant to section 352 of the Evidence Code, the trial court in a criminal case should exclude evidence which merely points to a possible ground of suspicion.” (Bush, supra, at p. 307.)