Admissibility of Evidence of Other Crimes In California

In People v. Thompson (1980) 27 Cal.3d 303, the California Supreme Court set forth the general principles that govern the admissibility of evidence of other crimes. The high court explained that "evidence of an uncharged offense is usually sought to be admitted as 'evidence that, if found to be true, proves a fact from which an inference of another fact may be drawn.' " (Id. at p. 315.) The Thompson court also explained that "the admission of any evidence that involves crimes other than those for which a defendant is being tried has a 'highly inflammatory and prejudicial effect' on the trier of fact" and noted it had "repeatedly warned that the admissibility of this type of evidence must be 'scrutinized with great care.' " (Id. at p. 314.) As with other types of circumstantial evidence, the admissibility of evidence of other crimes "depends upon three principal factors: (1) the materiality of the fact sought to be proved or disproved; (2) the tendency of the uncharged crime to prove or disprove the material fact; (3) the existence of any rule or policy requiring the exclusion of relevant evidence." (Id. at p. 315.) A closely reasoned analysis of the pertinent factors (hereafter referred to as the Thompson factors) must be undertaken before the admissibility of such evidence can be determined. (Id. at p. 314.) With respect to the first Thompson factor, the fact sought to be proved, in order to satisfy the requirement of materiality, may be either an ultimate fact that is actually in dispute in the proceeding or an intermediate fact from which an ultimate fact may be presumed or inferred. (Thompson, supra, 27 Cal.3d at p. 315.) If an accused has not placed an ultimate fact in dispute, evidence of uncharged offenses may not be admitted to prove it. (Ibid.) With respect to the second Thompson factor, "in ascertaining whether evidence of other crimes has a tendency to prove the material fact, the court must first determine whether . . . the uncharged offense serves 'logically, naturally, and by reasonable inference' to establish that fact." (Thompson, supra, 27 Cal.3d at p. 316.) "When evidence tends to prove a material fact, it is said to be relevant evidence." (Id. at p. 316, fn. 15, citing Evid. Code, 210.) "If the connection between the uncharged offense and the ultimate fact in dispute is not clear, the evidence should be excluded." (Id. at p. 316; see also People v. Albertson (1944) 23 Cal.2d 550, 577 "if the connection of the evidence of other crimes with the crime charged is not clearly perceived, the doubt is to be resolved in favor of the accused".) With respect to the third Thompson factor, "interrelated extrinsic policies tend to limit the admissibility of evidence of other crimes despite the fact that the evidence may be relevant to prove a material fact. Evidence Code section 1101, subdivision (a), for example, expressly prohibits the use of an uncharged offense if the only theory of relevance is that the accused has a propensity (or disposition) to commit the crime charged and that this propensity is circumstantial proof that the accused behaved accordingly on the occasion of the charged offense." (Thompson, supra, 27 Cal.3d at p. 316.) Under that subdivision, a court is not permitted to balance the probative value of the other crimes evidence against its prejudicial effect, and "the inference of a criminal disposition may not be used to establish any link in the chain of logic connecting the uncharged offense with a material fact." (Id. at p. 317.) The law places other restrictions on the admissibility of other crimes evidence because it can be highly prejudicial even if it is relevant under a theory of admissibility that does not rely on proving disposition. (Thompson, supra, 27 Cal.3d at p. 318; see also People v. Griffin (1967) 66 Cal.2d 459, 466 "Regardless of its probative value, evidence of other crimes always involves the risk of serious prejudice".) for example, such evidence is excluded under a rule of necessity if it is merely cumulative. (Thompson, supra, at p. 318.) Furthermore, of particular relevance here, under Evidence Code section 352 "the probative value of this other crimes evidence 5 must outweigh its prejudicial effect." 6 (Thompson, supra, 27 Cal.3d at p. 318.) Evidence of uncharged offenses is admissible only if (among other things) it has substantial probative value because substantial prejudicial effect is inherent in such evidence, and such evidence should be excluded "if there is any doubt." (Ibid.)