This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2006).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Aaron Matthew Brown,
Filed November 6, 2007
Ramsey County District Court
File No. K3-05-601230
Lori Swanson, Attorney General, 1800 Bremer Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101-2134;
Susan E. Gaertner, Ramsey County Attorney, 50 West Kellogg Boulevard, Suite 315, St. Paul, MN 55102-1657; and
Mark F. Gaughan, Jensen, Bell, Converse & Erickson, P.A., 1500 Wells Fargo Place, 30 East Seventh Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for respondent)
John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, Suzanne M. Senecal-Hill, 2221 University Avenue Southeast, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge; Kalitowski, Judge; and Harten, Judge.*
Appellant Aaron Matthew Brown challenges his conviction of gross misdemeanor domestic assault, arguing that the district court abused its discretion by (1) admitting appellant’s prior domestic assault conviction as relationship evidence pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 634.20 (2004); and (2) failing to give the jury specific limiting instructions regarding the relationship evidence it admitted at trial. We affirm.
D E C I S I O N
“Evidentiary rulings rest within the sound discretion of the [district] court and will not be reversed absent a clear abuse of discretion.” State v. Amos, 658 N.W.2d 201, 203 (Minn. 2003). Further, an appellant challenging a district court’s evidentiary rulings has the burden of proving “that the [district] court abused its discretion and that the appellant was thereby prejudiced.” Id. Appellant claims that the district court erred in admitting testimony regarding his prior domestic assault conviction as relationship evidence pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 634.20. We disagree.
Minn. Stat. § 634.20 was expressly adopted by the Minnesota Supreme Court as a rule of evidence to allow “for the admission of evidence of similar conduct by the accused against the alleged victim of domestic abuse.” State v. McCoy, 682 N.W.2d 153, 161 (Minn. 2004). Although evidence of an accused’s similar conduct of domestic abuse, or “relationship evidence,” is not considered Spreigl prior-bad-acts evidence, “the purpose of each type of evidence is similar.” State v. Meldrum, 724 N.W.2d 15, 20 (Minn. App. 2006), review denied (Minn. Jan. 24, 2007). In determining the admissibility of relationship evidence under Minn. Stat. § 634.20, a court evaluates “(1) whether the offered evidence is evidence of similar conduct; and (2) whether the probative value of the evidence is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.” McCoy, 682 N.W.2d at 158.
Appellant concedes that his prior domestic assault in July of 2005 constitutes the type of “similar conduct” the legislature intended to include within the scope of Minn. Stat. § 634.20. His concession is further buttressed by the fact that this prior incident resulted in a conviction and was based on acts of domestic abuse - one of the behaviors explicitly listed as an example of “similar conduct” in Minn. Stat. § 634.20. Further, appellant’s admissions at trial established that (1) he was living with and involved in a significant romantic relationship with the alleged victim at the time of the charged offenses; (2) he is the father of the alleged victim’s two-year-old child; and (3) both the prior and current domestic disputes involved the same alleged victim. Thus, since the proffered relationship evidence was substantiated by a conviction and meets the definitional requirements of “similar conduct” between “family or household members” set forth in Minn. Stat. § 634.20, its admission is not an abuse of discretion unless its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.
Deciding whether the probative value of relationship evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect is a matter best left to the discretion of the trial court. State v. Graham, 371 N.W.2d 204, 208 (Minn. 1985). When balancing the evidence’s probative value against its danger of potential prejudice, “unfair prejudice ‘is not merely damaging evidence, even severely damaging evidence; rather, unfair prejudice is evidence that persuades by illegitimate means, giving one party an unfair advantage.’” State v. Bell, 719 N.W.2d 635, 641 (Minn. 2006) (quoting State v. Schulz, 691 N.W.2d 474, 478 (Minn. 2005)).
Here, evidence of appellant’s July 2005 domestic assault did not unfairly prejudice his defense and was highly probative. Nothing in the alleged victim’s testimony regarding the incident was “particularly inflammatory or unfairly prejudicial.” Bell, 719 N.W.2d at 641. Rather, evidence of the July 2005 incident was offered for the proper purpose of illuminating the history of the relationship between appellant and the alleged victim, thereby “put[ting] the crime charged in the context of the relationship between the two.” McCoy, 682 N.W.2d at 159. Moreover, the relationship evidence had increased inherent probative value because (1) it involved past acts of domestic abuse committed by the same defendant against the same victim and (2) was in close temporal proximity to the offense at issue. Bell, 719 N.W.2d at 640-41.
Appellant further contends that the district court erred in admitting this relationship evidence without evaluating the state’s need for its admission. We disagree. The Minnesota Supreme Court in Bell expressly declined to require district courts to undergo an independent analysis of the state’s need for relationship evidence before allowing its admission. 719 N.W.2d at 639. Moreover, the record here demonstrates that the district court made a probative-value-versus-prejudicial-effect assessment of the relationship evidence as required by Minn. Stat. § 634.20. Because evidence of appellant’s prior domestic assault conviction came within the purview of Minn. Stat. § 634.20 and was not unfairly prejudicial to his defense, we conclude that its admission was not an abuse of the district court’s discretion.
In addition, appellant argues that the district court erred by giving the jury a generalized instruction pertaining to impeachment by prior bad acts and failing to give the jury specific, limiting instructions pertaining to the relationship evidence it admitted. We disagree.
Absent an objection to the jury instructions at trial, an appellate court may only review for plain error. State v. Crowsbreast, 629 N.W.2d 433, 437 (Minn. 2001). Plain error exists only if the reviewing court finds that: (1) there is error; (2) the error is plain; and (3) the error affects substantial rights. State v. Griller, 583 N.W.2d 736, 740 (Minn. 1998).
Thiscourt has held that, although this omission is erroneous, in the absence of a request the district court’s failure to give limiting instructions to the jury regarding its use of relationship evidence “does not automatically constitute plain error.” Meldrum, 724 N.W.2d at 22. The error is not plain if other evidence in the record supporting appellant’s conviction negates the contention that the relationship evidence’s probative value was outweighed by its potential for unfair prejudice. Id. Here, the record indicates that appellant’s conviction was supported by other evidence in the record, and the instructions given by the court served the general purpose of cautioning the jury against using evidence of appellant’s prior domestic assault conviction to convict him of the current charges. Because appellant failed to object to the jury instructions and the instructions given by the district court did not result in unfair prejudice to appellant, the district court did not commit plain error.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.