IN SUPREME COURT
Court of Appeals
Filed: July 27, 2006
Office of Appellate Courts
Ronald James Bell,
S Y L L A B U S
1. Evidence offered under Minn. Stat. § 634.20 (2004) is not subject to the procedural requirements applicable to admission of evidence under Minn. R. Evid. 404(b).
2. The trial court properly considered the probative value versus prejudicial effect of evidence offered under Minn. Stat. § 634.20, and the court was not required to place its probative value versus prejudicial effect analysis on the record.
3. The trial court did not abuse its discretion when it admitted evidence under Minn. Stat. § 634.20 because the probative value of the evidence was not substantially outweighed by its potential prejudice.
4. The court of appeals erroneously applied a harmless error analysis to evidence it determined to be admissible.
Affirmed as modified.
Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.
O P I N I O N
Appellant Ronald James Bell
was convicted in Ramsey County District Court of first-degree burglary in
violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.582, subd. 1(c) (2004), and violation of a
no-contact order under Minn. Stat. § 518B.01, subd. 22 (b) (2004).
In this appeal, Bell argues that the trial court erred in admitting the evidence of Bell’s two prior OFP violations for three reasons: (1) the trial court failed to consider the state’s need for the evidence; (2) the trial court failed to evaluate on the record the probative value of the evidence versus its potential for prejudice; and (3) the trial court erred in concluding that the probative value of the evidence was not substantially outweighed by its danger of unfair prejudice. In its cross-petition, the state contends that the court of appeals erred when it applied harmless error impact analysis to evidence it specifically held was admissible. We affirm the court of appeals as modified.
At the time of trial, D.N.
According to D.N., in the
early morning hours of May 21, 2003, she was at home in bed with her
boyfriend. At approximately 2:46 a.m.,
D.N. heard someone running up the back staircase of her home. When the individual reached the top of the
stairs, D.N. recognized the person as
At the pretrial conference, the state moved to admit four prior instances of domestic abuse between Bell and D.N.—including the November 17 and March 28 OFP violations—pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 634.20, which allows admission of evidence of similar conduct by the accused against an alleged victim of domestic abuse. The trial court held that the November 17 and March 28 OFP violations were admissible but excluded the other two incidents, reasoning, “I don’t think I have enough for clear and convincing evidence. And I think it probably is more prejudicial than probative.” The court did not say anything further about the probative value versus potential prejudice of admitting into evidence the November 17 and March 28 OFP violations.
Evidence of the two OFP
violations was subsequently admitted at trial.
D.N. testified that on November 17, 2002,
Given the distinctions we have made between 404(b) evidence and evidence offered under section 634.20, along with the fact that Ness narrowed the applicability of the need analysis, we decline now to require that trial courts engage in an independent analysis of the state’s need for section 634.20 evidence before it is admitted. While we decline to require trial courts to engage in a separate analysis of need in order to admit evidence under section 634.20, we note that, as with 404(b) evidence, the need for section 634.20 evidence is naturally considered as part of the assessment of the probative value versus prejudicial effect of the evidence.
As noted, the state moved to
admit four previous incidents of domestic abuse by
Moreover, in State v. Lee,we held that admission of relationship evidence was not error,
despite the fact that the trial court did not, on the record, engage in the
probative value versus potential prejudice balancing test. 645 N.W.2d 459, 467 (
There is no question here that
both the November 17 and March 28 OFP violations were probative of a material
fact, namely, the history of D.N. and
Finally, we turn to the issue the state raised in its cross-petition for review, that the court of appeals erroneously applied a harmless error analysis to evidence it determined was admissible. To give context to the state’s claim, we will first outline the steps the court of appeals took in rendering its harmless error analysis.
The court of
appeals held that the trial court erred by not engaging in an on-the-record
analysis of the probative value versus the prejudicial effect of the section
Had the court of
appeals reached the correct determination of those two issues, it would not
have needed to go further. However, because
it incorrectly held that the trial court erred in the procedure it used to
admit the section 634.20 evidence, the court went on to hold that, had the
trial court used what the court of appeals concluded to be the proper procedure,
the evidence would have been admissible because it was more probative than
Our first observation about what the court did is the obvious one. If the evidence was admissible there was no need to engage in a harmless error analysis to determine whether the otherwise admissible evidence had a significant effect on the verdict. Our second observation is that the court’s consideration of that question creates confusion. By framing the question in terms of whether the evidence significantly affected the verdict, the court suggests that there was an error in admitting the evidence. In fact, the court held that there was an error in the procedure used to admit the evidence, not that the evidence was inadmissible. Thus, the evidence was not admitted in error.
Affirmed as modified.
 Minnesota Statutes § 634.20 provides:
Evidence of similar conduct by the accused against the victim of domestic abuse, or against other family or household members, is admissible unless the probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issue, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.
 The trial in this case occurred
before our decision in State v. McCoy,
which held that the clear and convincing standard of Minn. R. Evid. 404(b) is
inapplicable to evidence admitted under section 634.20.
Evidence of another crime, wrong, or act is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.
In State v. Ness,
707 N.W.2d 676, 685-86 (
(1) the state must give notice of its intent to admit the evidence; (2) the state must clearly indicate what the evidence will be offered to prove; (3) there must be clear and convincing evidence that the defendant participated in the prior act; (4) the evidence must be relevant and material to the state’s case; and (5) the probative value of the evidence must not be outweighed by its potential prejudice to the defendant.
 The term “relationship evidence” has generally been used to describe any evidence that is offered to illuminate the relationship between the accused and the alleged victim. As we stated in McCoy, evidence offered under section 634.20 is evidence of past conduct between the alleged victim and the accused that sheds light on the relationship between the two. McCoy, 682 N.W.2d at 159. Relationship evidence admitted under section 634.20 is a subtype of general relationship evidence. Throughout this opinion, we will distinguish between evidence offered generally as relationship evidence and evidence offered specifically under section 634.20.
 At the court of appeals,
our McCoy decision, relationship
evidence was sometimes analyzed under Rule 404(b). See,
e.g., Lee, 645 N.W.2d at 466. Yet,
even then, the notice requirement applicable to the admission of 404(b)
evidence was not applicable to general relationship evidence. State v. Boyce, 284
is at least conceptually distinct from Spreigl evidence, which is governed by Rule 404(b). Spreigl evidence is oftentimes evidence of an unrelated crime against another person, which is offered for the purposes listed in Rule 404(b), such as to show identity, opportunity, intent, or modus operandi. Evidence of prior domestic abuse against the alleged victim may be different from this type of Spreigl evidence for at least two reasons: it is evidence of prior conduct between the accused and the alleged victim and it may be offered to illuminate the history of the relationship, that is to put the crime charged in the context of the relationship between the two.
N.W.2d at 159 (footnote and citation omitted). We also said, “[O]
 In Bell’s reply brief, he argues that
the state’s reading of section 634.20 violates the separation of powers because
“if the district court is not required to make findings on the record on the
admissibility of relationship evidence * * * the legislature is again making all
of the evidentiary rulings, which leaves the [trial] court with no role
whatsoever.” This argument is
flawed. First, even if the trial court
is not required to make explicit findings on the record, it does not follow
that the court is left with no role whatsoever.
The trial court is required to balance the probative value versus the
potential prejudice of the evidence. The
issue is simply whether that balancing must be explicit on the record or
whether it is implied through admission of the evidence. Second, we have already held that section
634.20 does not violate the separation of powers because, as we discussed
earlier, we have specifically adopted section 634.20 as a rule of
evidence. McCoy, 682 N.W.2d at 160-61.